Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

Funding Botanic Gardens and Arboreta in the 21st Century

Volume 2 Number 5 - August 1995

Peter J Olin.

The purpose of this paper is to explore funding concepts for arboreta and botanic gardens in the 21st century. Some gardens are planning supplements to the funding received by their home institutions (government, university, trust) but others are blindly moving forward assuming nothing will change. Though funding relates directly to programs, collection policies, amenities and management strategies, this paper will explore only funding.

Basic Financial Support Area

(A) a home unit or institution, usually a governmental or university department, but also the managers of a trust fund or major endowment

(B) charitable donations, including annual fund raising campaigns, legacies, deferred giving, capital gifts and endowment, in-kind donations and volunteering

(C) earned income, including shops and restaurants, gate and program fees, cottage industries, and competitive grants

(D) collaborative efforts both internal and external, including joint fund raising, research projects, school program collaboration, private and public partnerships, and the like.

There are four basic areas of support for a botanic garden or arboretum. Each of these four areas is explored separately but in reality it will be some combination of all four that will allow any particular institution to survive. It is the contention of this author that no garden will survive without some well-constructed combination of these four areas.

A. The Home Unit

The home unit or institution will be the key to the future of a garden. Even gardens that look to move from governmental or university control and/or support will need to replace that segment of their financial support by increasing the size of endowment, trusts or other financial management.

There should be three objectives for home unit support:

  1. maintenance of present base funding
  2. expansion of the base
  3. reassessment of the home unit and garden relationship

Maintaining one's present home unit funding, if it is an institution, means constantly proving the value of the garden to that institution. Maintaining present funding from a trust or endowment means competent professional management to maintain a high level of earnings and continual long-term market growth.

Increasing funding from a government or university means opening new areas of interest to the home institution. This may mean developing new research areas that relate to university or government priorities. At the present time, ecological conservation, re-establishing environments such as wetlands, and economic botany projects have academic and governmental interest. At the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, new projects of high priority such as horticultural therapy contribute to solving both environmental and social problems together.

Constant communication with the home institution is essential so that trends and funding priorities are well known and understood. The garden may also be able to help the home unit create priorities beneficial to the garden.

All new undertakings, however, must support and strengthen the garden's strategic objectives. Excessive reporting to satisfy safety, environmental, liability, and employment regulations will add significant cost and probably add little of value to the garden's mission.

Further problems come when the home institution demands more return for its investment dollars. It will insist on efficiency that could cut the quality of the garden's programs. Therefore it is important to explore new and better relationships to the home unit. This might include some arm's length relations in the area of earned income, maintenance or construction of gardens.

B. Charitable Donations

As an area of growth, charitable donations are an obvious sector when looking at future funding.

Though charitable contributions is an area of complex relationships with people who have a multitude of interests, it is nonetheless fertile ground for botanic gardens. The objectives for this area are:

  1. to interest potential donors in the garden and its activities resulting in a donation
  2. to increase the number and size of donations
  3. to look more closely at increasing in-kind donations
  4. to maintain a high level of professionally-oriented volunteers.

Perhaps the best possibility for increasing charitable gifts is the idea of leaving a legacy. Giles Coode-Adams (pers. comm.) of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK indicates that legacy programs will be the largest source of income (beyond government support) at Kew in the future. A legacy allows the donor to gain a sense of immortality or to help support a cause dear to their heart. The difference between annual, capital and endowment campaigns and a legacy is that a legacy program allows a donation to be either restricted or unrestricted, made directly in the present or deferred to the future. However, there must be a legacy campaign. People do not have the opportunity to donate if they are not aware that the garden exists or that it is interested in receiving legacies.

In-kind donations, the contribution of materials, products and services, can also be a growth area. It is especially popular with corporations who find it easier to contribute their product or service when cash contributions are difficult to make. The drawback, of course, is that it is perhaps even more time consuming than asking for dollars.

Volunteers, if given training for the jobs that need to be accomplished or that we might wish to do are a virtual gold mine. Studies by the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum indicate volunteers offer their time and effort for two main reasons; to learn and to socialize.

Fund raising for capital projects such as new gardens, collections, exhibits, or programs, is quite popular with many donors because of the excitement of doing something new. However, new projects generally need long term management requiring on-going funding. Adding necessary endowment to front end construction costs can help solve this problem.

C. Earned Income

Earned income areas such as gate and parking fees, special events, class fees, room and grounds rental, cottage industries (the garden's own jams and jellies, honey, etc.), plant and book sales, concerts and the like all require their own brand of expertise in management and marketing. In most cases, other than gate fees, earned income areas are costly to operate, labour intensive and produce small amounts of income above expense although taken together they can provide substantial income. In many cases they act as services to the visitor as well. At the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, earned income will generate nearly one-third of the yearly operating budget (about $1,000,000) though nearly one-half will be from gate fees.

There are three major obiectives for earned income areas:

  1. bring people to the garden so they can generate income (though off-site sales programs can also be effective)
  2. induce the visitor to expend funds once on site
  3. establish a mutually beneficial relationship between the garden and the visitor that is based on an exchange of a product for dollars

Marketing to bring people to the botanic garden is essential. It might mean marketing the entire institution, horticulture or conservation in general. Again, the competition for a person's time and dollars is increasing, even for children's time. Botanic gardens must be relevant ('in tune with the times') and highly effective. Mass media, especially television and coming computerized link-ups directly to home and office (Internet, cable TV, e-mail) are undoubtedly the most critical areas in which to concentrate one's effort.

Sales marketing might tie programs and a variety of earned income areas together. Promotions such as, "a purchase of $15 in the gift shop entitles you to a 10% discount at the restaurant". Having a class just before or after lunch can encourage patronage of the restaurant and again there could be a discount linking the two activities.

Earned income areas are high front-end investments in equipment and merchandise and labour is very expensive. At the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, UK, a trading company fully owned by the Friends of the Garden, operates the shops and profits are dedicated to the garden.

Trading companies, if run as a for-profit business and if kept innovative and competitive, could generate a considerable amount of money.

D. Collaboration

Of the four areas of financial support, collaboration is perhaps the least explored but may have the greatest potential. It could be the most difficult to develop, however. The objectives of collaboration are:

  1. to develop and maintain programs (collections, gardens, facilities, research, etc.) for their projected lifetimes by working with colleagues in other institutions for the benefit of both
  2. to share knowledge and ideas and spread challenges and opportunities among many

Examples of existing collaborative efforts are in areas of conservation where northern gardens have adopted or support gardens in the tropics. Another example is where gardens create collections of various genera as part of a nation-wide effort to have a botanic garden maintain only certain generic collections while a sister institution maintains others. Further international collaborative efforts such as Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) and various conventions have rallied to support world-wide plant conservation efforts. There are other, more regionalized efforts such as plant expeditions to Russia and China co-sponsored by Chicago and Missouri Botanic Gardens and Minnesota Landscape, Morton and Holden Arboreta. All have contributed funds, one team is sent and all share in the collected material.

Much more needs to be done and can be done with a bit of creative thought. The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is currently collaborating with its local school district to develop a new K-12 basic science curriculum, based on the 'hands on' science programs presently taught at the Arboretum. This innovative project may involve erecting a school building on Arboretum property that could be used for arboretum programs during evening and weekend hours (thus resolving present space problems).

Collaboration with other cultural institutions such as art museums could allow a much more extensive exhibit of botanical art or wood furniture, than could be sponsored by either institution separately. To sponsor a cooking program using exotic herbs and spices, a restaurant association, cookbook library, might make a good collaborator. Long term collaboration for permanent exhibits might involve sharing the exhibit or constructing and planting it at more than one location. Though many small scale collaborative efforts already exist, they must be thought of in a larger context and in longer time frames.

In the area of research, Dr Harold Pellett of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has founded the Landscape Plant Development Center which now has over 50 institutional members across the U.S. and Canada plus a few world-wide. Their goal is to share knowledge and research efforts.

Botanic gardens should at this time make an effort to involve a variety of scientific specialties, such as entomology, botany, horticulture, pharmacy, sociology, and economics to work on economic botany projects, urban ecology, preservation of the rain forests and other complex and internationally important concerns. Again, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has established a visiting research chair that is given to the leader of a specific research project of interest to the arboretum.

The best areas of collaboration and areas where gardens have already started collaboration are children's education programs, plant conservation, research, and plant exploration. However, there are many other areas that gardens could create collaborative efforts including fund raising, interpretive signage and garden construction.


The key to all financing will be the home unit because it has historical ties based on known values. Of critical concern will be ensuring that the garden is delivering to the home unit what it expects from its investment in the garden.

Secondly, charitable donations need to be increased. Though the competition for charitable giving is increasing, gardens do have a few advantages. Gardens are places of beauty and education and supporting them makes life better for everyone, a goal most people generally understand. Gardens can be very attractive as a legacy although they can easily be part of a person's present life.

Earned income is another critical component of most gardens. Since most efforts to earn funds depend on people being at the garden, the weather and other externalities can disrupt income flow (sometimes dramatically). Diversification is therefore the key to success. Clever competitive marketing and the formation of outside trading companies to develop a garden's business operations may be critical to success in earned income areas.

The sleeper in the future funding mix is collaboration with other institutions and organizations. Collaborative efforts may be within the home unit, with sister institutions and with organizations outside the world of botanic gardens.

With the belief that gardens are essential, relevant institutions for an advanced society, all efforts need to be made to adequately fund their operations. The fact that critical work conserving the world's plants has fallen by default to arboreta and botanic gardens only adds to the importance of their mission. It will be essential for every garden to address the issue of funding and to resolve it in a manner effective to its particular mission and strategic plans.