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WELCOME TO EPISODE 14 OF THE TALENTED LEARNING SHOW!
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EPISODE 14 – TOPIC SUMMARY AND GUEST:
Many people assume that federal and state governments are responsible for land conservation in the U.S. That’s only partially true. It also takes a village – a diverse and educated grassroots village – to protect America’s natural treasures.
That’s what I discuss today with guest, Mary Burke, Associate Director of Educational Services at Land Trust Alliance. As the leading source for policy, standards, education and training, the Alliance works side-by-side with 1,200 land trusts, which are in turn supported by more than 200,000 volunteers and 4.6 million members nationwide.
How does the Alliance accomplish such ambitious educational goals? It’s not easy. But it is fascinating.
- Land trusts play an integral role in U.S. environmental conservation. Currently, they protect 56 million acres of land – more area than the state of Idaho.
- Compared with professional associations, Land Trust Alliance’s training challenges are unique, because participants are often volunteer members of land trusts or conservation affiliates and their professions don’t depend on land trust education.
- The Land Trust Alliance offers valuable lessons for associations – not just because of its lofty mission, but because of the way it engages and educates individuals through member organizations.
As many people know, I live on a farm, so conservation and natural resources are a big part of my life. But I didn’t know about land trusts until I met you four years ago, Mary. Could you start by explaining what a land trust is?
Sure. I’m not surprised that you were unfamiliar with the term. We seem to be our own best-kept secret! Most land trusts are local organizations that conserve places they cherish in their communities. That could be farmlands, ranchlands, beautiful vistas, forests, beaches, swimming holes – whatever spaces they want to preserve.
One example is George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. It’s on the Potomac River in Virginia, right across from Maryland. Thanks to the work of a lot of conservation groups in my home state of Maryland, if you stand on the back porch of Mount Vernon in the same place where George Washington stood, you will see the same pristine view he saw.
Nice. How does the Land Trust Alliance help?
We work with volunteer groups of all sizes to help them preserve whatever lands are important to their community now and for the future.
How do you do that?
Let’s say you’re a farmer who wants to preserve your land for the next generation and you’re worried about estate taxes. You could work with a land trust to donate or sell a conservation easement. That’s a legal document that specifies things like where crops may be grown. It may also identify where a house can be built, away from the prime soils.
It’s about figuring out these parameters and documenting them in an agreement that goes with the land, so the next landowner is bound by it.
So where does education fit into this? How do you educate such diverse volunteer groups?
It’s a challenge. We have to consider money and time. We’re educating people in nonprofit organizations, so every dollar is of extreme value to them. And time? Well, we always feel like we’re in a race to preserve land before it’s developed.
Plus, we’re a non-profit as well. So we’re bound by our own constraints of time and money. Our strategy is to create different learning for different people. We offer many types of learning opportunities to meet diverse needs.
We produce webinars. We deliver self-study training through our LMS. We provide an extensive collection of sample documents. We offer in-person training. We host a conference with about 2000 people every year. We’ve got a law library. Every few years we offer a symposium for advanced topics in land conservation law. We also provide individual one-off training and technical assistance.
One of our most popular educational services is our “Ask the Expert” capability on our LMS. This is where members submit questions and get answers directly from experts. Actually, we started this with our first LMS because we couldn’t afford to create a lot of self-study training. We thought a forum could fill that gap, and it turned out to be a situation where a constraint created an opportunity.
Interesting. So are attorneys your primary audience? What other types of interests do you serve?
Right. There are attorneys and board members, so we train on legal issues and non-profit governance. Also finance, because the financial aspects of land conservation can be fairly technical. Obviously, real estate and fundraising are important. We also include marketing and communications training. And then there’s the on-the-ground science. We don’t train much on that, but land trusts need to know about it.
I feel like we train on everything. Even HR. The question really is what subject don’t we train on?
Right! So how do you go about picking or developing all of this content? Is it all proprietary?
Yes, land trust work is very specific, so we generate most of the content ourselves. We use a code of ethics called Land Trust Standards and Practices to guide our priorities.
We just completed an extensive community input process and revised the standards and practices in 2017. Now we’re in the process of updating all of our materials, so they reflect the new standards. Also, we ask members for feedback on an ongoing basis to guide our priorities.
Great. So is education a profit center for the Alliance? Or do you include that as a member benefit?
Everything on our LMS is available as a member benefit. We charge a small additional fee for webinars. They’re very heavily subsidized by our funders, but we have to cover the cost of instructors.
We need to support land trusts that are doing great work with very limited budgets. It’s important to provide them with as much support and information and training as possible.
Absolutely. So what are other key challenges you face in educating members, beyond their diverse interests?
Time and money. That’s the challenge. People are getting busier and it’s hard to find 90 minutes for a webinar. It’s kind of a sad that 90 minutes of uninterrupted focus is considered a luxury these days.
So how does that manifest itself in your content? Are you creating smaller and more mobile training?
Yes. When I started at the Alliance we created self-study books for use independently and in training. We were trying to be efficient. But now that we’re shifting to an online model we’re paring down written content. It’s because people just don’t have time to read.
So you probably have a pretty interesting technology ecosystem. How do you manage so many members and track their activity?
We use iMIS. We have two dedicated people to manage IMS and help our program staff use it effectively. In addition, we just moved from a home-built LMS to WBT TopClass LMS. And for webinars, we’ve used Adobe Connect for several years and we’re very happy with that.
Is your LMS integrated with iMIS, so you can share data between those two?
Yes. That’s very critical. And one thing we’re excited about in the new LMS is the ability for managers to assign training to users and for users to track their learning activity – both on and off of the LMS – because we have a very large annual conference.
Independent of your LMS, what are the top three learning technology capabilities that are vital to an organization like yours?
1) A good way for people to communicate with each other. Land trusts are very generous about sharing information, ideas and support. Our LMS forums help facilitate that. And our “Ask The Expert” option is a wonderful way to connect with other people doing similar work. That’s very important.
2) Sitewide search is also important. Our land trusts love sample documents because they don’t have to create things from scratch. They can download a sample and then edit the document to fit their needs. So the sooner they can find relevant files, the better.
3) Reporting. We’ve been very happy moving from our homegrown system because it had very limited analytics. Now we have much better insight.
4) And one more thing: Mobile capability. Land trust people visit sites at least once a year to make sure landowners are actually complying with the trust. So when they’re in the field, it’s helpful to call up information right there from a phone or tablet. The benefit of this should increase over time.
How do you define success?
There are many ways to look at success. For example here’s a broad metric: Of the 1363 U.S. land trusts, 411 have earned accreditation from the Alliance. In other words, nearly 30% have achieved the highest standards for sound finances, ethical conduct, responsible governance and lasting stewardship.
What’s your best advice for other organizations who are creating an educational environment that serves diverse members?
Prioritize, so you don’t squander time and resources and you deliver exactly what members need when they need it. Also, build a solid team. It’s really important to work with colleagues that have your back.
I also encourage others to connect directly with individuals in your learning community, so they realize that you’re a real person and they feel comfortable sharing ideas and feedback with you.
Above all, don’t forget to go outside! Go for a walk in the woods or on the beach. Get to know your local land trust because they’re probably doing amazing things to make your community a better place to live.
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