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Lessons Learned: Key Principles of Botanic Garden Development

Roy L. Taylor
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, USA

Home | Contents | Introduction | The Role of the Board of Trustees | Development of Policies | Management of Personal Resources | Public Versus Research Orientated Programs | Role of Volunteers and 'Friends' of the Garden | How is Your Garden important to Your Constituents? | References


A public garden program represents one of our most important cultural assets within a community. It provides an easy entree to promote a better understanding of the role of plants in our environment. Each garden will need to determine the level of interpretation that will be provided. Collections, programs and interpretive information may be designed to meet local, state, national and international levels of expertise. It will be the responsibility of the garden to define at what level or levels the garden will interpret. The key to defining the role of the garden will be articulated by the mission statement. This statement provides an important guide to how the gardens programs and collections can best serve the institution mindful of the resources that are available for achieving the goals expressed in the mission.

The garden I am presently associated with is a good example of how the mission can play such a role. The mission of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is defined as follows: Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is dedicated to the collection, cultivation, study and display of native California plants. The mission of the Garden is to make significant contributions to the appreciation, enjoyment, conservation, understanding, thoughtful utilization and stewardship of our natural heritage. This statement approved by the Board of Trustees and accepted by all staff, provides the framework in which all programs and development occur.

The mission provides a readily understandable definition that can be supported by local, state and federal agencies and foundations. All requests for support include our mission statement as key to enable financial support for the institution. The mission is also the key to outside peer review for the purpose of accreditation. Such accreditation is conducted by the American Association of Museums and is based on how well the Garden is meeting its mission with the resources that are available for the operation of the Garden. (reference!) We take pride in having our institution recognized as a member of the large community of museums that serve the public and scientific community through collections and programs that form the core of the institution. Botanical gardens are living museums. The mission provides the focus for development of the physical facilities, the programs and the staff to manage and carry out the mission.

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The Role of the Board of Trustees

Each public institution has a governing board that may be designated as a Board of Trustees or a Board of Directors. The Board may take the form of an advisory Board depending upon the legal formation of the public institution. The Board has two important functions: fiduciary responsibility for the Garden; and, the hiring of a chief executive officer (CEO), usually designated as a President, Director, or Executive Director of the Garden. The CEO is responsible for carrying out the mission of the Garden through policies that have been approved by the Board. The composition of the Board varies with each garden. Board members should provide a cross-section of the supporting community for the Garden. The CEO is typically an ex-officio, non-voting member of the Board. The CEO, working in collaboration with the Chairman of the Board, establishes a yearly schedule of meetings and prepares the agenda for each meeting of the Board. The CEO is responsible for the management of the resources and the personnel associated with the garden.

An effective working relationship between the Chairman of the Board and the CEO is critical to the success of the Garden. This relationship is codified through a formal contract or written agreement. A clearly articulated position description forms the basis for the contract or agreement. The Board has a responsibility to review the performance of the CEO on an annual basis.

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Development of Policies

The development of operating policies is critical to the success of the institution. These policies are developed by the CEO and the staff of the Garden. The policies are designed to move the institution forward in meeting the mission with the resources that are available. Principal program policies are approved by the Board. A number of day to day operational policies are established at the Garden level, but where conflicts may arise with the public, such policies should have Board approval. It is important to remember that a garden is a business. The business is providing a public venue to conduct research, provide educational programs, and maintain and operate public display plant collections or any combination of these activities.

The garden needs to ensure that adequate funds and staffing are available to accomplish the approved strategic plan approved by the Board for the garden. The strategic plan is a collaborative planning effort between staff and board. The management of the financial resources will be a key to continued success of the garden. I have found that a important component of the financial management is the development of an appropriate investment policy. The investment policy will include a special program for management of endowments. Endowments should provide an important foundation for the operation of the institution. The manner in which the endowment is managed is critical to the success of the program.

We use a total return concept, that is interest, dividends and capital gain accrued from investments may be used to support the operation of the institution. It is most important to establish a spending policy within the endowment management policy. Generally a utilization of not more than 5% is a rule of thumb.

This provides for growth of the corpus of the endowment as well as providing a significant contribution to the operating budget of the institution. It is important that the policy does not deplete the endowment through excess spending. I strongly recommend that all major capital programs, namely those projects costing over $100,000, have a policy of a minimum of 25% for endowment for operational purposes. This percentage may be significantly higher depending upon the resources needed to operate the program.

Such policy provides for long security for the operation of the capital program and will help insure that monies from the operational budget are not siphoned off to support a new program while you are in need of maintaining the existing programs within the garden. The raising of endowments associated with capital projects is much easier to obtain at the time of the excitement and interest in the development of the new program. It is often extremely difficult to obtain endowment monies for operation of a program after it has been established. The portion of monies allocated to endowment in a capital project will vary with respect to the project.

Each project needs to be analyzed as to the operational needs at the time of the development of the project. Such forward planning will help ensure success of the project. The importance of a strategic plan in the operation of a garden becomes increasing important in the development of new programs. The strategic plan needs to address all new projects in relation to existing programs. It also requires the development of priority of programs and projects. The establishment of program and capital project priorities involve staff and boards. The process of establishing these priorities must always be done within the context of the mission of the institution. To do otherwise will lead to ineffective progress in achieving the goals adopted by the staff and board. The process of establishing a strategic plan provides an excellent forum for discussion among and between staff and board about the role and function of the garden.

Such introspective review and analysis can be important to building effective networks amongst staff and board. Open and frank discussion about the institution will lead to establishment of priorities that all staff and board can effectively support. Progress toward achieving the goals can proceed in an orderly and effective manner to a satisfactory conclusion. Strategic planning is often portrayed by staff as a non-productive exercise, but in the long run it may be the most important process that an institution embarks upon. It provides a forum for greater understanding of the mission, goals and aspirations of staff. It provides an effective tool to gain consensus for staff and board. It provides a blue print for success. It is a most important management tool.

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Management of Personal Resources

The effective development of personnel resources for a garden is crucial to the success of the overall program. The most important component of a public garden is the complement of staff. The financial commitment to staffing is usually the largest operational portion of the budget. It is therefore incumbent upon the CEO and the Board that management of the personal component of the budget receives a high priority in management. I have often said that without the commitment of staff to operation of a public garden, there will be no garden. The programs and plants within a garden cannot function without staff. Thus every effort needs to be directed to the proper management and nurturing of staff in order for the garden to succeed.

The key to success in personnel management is to ensure effective communication at all levels of staffing. All staff must be fully aware of the mission of the institution and be prepared to fully participate in achieving the mission through the particular role that they play within the organization. Communication must flow freely from top to bottom and the reverse. There are many ways to achieve effective personnel management and there are many programs that address the protocols for good personnel communication. Clearly regular opportunities for staff to participate in the governance of the institution is critical to the long term success of the garden. I consider personnel management a key to success of a garden program.

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Public Versus Research Orientated Programs

The development of programs at the public garden fall into two principal categories: those designed to provide information for visitors and educational programs; and, those designed to support research. The former include display gardens that provide the important aesthetic experience for the visitor. These collections also provide an opportunity for the visitor to participate in a self-guided tour. The collections also provide the basis for docent guided tours as well as specific programs related to both school programs as well as adult continuing education programs.

The display collections provide the experience that attracts visitors to a garden. They provide the landscape experience that enables visitors to become involved in a life long learning experience about their green environment.

The role of collections as a gene pool for research are well documented. Our collections at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden represent a unique assemblage of plants native to California and the adjacent continuing floristic region of Baja California, Mexico. The collections are fully documented and are of known indigenous provenance. The collections are used not only by our own researchers, but also serve as important national and international gene pool.

During the more than 70 years of the development of the garden, we have accumulated a significant living collection of plants that are now recognized as important to the conservation of the flora of our region. During the past decade, special emphasis has been directed toward the development of an associated ex situ collection of seeds. Such a collection is particularly germane to the arid communities of California that contain a large portion of the rare endemic taxa of the state. Limited use has been made of this special conservation collection for in situ restoration, but the value of this collection will become more important as urbanization continues to pose greater threat to natural populations.

Programs have been developed to support both the research and public outreach initiatives related to our flora. To achieve these programs, considerable effort has been focused on the development of support facilities such as: laboratories, an extensive herbarium, growth room, nursery and propagation facilities, and a library. The living collections, along with the herbarium and ex situ seed storage, provides important resource for molecular genetic studies. Such studies enable new understanding of phylogenetic evolution and are playing an increasing important role in providing information critical to the conservation of diminishing plant resources. Management of these collections require computer support systems for the accessioning and management. It is useful to note that the herbarium collections have becoming increasing important during the past decade for providing selective samples of material for molecular genetic analysis. This new use of herbarium material will become increasingly important and makes the management and retention of herbaria increasing critical in botanical gardens.

The combination of the collections serve as the focal point for both research and public outreach. Gardens need to assess the role that collections will play in the development of programs and build into their strategic plans the necessary staffing, development of facilities and long term financial support for their operation. The business of operating a garden is not a short term operation, but one that needs to recognize the key role as 'keepers' of the cultural heritage of our plant environments.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that face all gardens is the need to effectively transfer the information gained by plant research to the general public through our outreach programs. It is incumbent upon gardens to effect this transfer of information in both an attractive and compelling manner to achieve a new awareness by our supporting communities of the importance of plants in our environments.

We need to have our communities accept their responsibility to become effective stewards of our environments. Gardens are wonderful places to stimulate a new awareness and responsibility by our communities in the worth of our plant resources. This challenge to gardens is a worthy one and should form part of all our strategic plans.

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Role of Volunteers and 'Friends' of the Garden

The support for public gardens is best exemplified by the advent of the development of membership programs, often referred to as Friends of the Garden, and by the development of a core of dedicated volunteers drawn from the user community. Friends provide on going operation support through their annual membership dues. Their commitment to the garden provides a potential pool of larger support through participation in annual appeals. This group of interested citizens have wide influence in establishing support for the garden through government agencies, corporations and foundations. They also provide an important source of potential private endowment for the institution. Many funding agencies require evidence of public support and the role that Friends play is often critical to the success of foundation and corporate support. Friends and their support provide evidence of the importance of the garden to the community at large.

Volunteers provide addition operation support for all programs within a garden. The success of using volunteers requires staff supervision and training. Thus the garden must be prepared to dedicate staff to provide oversight for training and supervision. It should be remembered that volunteers work based on the satisfaction they receive from their activities. This satisfaction is derived from a sense of learning and from a commitment to support a public program they feel is important to their community. Significant contributions measured in terms of full time equivalent staff can be achieved if the garden is willing to provide good training, placement and direction of the volunteer efforts. Many public gardens would not be able to achieve success without a committed core of volunteers. Volunteers should be subject to a code of ethics in the same way that staff and boards are also subject to a code of ethics. Such codes of ethics now form a part of the accreditation process for public museums, including gardens, in the United States. These codes help to assure that the public institution is operating in the best interests of the communities they serve.

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How is Your Garden important to Your Constituents?

Public garden programs need to continually assess how the program is perceived and used by the community of users. Periodic demographic and psychographic surveys will help guide the development of programs. It is particularly important to have such information in the development of a strategic plan. Strategic plans that do not effectively respond to users may well proceed with capital and program developments that may fail because they are not responsive to the user needs. Too often staff and boards are out of touch with the reasons that people have for participating in a garden. Time spent on determining why people use or visit gardens can prevent ineffective use of resources on in effective programs. Recent surveys we have conducted indicate several important reasons why people believe gardens are important community resources. Gardens are:

  1. pleasant and safe places to visit
  2. places for self study and learning through formal courses
  3. places that stimulate in sight into conservation
  4. a place to meet people of like interest
  5. a place to learn about plants in their community
  6. a place to volunteer to help the community
  7. useful for ideas that can translated to their home environment

It is clear that each visitor or user views the garden in different ways. It becomes the challenge of the garden to effectively translate and interpret plant knowledge gained through study and research to the user. The growth and development of the garden is dependent upon this effective transfer of knowledge. The success of this knowledge transfer will determine how deeply the community will support the garden.

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Copyright 1999 NBI