The Legacy of a Lifetime

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the July 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

After TREE Fund was organized in 2002 via the merger of the ISA Research Trust (ISART) and the National Arborist Foundation, our very first research awards were made under the Hyland Johns Grant Program, originally established by ISART. This grant program’s namesake was, and remains, one of the great innovators and leaders in scientific utility arboriculture, and he was onsite in 1952 at the very beginning of the legendary “Bramble and Byrnes” research test plots in Pennsylvania, which TREE Fund now administers.

Over the years, TREE Fund has awarded ~$1.5 million in Hyland Johns Grants, and some of our most influential findings and outcomes have emerged from under this program’s auspices. But unlike the majority of our other grant programs, these awards have always been made on a “pay as we go” basis, rather than being secured by a permanent endowment fund that generates revenue annually. As we have often observed, trees are slow-growing, long-lived organisms. Permanent endowments are the best possible ways to ensure that our often equally long-term and slow-moving research programs can continue with confidence that funding will be in place to see them through to fruition.

Two months ago, TREE Fund’s Board of Trustees recognized that our signature program needed such long-term security, and unanimously voted to establish the Hyland Johns Endowment Fund. This new endowment will immediately become an important part of our investment and grant-making portfolio. It will further reduce our dependence on labor-intensive, transactional, retail fundraising to support our scientific mission.

Named endowments and grant programs are often established via memorial gifts, so that their honorees do not actually have the opportunity to see and appreciate the work done in their names. That’s not the case here, as Hyland Johns has been – and remains – an ardent, regular TREE Fund supporter, a great source of wisdom and historical perspective for us, and a mover, shaker, collaborator and networker par excellence within the greater tree care community. It’s always a privilege to let Hyland know what we’re doing in his name, and it’s always a treat when he contacts us to share his thoughts on and reactions to our work.

In addition to being an inspiration and leader on the scientific side of our endeavors, Hyland was also a trend-setter as one of the earliest members of our Heritage Oak Society which honors supporters who have included TREE Fund in their estate plans. There is literally no better way to support endowment funds than by making legacy gifts, which will outlive all of us, continuing the work we care about in perpetuity. The last time Hyland and I spoke, he let me know that he would be honored to direct part of his own legacy gift to the new Hyland Johns Endowment Fund – a perfect, fitting alignment of past, present, and future, a great life’s work now extended and amplified through the generosity of his estate gift.

Endowments and estate gifts are essential to TREE Fund’s long-term success. I hope others may be inspired by the example of Hyland Johns, and join him as members of the Heritage Oak Society.

Honoring the Real Tree Care Heroes

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the June 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

As I write this column, there are about 100 days left until the Tour des Trees rolls out from Nashville, Tennessee for five days of community engagement and fundraising on behalf of our research programs. I woke up this morning planning to get a good training ride in, but . . . Ugh, rain! And more rain! And floods! And wind! And cold! It’s been just awful for cycling in Chicago and in Des Moines all spring, in fact, and the forecast for the next week is much more of the same. How am I going to get ready for the Tour if this continues? And what a bummer to have to spend another spring day indoors, harrumph!

I was muttering and grumbling to myself about this most unfortunate personal inconvenience with a warm cup of tea in my hand, looking out from the third-floor window of my new apartment building, feeling very self-aggrieved, when I happened to glance downward, and I saw a crew of half-a-dozen workers who were putting in new trees, irrigation systems, sod, mulch and gravel around our building, out in the cold and the rain. Looking further upward and outward, I noted a utility truck on the other side of the Des Moines River, lights flashing, crews out of the street directing traffic, likely engaged in water or power management activities as the river continues to rise here.

They had no warm tea. They had no nice bikes. Nor did they have an option to call it a day and hang out indoors instead of getting a good ride in. My grievances about the weather suddenly felt very petty and small. Don’t get me wrong: training and fundraising for and riding the Tour des Trees is hard work, and I am extraordinarily grateful to the amazing volunteers who take the time off to do it year after year, while I’m getting paid to be with them. But it was a timely and important reminder to me today to also always remember that the people we ride for – our working arborists, our urban foresters, our ground crews, our utility lines people, our landscapers, our municipal manager, and so many others – work even harder, all the time, all year long, in jobs that actually become more intense and urgent when the weather is at its worst, after storms, ice, floods, etc.

As Tour des Trees riders, we get a lot of kudos and compliments around the country at the various industry events we attend, and those are all fine and deserved and appreciated. But the real heroes in our industry are the men and women who are usually sitting in the chairs in the audience at those events, watching us being feted without comment or remark, taking the time from their own busy schedules to make themselves as professionally effective, efficient, and safe as they can be in often crushingly challenging and difficult work settings. I’m an office worker at bottom line, while they are doing the heavy lifting that truly makes a difference.

I use my column space this month to say “thank you” to them all, and hope you’ll join me in sharing your own appreciation, publicly, whenever and however you are able.

I ain’t ridin’ today . . . but our tree folks and colleagues are workin’ anyway . . .

Into The Woods (Again and Again)

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the May 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

When I was a kid, the woods were my second home. My friends and I would come home from school every day, get handed a snack, and then get thrown out of the house until dinner time, expected to entertain ourselves in ways that didn’t bother any grownups. Most days, we’d trot down the well-worn trails into the woods behind our neighborhood, where we’d climb trees, build forts, splash about in creeks, investigate the detritus dumped in the woods, and otherwise have unstructured fun beneath the untended wild canopy that’s fairly typical of most suburban communities.

Years later, when I lived near Albany, New York, I kept on exploring my local woods, eventually creating a photo essay series called “Hidden in Suburbia.” The premise behind this project was that I did regular deep dives into the woods around my community, never going more than five miles from my home, essentially recreating those childhood days of walking into the woods and being receptive to whatever I found there. Given the deep history of that part of Upstate New York, there were truly some amazing, forgotten finds back in those woods, which I was always happy to share.

Fast forward to 2019: I moved back to Des Moines, Iowa, a couple of months ago. My daughter (mostly raised in New York) and her boyfriend (a Des Moines native) live here, so it’s been wonderful to be close to them again. Last week, on one of the rare nice days we’ve had here this spring, my daughter’s boyfriend and I decided to go on a trek through the woods where he spent his own time as a kid. We had a great day, slogging across creeks, pushing through brambles, scaling post-industrial escarpments created by generations of landfill dumping, investigating all sorts of illicit detritus left in the woods, trekking across a meadow that generations have used for dirt bike riding, quietly tiptoeing away from a homeless camp we found, and just generally enjoying being in the moment, there in the woods. It was a full, rich day.

But you know what we didn’t see while we loped about in the woods? Young people, nor even any signs that they’d been there. We saw no tree forts, no stones placed to facilitate creek crossings, no cairns, nor any other evidence that these woods were routinely accessed by the kids who live around them. That seems sad to me, on some plane. Yes, I know that today’s children have opportunities for all sorts of global engagement via their televisions and phones and tablets, but still, I can’t help but think that climbing trees and damming creeks and building forts gave me more meaningful, resonant life skills than anything I’ve ever accessed on a computer, and what a loss it is if kids don’t get to have such experiences anymore.

Do you have a young person in your life? If so, here’s hoping you have some woods near your home, and that you can take them out for an unstructured adventure therein. I guarantee they will love it, and 50 years hence, they may be writing about it as I am today!

As a kid finding this in the woods, I’d have immediately been trying to figure out how to get that engine block out, and what I could build with it . . .

Securing Tomorrow’s Success, One At-Bat At a Time

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the April 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

I have spent over a quarter-century in leadership roles in the nonprofit sector, and you know what? I still don’t like asking people for money. Like all of my professional peers, I am continually researching prospects, cultivating donors, crafting appeals, making cases, and asking for gifts — and despite all of that effort, more often than not, the answer is still “no.”

Being a fundraiser is analogous to being a baseball batter in that regard: if you’re really good at your job, you can pull a .300 average (i.e. 30% success rate), but more than two-thirds of the time you’re going to strike out, get tagged out, or hit what looks like a glorious stroke into deep center field, only to see it snatched away against the wall. But those of us who make careers in this field learn to shake off those bad at-bats, take some practice swings, and step up to the plate again, with the never-flagging confidence that the next at-bat just might be a highlight-reel game-winner.

One of the nicest things about being CEO of TREE Fund is that a sizable percentage of our annual gift solicitations are handled by volunteers, most especially our ISA Chapter Liaisons and our Tour des Trees riders. People rightly marvel at the physical challenges of the Tour (I ride it, so I know how hard it is), but as a professional fundraiser, I’m honestly more awed by the fact that our riders are willing and able, year after year, to solicit friends, family members, coworkers, colleagues, strangers, whoever it takes, to raise a lot of money for our research programs. Wow!

That extraordinary level of volunteer commitment allows our staff team to focus more on business partnerships, direct mail solicitations, and other forms of giving that either defray the expenses associated with the Tour, underwrite operations, or enhance our endowment to ensure our long-term viability. Another area where we focus staff attention, though a bit more behind-the-scenes, is on planned giving. Unlike annual giving — where a donor makes a contribution to a charity as an outlay of current assets or income — planned gifts are current decisions to make future gifts, most often from an estate via bequests, insurance policies, or retirement plan distributions.

For individuals and families who wish to make legacy gifts that are guaranteed to support their philanthropic interests in perpetuity, planned gifts may provide the most effective ways of achieving such goals. We have an amazing group of supporters called The Heritage Oak Society who have already established such legacy commitments. We’re going to be making a formal appeal for The Heritage Oak Society this summer, so you’ll be hearing more from me on this topic then — unless, of course, you decide to give a grateful fundraiser an intentional walk to first base by reaching out to express your interest before I ask.

I’ll be over here in the dugout if you’d like to share some sunflower seeds and talk it over. It could be a winning proposition for you, for me, and best of all, for TREE Fund.

I Googled “Planned Giving” for a stock image to accompany this article, and they’re almost all tree related!

Do The (Right) Research

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the March 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

“Research” is the word that we use to define a set of protocols designed to help people turn subjective assumptions into (more) objective conclusions. It can take many forms, but the requirements of good research generally include:

  • Intellectual rigor in seeking out and considering credible sources beyond those easily available in the public domain, even when they are not in alignment with the researcher’s presumptions;
  • An ability and a willingness to compile and analyze qualitative and/or quantitative data using generally accepted statistical and scientific methods;
  • A clearly-defined method for testing those data against a hypothesis, followed by a willingness to allow results to be re-tested by others;
  • Independent affirmation of data and conclusions by peers in the field of research; and
  • The recognition of the research’s utility, via cites and references from other researchers in the field of study, or wide-spread adoption of findings.

That list may be a bit academic, and perhaps it’s worth flipping the definition and asking: So, what isn’t high quality research, really? Some red flags:

  • Using non-scientific public web sites (e.g. Wikipedia) as primary sources, since none of those sites index the countless proprietary resources that require library assistance to access;
  • Throwing out entire sectors of the printed and online media worlds because they do not cover certain topics in ways that the researcher may wish to see them covered;
  • Working in a vacuum, without the intellectual testing that comes from the healthy give-and-take of collegial debate and discourse;
  • Reaching conclusions that are only cited or referenced by other individuals who enter the realm of research with the same viewpoint as the researcher; and
  • Using shock tactics or logical fallacies to make pre-determined points.

When you compare those two lists, one point should become readily apparent: people can do the “wrong research” list without many resources, where the “right research” list is far more dependent on the availability of skilled human, laboratory, field and/or financial resources. Which, of course, is where TREE Fund comes in: we’re one of a small number of funding sources for tree research projects, and we play a key role in developing rigorous findings that practitioners can trust, rather than depending on hearsay, half-baked experiments, gut feelings, or professional folklore.

Our next grant will push us over the $4.0 million mark in total funds expended to advance scientific discovery and disseminate new knowledge in our field. It’s an important milestone for our community, even as we look forward to empowering the next research project to answer the next burning question that faces us. Our grant-making processes are designed to inspire trust in our outcomes, and when you, our readers and supporters, are making professional tree care decisions with significant property impacts associated with them, you should expect — and demand — nothing less.

(Wrong) Research Proves That Cats Are Liquids.

The Trees That Move Us

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the February 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

Last summer, I wrote a Leading Thoughts column on “trees as inspiration,” sharing my affection for a wonderful work-in-progress book about ginkgos by Jimmy Shen, a professional botanic photographer based in east China. Last month, my column focused on another book, The Overstory by Richard Powers, a powerful novel about the ways that trees can shape our lives, from birth to death, and maybe beyond.

I received more feedback on those two columns than I did from any of the others I’ve written here, I think because those of us who count ourselves as “tree people” generally don’t leave our interest in trees at our work sites but are also awed and moved by them in our personal lives as well. We look for and admire great trees in the cities, fields and forests where we work, live and travel, and then we also seek out opportunities to celebrate trees in books, art, music, and in all of the other myriad of creative arts.

On one of our recent snow days, I bundled up and walked over to the Art Institute of Chicago – my favorite place in my favorite city, hands down – and wandered around the various galleries there as I often do. In the 19th Century European Art collection, I saw a wonderful painting that I’d not noticed before by Albert Bierstadt, depicting a glorious stand of birches around a rocky waterfall, and I shared a photo of it in on the TREE Fund Twitter feed.

And then I decided to have a full tree day at the museum, walking through every gallery, seeking out great trees in the collection. It was a wonderful way to re-experience galleries that I’ve seen more times than I can count, looking through a different lens at paintings, decorative arts, sculptures, and more. I found abstract trees, photographic trees, and impressionist trees. I was awed by the ways that artists were inspired by trees over centuries and around the world. I shared my findings on social media, and they were widely liked, commented on, and retweeted.

A couple of weeks later, I was home again and the song “The Trees” by the BritPop band Pulp came up on my stereo. Once again, thinking about trees, I decided to have a tree music day, going through the 14,000+ songs that I have on my computer, looking for great ones about trees, woods, forests, and more. I posted my 25 favorite tree songs on my personal website and once again got loads of comments, feedback, and response from others about their favorite tree songs. People just love tree art, in all of its forms.

I recommend you have your own museum tree day, or make a tree song playlist, or look at some other creative idiom through tree lenses. It’s truly rewarding to actively consider how the trees we care for professionally enhance our lives beyond their scientific and landscape value.

The Albert Bierstadt painting that inspired my Tree Day at the Art Institute.