On Community

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the September 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. This article was adapted from a much longer piece written earlier this year, and available on my website here, for those who are interested in reading more about my views on “community.”

If you were to create a word cloud of every document, article, letter, and email I’ve written during my four-plus years as President and CEO of TREE Fund, I suspect that after the obvious mission-related words — tree, forest, research, endowment, education, arborist, etc. —  the word that would show up most frequently would be “community.” I use it all the time, referring to the Tour des Trees as our primary community engagement event, discussing how our work helps the global tree care community, noting that our work focuses on the importance of urban and community forests by promoting research designed to benefit whole communities of trees and related organisms (including humans), rather than individual specimens or species.

If you ran that same word cloud for the four years before I arrived at TREE Fund, I suspect you would not see “community” ranked so highly in our communications. We used to refer to the Tour des Trees as our primary fundraising event, and we discussed how our work benefited the tree care industry, and how our efforts advanced arboriculture, with much of our research focused on individual plant response, rather than forests as a whole. This change in language was not necessarily an organizational shift driven by some strategic planning decision, nor was it a modification to what we do and how we do it directed by our Board or emergent outside forces. It was frankly just me shaping the narrative about the organization I lead, and I how I want it to be perceived.

Calling the Tour des Trees just a “fundraising event,” for example, misses the critical component of how we interact with people as we roll on our way throughout the week, providing education and outreach to help people understand our work and how it benefits them. Saying that we work only for the “tree care industry” seems somehow antiseptic to me, implying that the businesses are more important than the community of people they employ, who collectively engage in the hands-on work of caring for trees. “Urban and community forests” is a helpful rubric in expressing the full scope of our focus, evoking and including big city park spaces, street trees, yard trees and trees along utility rights of way in suburbs, exurbs, and rural spaces. And thinking more about communities of trees, rather than individual plants, helps us better understand and communicate the exciting, emergent science exploring the ways that trees have evolved as communal organisms, and not just as disconnected individuals.

I think my focus on the word “community” is indicative of its deep importance to me, personally and professionally. My desire over the past four years, and hopefully into the future, is that TREE Fund acts and is perceived as part of something bigger and more connected than our relatively small physical, financial and personnel structure might otherwise dictate. I have been awed, truly, by the immense generosity, enthusiasm, wisdom and diligence of the global tree care community, and it has been an honor for me to be a small member of that great collective body, which works wonders, and makes a difference.

Getting ready to rejoin this great community of tree-loving cyclists again this weekend. You can click the photo if you want to make a last minute Tour des Trees gift to support the cause!

Lessons I’ve Learned From the Tour des Trees

We are down to less than a week before this year’s 80 Tour des Trees riders have to meet their minimum fundraising goals, and the team as a whole is within $10,000 of our total goal for the year, hooray! If you want to help somebody get ‘er done here at rug-cutting time (or if you want to help push me up the leader board), you can click on the image above and support any of our riders. We should definitely hit our $300,000 mark this week, so I am hoping that when all’s said and done, we can be above last year’s $327,000 mark before the week of actual riding ends. The more we raise, the more research we fund or endow in next year’s budget, so it’s win, win, win to raise more, more, more!

I have to be at our office in Naperville the week before the Tour, so next week is my final training window. I feel in good shape at this point. It’s easier to do training rides in Des Moines than it was in Chicago, for sure. I’ve ridden a couple of centuries already this summer, and did a five-day unsupported week of 305 miles, so being in the peloton with regular rest stops, support and meals that I don’t have to carry should make the actual week’s tally of about 450 miles with one century and less climbing than we had last year in Ohio more than attainable. I won’t be winning any time trials, but I’ll be back at the barn before dinner every day, and that’s what it’s all about.

While this will be my last Tour as CEO of TREE Fund, I do intend to keep riding it in the years ahead, so long as my ever-more-creaky body allows. I was thinking this week about the things that make the Tour des Trees special, and some valuable life lessons learned on the road over the past four years popped into my mind, so I thought I would share them with you here. I’d welcome any of your own lessons learned in the comments!

1. When life gives you free lunch, you eat it.

2. When everybody stinks, nobody stinks.

3. Love every single glorious descent, because you will be punished for each one later.

4. No matter how many gears you have, life will always throw something at you where none of them are quite right, and you just have to grit your teeth and grind it out.

5. There’s nothing wrong with being able to recognize your friends by their butts.

6. Knowing you have support in front of you, behind you, and alongside you makes everything achievable.

7. No matter how nice your bike is, somebody else always has a nicer one.

8. A ride with no trees makes it most clear why we ride for the trees.

9. You’ll never have nicer conversations than the ones you share on a journey with fellow travelers.

10. What happens on the Tour does not stay on the Tour: it ripples outward, over space and time, and makes the world a better place.

Ride on! See you soon in Tennessee and Kentucky!

Tour des Trees 2019: Final Fundraising Push

I got back home to Des Moines last night after spending three days at the International Society of Arboriculture‘s (ISA) International Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee. We held our annual “Tree Fund After Hours” reception on Tuesday night (co-hosted with our good friends from ISA Southern Chapter), where a few hundred professional tree folks came out to celebrate our community, the work we do together, and the research that underpins our commitment to support and the sustain the world’s urban and community forests, and the utility rights of way that connect them.

As a result of our guests’ generosity, and the stack of checks and online gifts from other folks we had waiting for us when we got back to the office, we just pushed over a total of $250,000 raised by our 2019 Tour des Trees to Benefit TREE Fund riders and teams. Our goal for the year is $300,000 — and the deadline for riders to meet their individual minimum fundraising requirements ($3,500 each) is now only 19 days away. Folks are fundraising hard to meet both individual and aggregate goals, so if you’ve been thinking about making a gift toward this important community engagement event, time’s getting short, and there’s no time like the present for making that contribution.

I always try to lead by example and keep myself high on the fundraising leader board (I’m in fourth place among individual riders right now), so if you’d like to help me stay ahead of some hard-charging (friendly) competitors who are neck-and-neck with me, you can support my campaign here. Or if you want to support a rider who is still working to get his or her minimum fundraising done, there’s a list of all of this year’s 82 riders at this page, and you can click on any of their names to support their campaigns. Either way, you’ll push us closer to this year’s budget goal, and we’ll all be grateful.

This summer, TREE Fund pushed over $4.3 million in total grant awards made to support tree research and education, and we published an independent report by Drs Richard Hauer (University of Wisconsin: Stevens Point) and Andrew Koeser (University of Florida) evaluating and explaining the outcomes, outputs and impacts of those grants over our 16 year history. Their complete report is available here, and it ably demonstrates how these grants change the way our industry works, and leverage other dollars toward applied research and outreach. It’s a compelling story, and the Tour des Trees is a cornerstone to our success in the past, present and future.

I’ve shared a few photos from last year’s Tour (by the awesome Coleman Camp) below just to give you a taste of the experience, which depends on the goodwill of thousands of partners and donors every year. I appreciate you considering a gift this year. Your generosity will make a difference — now, and for many years yet to come.

The love we’re shown by the countless towns and cities we roll through is truly inspirational.

Riding is only part of the Tour des Trees story. We also make frequent community engagement stops to share the importance of tree research and education, for kids of all ages.

The end of the road in 2018, at the Ohio State House in Columbus: tired, stinky, sore, and proud, with over $340,000 raised for grants and scholarships!

From Whence I Spring

My Mom moved back to Beaufort, South Carolina last year, where I was born, smack in the middle of the Low Cackalacky region where she was raised and where our family has been for a long, long time. My sister and I went down there for a quick trip this week. She’s turning 50 next week, and my dad would have celebrated his 80th birthday a couple of weeks ago were he still with us, and we don’t quite exactly know how old my Mom is, but it still seemed like a good season for the three of us to spend some time on our home turf together and celebrate. (Plus my Mom tricked us by scheduling surgery, then cancelling. Well played, you!) We ate way too many boiled peanuts (among many other things) and just enjoyed a few lazy days, including a trip to Beaufort National Cemetery (where my Dad is buried) and Hunting Island, which I consider to be the prettiest beach on the East Coast, hands down. Here’s some photo evidence . . .

Beaufort Waterfront Park and Marina

Can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent sitting up there when the drawbridge is open

My sister reliving her life guard days at Hunting Island

My sister continuing to revisit her lifeguard days

Lighthouse at Hunting Island

Glad that the island has (mostly) recovered from a year closure after Hurricane Matthew

Forrest Gump (left side view)

Forrest Gump (right side view)(My fave bench in a little downtown pocket park that tourists mostly ignore)

Mom made my sister and I sit together at dinner. Ewww.

Live Oaks and marsh: unbeatable beauty.

The massive live oak above my Dad’s grave.

“Touch Trees” (TM Alex Shigo) with my Mom.

Touch Wine (TM My Mom)

Ten Reasons You Should Apply For My Job

I announced my retirement a couple of weeks ago, and will be planning to step down as President and CEO of TREE Fund on October 31, 2019, to pursue a variety of personal projects. The search for my replacement is on. We’ve got the search posted on a variety of job sites, and the complete position description and instructions for applications are available here. If you’re considering applying, or know someone else who might be interested, I wanted to share an extra layer of insight into why I think this is a great opportunity, and why I am deeply committed to helping our Board of Trustees through the search process until we’ve hired a strong nonprofit executive to carry the organization forward when I step aside. Without further ado, here are ten reasons why this is a very good gig:

1. An outstanding team of colleagues: Our staff, our Board of Trustees, our national network of liaisons, our volunteers, and our colleagues at affiliated organizations like the International Society of Arboriculture, Tree Care Industry Association, Arbor Day Foundation, Chicago Region Trees Initiative and others are delightful to work with. I enjoy being in the office, I enjoy the people I communicate with regularly, I enjoy the people I spend time with when I travel.

2. A faithful cohort of committed donors: While it’s always a challenge for nonprofit professionals to find new and bigger funding sources, and working hard to do so is crucial at TREE Fund as elsewhere, we do have a large and stable group of corporate and individual supporters who understand and are committed to our mission, most especially the Bartlett, Davey, Wright and Asplundh families of tree care companies. Here’s the roster of all of our current partners, beyond those big four. You can’t take any of them for granted, of course, and stewardship is a paramount part of the job, but you also will not be walking into a development situation where you’re starting at “zero” on your budget every year.

3. Fascinating science: The tree research community has been unveiling incredible findings in recent years, with ever-growing knowledge about how trees exist as communal organisms, the human benefits provided by the urban forest, transformative insights into how to design urban spaces to maximize those benefits, and myriad other mind-blowing areas of inquiry. TREE Fund sits at the cutting edge of this work with our highly-competitive grant-making programs, which become ever more crucial as Federal funding for such work dwindles. We also manage two major utility arboriculture research projects in partnership with Penn State University and Sonoma State University, developing integrated vegetation management and pollinator programs for use along the nation’s millions of miles of utility rights of way. I literally learn something new almost every day, and as a lover of trees, I find it fascinating.

4. Interesting, mature campaigns: During my watch, we completed the endowment-building campaigns for the Safe Arborist Technique Fund, Bob Skiera Memorial Building Bridges Initiative, John Wright Memorial Scholarship Fund, Utility Arborist Research Fund, Barborinas Family Fund, John White Memorial Fund, Ohio Chapter ISA Education Fund, and Bonnie Appleton Memorial Fund, and have been or are soon awarding grants or scholarships in all of them. Our next priority campaigns, which are well underway, are the Tree and Soil Research Fund, The Davey Community Education Fund, the Larry Hall Memorial Fund, and the Hyland Johns Grant Program Endowment Fund. You’ll get to see those through to fruition, and it’s truly exciting to watch their grants go live when their goals are attained.

5. The Tour des Trees: Sure, lots of nonprofit organizations run cycling events as fundraisers, but you’ve never seen one quite like this: our riders and support teams give up a full week of their precious personal time each year to ride about 500 miles, each committing to raise $3,500 to support our research programs. We visit a different region in the country every year, making regular stops along the way, spreading the word about the importance of tree science and education, and the relatively small size of the team means you will be able to make important personal connections with nearly everyone, quickly. Those who have experienced the Tour almost always cite it as life-altering, and I concur. You don’t have to ride it all as the the President/CEO (though I do), but just being in the middle of it in a support capacity will make you realize what an amazing cohort of volunteers this event attracts. Our veteran Tour Manager, Paul Wood of Black Bear Adventures, is also a superstar, and a joy to work with. If you’ve ever managed big events in this past, you’ll quickly understand why we consider him among our most valuable assets.

6. Educating the next generation: We offer scholarships and education programs to help the next generation of tree care professionals attain the wisdom and skill they need to become stewards of our priceless urban and community forests. We have also developed an outstanding elementary school education program with the true one-of-a-kind Professor Elwood Pricklethorn, and seeing him deliver one of his “PEP Rallies” will provide you with a stellar example of how to inspire our young ones, with love and fun. His road agent, Warren Hoselton, also developed our patented TREE Fund tree blessing, with which our Tour riders have provided growing mojo for all the trees we’ve planted in our wakes over the years. (At bottom line, we all get to act like kids together, and it gives us power and mojo every time we do it, too, no matter how tired the road has made us).

7. Proper alignment of governance and management: This one may be a little esoteric, but if you’ve ever sat on a board with an executive that denied you your strategic role, or if you’ve ever been a nonprofit executive with a board that wants to micromanage your staff and volunteers, then you’ll understand just how important this one is. We manage with a rolling three year-year Strategic Plan, using it to map our progress together, evaluating results and adjusting tactics annually as needed, while keeping our eyes on the mission-based prize at all times. I truly like working with every one of my Board members, and I think they enjoy me too, but we’re educated, aware, and committed to our respective roles in the corporation, and our efforts are largely smooth and without conflict accordingly.

8. A truly charitable mission anchored in philanthropy: We’re not a trade association, we’re not a membership corporation, and we’re not in the business of retail sales to meet the bottom line. We are a 501(c)3 engaged in a charitable mission, and we depend on philanthropic activity and intent and commitment to do what we do. While running a gift shop or selling memberships might be easier, on some plane, than what we do, I find it inspiring to know that those who support us do so not just because of what they’re getting out of the relationship (though obviously our best partnerships do benefit both parties), but rather because they care deeply about what we offer, and recognize that if we don’t do it together, a lot of it is not going to get done.

9. Saving lives: No hyperbole here: tree care jobs are among the most dangerous in the country, and our industry’s monthly trade magazine routinely reports a startling number of injuries and fatalities from accidents and incidents. Our work is designed not only to help us understand trees better, but also to understand how to work in and around them more safely as well, protecting our skilled professionals, the companies that employ them, and the clients they serve. Moving beyond the cohort of amazing people who work with our urban and community forests and on utility rights-of-way, we also know that smarter urban planning around forest assets can dramatically improve a variety of health and safety factors for citizens living in proximity to the trees that municipalities and private property owners plant and maintain. Healthy urban and community forests are directly correlated to healthy cities and citizens. We support that relationship.

10. Adult education and training: We support our tree care professionals and the communities they serve by requiring that all of our research findings be made freely available to anyone who wants to access them, and we also offer a robust and popular webinar series that’s become a key component in helping our professionals achieve and maintain various certifications through participation in distance learning. We routinely break the 1,000 viewer mark for each of our free online webinars, and we recently released a comprehensive study designed to evaluate the outcomes, impacts, and outputs of the $4.3 million in grants we’ve awarded since our inception in 2002. People may not necessarily know where the facts that help them do their jobs came from, but we’re still helping them be better and safer and more efficient in their jobs, regularly.

Does all of that sound good? It is, I promise. I’ve enjoyed my four years at TREE Fund as much as any work I’ve done in a long nonprofit career, and I see this position as being a great opportunity for a rising professional determined to make his or her mark in an important field of endeavor. We’re small, we’re nimble, we’re frugal where we need to be and generous when that’s necessary, and I think we make a difference. You’re not going to have a posh corner office in some tower of glass and steel if you take my job, mind you, and you’re certainly not going to get rich working for a small nonprofit like TREE Fund, and a lot of the time the fruits of your efforts may accrue publicly to others, but you will know what you’ve done, and you will know that it matters.

Pass it on. We need a nonprofit superstar. It might be you.

So many hills to climb . . . but so many rewards in climbing them . . .

The Legs Are Tired, But the Mind and the Heart Are Strong

Note: At the risk of being redundant in duplicating the gist of yesterday’s post, I sent out my last Tour des Trees fundraising appeal this morning, so I am cross-posting it here today, just in case someone reading one thing might have missed the other thing. Either way, I hope you will help support the cause!!

Hello friends and family,

As always, I apologize for sending a mass email (or blog post) to you all, but we’re in the final weeks of this year’s fundraising and training campaigns for the Tour des Trees to Benefit TREE Fund, and I would be honored to have your support for this most important endeavor.

I recently announced my retirement as CEO of TREE Fund effective at the end of October, but I specifically selected my timeline to allow me to lead this year’s Tour, which will roll out of Nashville, TN on September 15. We’ll be riding about 450 miles in five days, hoping to raise $300,000 in the process, while also offering a variety of community engagement events to educate folks (young ones, most especially) along the route about the importance of urban and community forests.

We just hit the 50% mark on this year’s fundraising goal, so it’s “rug cutting time” for our 80+ riders to hit our individual and collective goals over the next five weeks.

I always like to stay high on the fundraising leader board, from a good Navy-trained “lead by example” standpoint, but I’ve got some steep competition this year from a few regular riders and some new folks who are awing us all with their fundraising prowess. I would be most grateful, therefore, if you would consider making a gift, of any size, to my campaign, here.

You have my personal and professional commitment, as always, to ensure that 100% of the funds raised by our riders and teams goes back out the door to support our research mission, either by funding new grants, paying installments toward ongoing multi-year grants, or endowing funds to support future grants. We recently passed $4.3 million in total grants awarded since 2002, and our board commissioned a study last year to assess the impacts, outputs and outcomes of all those grants over the years. The results were compelling, profound, and satisfying: you can see the final summary report here, if you are interested.

You also have my personal commitment that I’ll be busting my ever-more-creaky body through these summer months ahead to be in proper shape to complete the Tour in September. I rode 302 training miles over the past six days . . . and I am enjoying spending “Day Seven” putting my feet up and sending emails (and blog posts) to you all, per the pic below.

Please don’t hesitate to holla if you have any questions about what we’re up to . . . and also please don’t hesitate to hit my campaign page if you know what it’s all about and you want to support it!!

All best, all love, all thanks,

Eric

Some tired pigs. But they’ll be ready to roll come September 15 . . .