In January of 2011, chapter leaders gathered with park managers at the Lake Blackshear Resort at Georgia Veterans Memorial State Park in Cordele, Georgia to attend this year’s Chapter Conference, “Beyond the Trailhead: Strategies for the Future.” While the Division works hard on their strategic plan to achieve maximum sustainability, it is critical that chapters stay in step and ensure they have a plan for working with their respective sites to meet common goals. This year’s theme allowed chapter leaders to focus on the future of their chapters by offering strategic planning sessions centered on marketing, volunteerism and fundraising.
For many chapter leaders, the actual operations of the chapter come second to volunteering and supporting their sites.This year’s conference gave them an opportunity to get away from their park for a few days and to really focus on the strategic direction for their chapters.The environment in which chapters operate has changed significantly over the past few years.Budget cuts and constraints have forced many chapters to change the way they support their sites.In the past, chapters typically focused their energies on supplementing park staff and adding to programs or projects already in place.In the current environment, chapters are being relied on more and more to fill huge gaps left by lack of funding or staffing.
As the environment has changed, so have the needs of the individual chapters.No longer can chapters afford to hope some volunteers show up for a project or to be excited about a chance newspaper article covering their efforts.Chapter leaders now must take a much more active role in developing the chapter’s overall capabilities, in reaching out to local communities and in marketing their efforts to attract donors and volunteers.
The strategic planning process at the conference followed the creation of the overall strategic plan for Friends of Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites that took place in 2010.“Our statewide strategic plan positions Friends to significantly increase the impact we have on the system as whole,” says Damon Kirkpatrick, Manager of Chapter Services.“Our parks and historic sites need our help now, more than ever before.By helping our chapters think about their own strategic directions, we better position them to be able to support their individual sites.The needs have changed and so must our support.”
In addition to the chapter attendees, site managers and division leadership were also present to help Friends better understand the best ways to help.“We were very fortunate to be able to have so many site managers present this year,” notes Andy Fleming, Executive Director.“They were able to help chapters better understand the big picture and to provide guidance on how we could best help meet their needs.”
In addition to the strategic planning tools, chapter leaders and park staff were provided with plenty of opportunities to network with each other.Group discussions often resulted in the sharing of great ideas and even some pitfalls to be avoided.For many participants, this is the only opportunity to meet and talk with their peers from across the state.
While networking has always been a big part of the annual chapter conferences, this year proved to be the best so far in terms of chapters working together.Even outside of the formal sessions, chapter leaders could often be found talking with other site managers and volunteers to share ideas.In several cases, volunteers chose to start long-term inter-chapter partnerships that will allow them to continue sharing ideas and to start sharing resources.The collaboration efforts that came out of this year’s conference will undoubtedly benefit the system as a whole.
All work and some play
This year’s conference differed somewhat from previous years in that participants were expected to take a more active role in working together and planning for their chapters.Chapter leaders worked virtually non-stop to create their strategic directions and to plan for the coming years.However, on Saturday evening, the attendees enjoyed a very special treat.Theyboarded the SAM Shortline Excursion Train, many for the first time, and were treated to a delightful ride through middle Georgia.The Friends of SAM Shortline provided the hospitality on board as the train travelled to Americus, Georgia where the group was treated to dinner at the historic Windsor Hotel.Built in 1892 to attract wealthy visitors from the north, the Windsor is remarkably preserved and still houses many of the original architectural details that greeted guests in the early 20th century.The historic dining room with original tile floor provided the perfect location for the group to enjoy some great southern cooking and fellowship.
The last day of the conference focused on the education of state and community leaders regarding the intrinsic and economic value of our state parks and historic sites.The group was honored to have four special guests in attendance to share some insights about how best to reach out to and work with our state leaders.Mark Williams, Commissioner of Georgia DNR, Senator Ross Tolleson and Representatives Lynn Smith and Buddy Harden comprised the speaker’s panel hosted by Al Shauf, President of Friends of Georgia Veterans State Park.In addition to expressing their continued support of parks and historic sites, the panel members shared their thanks to Friends for the many hours of volunteer work.The panel was key to helping chapter leaders understand the strain of the current budget situation in Georgia.
The volunteer efforts of Friends Chapters across the state are critical to the mission of Friends as a whole.This year’s conference helped attendees continue their mission and also provided them with tools for the future.