Wednesday, September 26, 2012

To Infinity ... and Beyond! - The Future of the Gardens

Last week, the Gardens celebrated its year-and-a-half anniversary. It is a milestone in that the first (and often hardest) year has been successfully completed and a second year is successfully underway; takeoff is complete and now we are gaining altitude. Anniversaries are a good time for retrospection, and during the time that has passed since the Gardens' official opening on March 21st, 2011, we've accomplished a lot. Joe recently outlined several of the more significant accomplishments as well as a few of our hopes for the future in his August 21st "Letter from the Executive Director," which you can read on Kona Kai's website here.

So, we are officially established and organized - now it is time to grow. Currently, we are expanding our educational offerings of The Fairchild Challenge this year to five local schools and are planning a schedule of symposia to be hosted by the Gardens. I am also finishing up work on a second tour of the Gardens focusing on "plant senses" for those who have already taken the first tour, as well as expanding online content on the Gardens' mobile website. In addition, we have several neat projects we would love to undertake, including a vertical garden and an exhibition hall to host fascinating ethnobotanical exhibits for visitors to experience. To support the ambitious growth we have planned in these and other areas, an additional staff member for the Gardens will be of great help.

Presenting a couple weeks ago in Ms. Nicky Laak's class at Treasure Village Montessori School in Islamorada about Ethnobotany in southern Florida in the 1800s.
Most 501c3 nonprofit public gardens start out with a large endowment from a philanthropist (DuPont's endowment for Longwood, Albert Holden's endowment for Holden Arboretum, etc.) to fund growth, but this is not the case with the Gardens here at Kona Kai. The Gardens started out as a dream of our Director, Joe, who had what he likes to call a revelation in 2008 about the importance of plants to people and their incredible complexity. Driven by a desire to help others come to a similar "awakening," Joe got all the staff excited about investing in someone to help make the Gardens a reality, even with minimal financial resources to spare and uncertainty in the economic climate that held sway into 2011, which is when I was hired. Having a certified 501c3 nonprofit botanic garden on the grounds of a resort yet operating each separately is a neat mix which is still relatively rare; Callaway Gardens is the only major example of this combination that I could find in the U.S.

We have already accomplished so much in a year and a half and it is certainly exciting to think of all the things the Gardens can do in the future as an asset to both the local Florida Keys community and the wider world. Given that the Gardens does not have an endowment, having me here is already a financial investment for Kona Kai and its owners, who put quite literally everything they had into Kona Kai to make it what it is today. While the owners have no children and so hope the Gardens will be their legacy in Key Largo, they cannot endow the Gardens with the many millions that have helped so many other gardens grow to prominence from small beginnings, so we need to be able to find ways to fund the day-to-day activities of the Gardens and more importantly build an endowment to ensure its future sustainability. Looking back through pictures the owners have kept, I can see how far Kona Kai has come in 21 years and I know that with the right funding, in 2033 the Gardens will be able to look back and see 2012 much as the Resort sees 1991 today!

Kona Kai - 1991
Kona Kai - 1991
Kona Kai - 2012
So far, we have been working on tackling this challenge of building an endowment in a number of ways. Any proceeds from my tours of the Gardens go directly to support the Gardens' work, and we have been blessed with contributions from a number of our visitors over the past year and a half who see the great value of our mission and vision. Visitors continue to come away with valuable insights regarding the importance of plants to people after tours, which they then pass on to friends and family. We have also been applying for relevant grants and offering plants for sale from our recently developed plant nursery here at the Gardens, which is full of baby plants grown either from seed or cuttings from established plants on the property. The biggest key to the Gardens' continued survival, however, will likely be the formation of partnerships with individuals passionate about educating southern Florida and its visitors about the incredible complexity of plants and the vital importance of plants to human survival and well-being, who generously invest their resources in this endeavor.

Part of our plant nursery.
Fundraising is something none of our staff have significant past experience with, so it will definitely be a challenge for us. Now that I think about it, though, I did do some fundraising back in school - all those cookie and candy catalogs for our schools and sports teams. If you are a parent or teacher, you are no doubt bombarded with requests to order from these throughout the year, frequently a day or two after you've resolved on a healthy diet you are definitely going to stick to this time. I'll admit it, I wasn't the best fundraiser in my school because I was (and am) more "considerate introvert" than "brazen extrovert" and didn't like disturbing people and asking them to buy things, especially as I could often sense the "Ugh, another one? I really don't want to buy anything but how can I say no to this kid?" on the faces of people I asked as I went door to door with my catalog to meet my sales quota. Some kids would persist unabashedly with their appeal until they got some cash, but I would always kindly respect a "no, thank you." Appreciated? Yes. Lucrative? No, at least not in the immediate future. I have a feeling that I'm still very much the same way in this area, which isn't exactly ideal in the fundraising world, but I'm working hard on it. I know I could really benefit from some serious training in fundraising, so if any of you have any advice to offer, don't be shy!

Oh, the memories! From Otis Spunkmeyer's online fundraising catalog.
So, in conclusion, while we have been able to make some progress towards our financial goals, we need to make significantly more in order to ensure the Gardens not only survives but thrives for many more future anniversaries. If you or someone you know would like to make a contribution to support the Gardens and our work, please visit the "Support Us" section of the Botanic Gardens site here. Alternatively, if you or someone you know would like to contribute by check and/or make a large contribution towards our endowment, please e-mail or call us at (305) 852-9766.

Even if you can't make a financial contribution at all, you can still help out by talking about the greatness of our little Gardens and who knows?  With enough people talking and six degrees of separation, maybe the word about us will get around to Bill Gates or Warren Buffett!  All your support is greatly appreciated by all of us here at the Gardens!

Here's to many more tours to come!

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director and Toy Story Fan