Exploring the Concept of “EVOLUTION + DECAY = GROWTH”

By Nancy Kafka, Belwin Conservancy Executive Director

From the Fall 2017/Winter 2018 issue of The Meadowlark

Belwin’s Living Values

  • Protect land and use the land to support the organization’s mission.
  • Create partnerships that play to one another’s expertise, don’t overlap and are specific to Belwin.
  • Restore the land so people can have a unique experience discovering tall and mixed grass prairies, savannas, wetland complexes, woodlands and forests.
  • Always aspire for the highest quality and give people more than they expect.
  • Protect the land and use the land in support of mission.

Belwin’s founders fell in love with 50 acres of land in Afton, purchased them, built a modest family cabin and spent hours of leisure time with their family enjoying Valley Creek and the pine trees surrounding their cabin. They felt strongly that the area had unique qualities worthy of permanent protection and set about acquiring additional land. One day they said, “We need to find a use for the land we’re protecting.”

Belwin does what it does best and seeks partners whose missions fit with Belwin but whose expertise is unique. The founders forged a relationship with Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS). In 1970, they set up a private family foundation to hold 225 acres for exclusive use by SPPS and built classrooms so students could have a place to assimilate what they experienced outdoors learning about science in nature. The partnership relies on SPPS providing educators and students while Belwin sustains the land and facilities. In 2007, the private foundation was ready to become a public charity and Belwin Conservancy was born.

Restore the land so people can have a unique experience discovering tall and mixed grass prairies, savannas, wetland complexes, woodlands and forests. As the founders began adding land, the invasives of today (buckthorn, spotted knapweed, garlic mustard, grecian foxglove, amur maple, locust, prickly ash, Japanese knotweed…) had not penetrated Afton. Much of the land was plowed and dominated by row crops. As a result, in the plowed areas, the invasives were kept at bay.

Somehow, however, Washington County became ground zero for amur maple and grecian foxglove. Our woods and open fields were easily dominated. When Belwin began converting agricultural fields to prairies, we spent years controlling invasives and we continue that work today.

However, there are many places on Belwin lands where one can experience a taste of the land as it might have been before the waves of settlement conquered the forests and prairies that were once so prevalent.

Always aspire for the highest quality in what we do and give people more than they expect.
People who come to Belwin often ask why we have an astronomical observatory, host bison, and own athletic fields? They want to know how these activities fit with Belwin’s mission of inspiring our connection to the natural world.

People don’t expect an organization primarily established to protect land to be so active in engaging with diverse audiences. Belwin understands that to be useful to the public, we have to engage the public, and not just the portion of the public that cares about protecting land. A public school district isn’t going to care if land is permanently protected, they just want to have a safe place conducive for discovery and learning. Youth athletes don’t think about the status of land, just whether or not the fields exist – and are in good shape for playing. Bison are happy to flaunt borders in search of food and water – the status of the land is irrelevant. Astronomers just want a dark clear sky, where they can explore and learn about space.

In the East Metro, none of these experiences would take place without Belwin Conservancy at the heart of each. The key for Belwin’s future is how we grow and how lives are influenced by experiences of and at Belwin Conservancy.

Growth through Support: Members and Donors
Belwin’s goal for support from individuals in 2017 is $115,000. Our analysis shows that we’ll have doubled our membership from 2012 to 2017 (263 to 526) with the average gift size increasing from $130 in 2012 to $211 in 2017.

The big push going forward is to double Belwin’s membership again by our 50th anniversary in 2021. Our goal is 1,000 members providing $220,000 in unrestricted annual operating support. Our goal for individual donations outside of membership will be closely tied to on-the-ground needs. For example, in the past five years we have updated parts of the Education Center (flooring, gables, plantings around the entry), built a new bridge to cross Bulrush Slough, and replaced some critical equipment. We know there are bigger ticket items in the queue – a full-scale capital campaign will be needed.

Belwin has been methodically pursuing support from corporations. Our largest contributor to date has been the Saint Paul Pioneer Press/TwinCities.com, which provides advertising for our annual bison release each spring. Most of the event’s participants say they found the event because of the Pioneer Press.

Belwin’s partnership with NorthStar Bison is beginning to leverage support from EpicBar (Epicbar.com), which is owned by General Mills. Northstar Bison and EpicBar have a supply relationship in which Belwin plays a supporting role. The General Mills Foundation, like many corporate foundations, tends to support nonprofits where their respective purposes intersect.

Belwin is working to cultivate targeted relationships with 3M, Andersen Corporation, H. B. Fuller, Xcel Energy, General Mills, U.S. Bank, SuperValu, Mosaic and Hubbard Broadcasting. Belwin’s mission and its growing capital needs provide us with an opportunity to strategically target corporations whose interests and goals mesh with Belwin’s needs. This list is by no means exhaustive – and we encourage you to suggest and/or connect us to others that might be receptive.

Belwin’s most supportive foundation for unrestricted operating funds has been the Hugh J. Andersen Foundation. Belwin has also been fortunate to capture the attention of the Donald Weesner Foundation, which has provided key capital investments for three projects since 2013.

Both foundations provide a working example of the relationships Belwin needs to expand for our continued success. Unrestricted operating and dedicated capital are critical components. Each year we work to introduce Belwin to new foundations. If you know of or are connected to a foundation that you think might be interested in Belwin, please let us know.

Expanded opportunities to discover Belwin Belwin has added member and public programming in several areas. The property that public school students attend on weekdays is open to all Belwin members on the third Saturday of each month.

To give members new experiences, we added guided trout fishing, opened the Joseph J. Casby Observatory for solar scope viewing, provide bison buggy rides at Croixview Prairie, offer a series of guided walks and talks by Naturalist Lynette Anderson, and installed an exhibit of large-format photographs of the flora and fauna of Belwin at LWBAF.

These are ongoing examples of expanded programming and opportunities to discover Belwin. Each year we will be adding more for you to discover.

Growth by engaging new audiences in Belwin
Is it enough to just serve Belwin’s membership? We don’t think so. Our members are fantastic – but we also know that Belwin’s mission means inspiring our (collective) connection to the natural world. Not just people who already care about the natural world. This goal requires Belwin to really stretch.

Engaging new audiences means creating reasons for people to want to discover Belwin – solstice bonfires, places where people can gather to celebrate – whether that be an athletic event or an art opening. Intentionally using our 1,364 acres to inspire our connections to the natural world.

Inspiration comes in many forms: teachers, musicians, people in search of silence, sculptors, artists, people who like art, birders, and people who use the land to communicate ideas, concepts and understanding. A new kind of Belwin is taking root.

Do you have a lead on a foundation or corporation that you think should learn about Belwin? Contact Nancy Kafka at 651-436-5189 x10 or nancy.kafka@belwin.org.

Read the next article in The Meadowlark: Inspiring Connections Across Belwin

Read the previous article in The Meadowlark: Director's Message: Evolution + Decay = Growth