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Voices: Yellowstone Forever needs new leadership moving forward

Yellowstone Forever (YF) announced that operations of its educational arm, Yellowstone Institute, have been suspended indefinitely. As a program participant, financial contributor and lover of Yellowstone, I believe this is an unwise move in the short-run and in the long-run. A better path is scaling back operations in 2020 and remaining flexible for 2021.

Suspending operations of the Institute is unwise for several reasons:

·         Giving will drop. YF does not exist “just” to raise money for the Park. Its different components work synergistically to produce an impact.  Education contributes to membership growth that feeds into philanthropy. By suspending the Institute indefinitely, a vital link to Yellowstone Forever is lost.

·         It will be expensive to re-create the Institute if dropped now. Staff of the Yellowstone Institute are the best people – deeply committed to the mission of interpretation. If disbanded, they will move on to other places.  Losing them will mean losing deep experience and program knowledge.

·         Yellowstone, without interpretation, becomes like Disneyland. With interpretation, Yellowstone is a wonderland, an opportunity for baptism into wilderness. Deep experiences in the Park, launched through interpretation, are the seeds of philanthropy.

Yellowstone Forever was created through the merger of Yellowstone Association (YA) — which carried out Yellowstone Institute programs — with Yellowstone Park Foundation (YPF). Before the merger, Yellowstone Association was self-sustaining. YA ran regular surpluses and was making grants to the park averaging almost $1.7 million annually in the three full fiscal years leading up to transition. Institute revenue was increasing, and membership revenue averaged more than $2.2 million annually.

Yellowstone Park Foundation before the merger was devoted solely to philanthropy. In the three full fiscal years leading up to the transition year, grants averaged almost $5.3 million annually.

Yellowstone Forever did not live up to its promise as a merged entity, though. Its goals were overly ambitious, and it did not have resources to achieve them. Yellowstone Association held net assets of $13.6 million and Yellowstone Park Foundation held net assets of $7.2 million on the date of the merger.

Three years after the merger, combined reserves had declined by $6.2 million, and its financial position appears still worse for the fiscal year ended February 28, 2020. This all happened before Covid-19 hit.

Yellowstone Association resources brought to the merger were squandered on this Board’s watch. Not only are combined reserves down substantially, combined giving to the Park is down over $1 million per year. YA developed authentic and deep relationships with members through education and interpretation.

To be financially viable Yellowstone Forever needs to invest appropriately in revenue strategies built on those relationships — no matter what the future brings. Through recent cuts to shore up finances, the board may have impaired YF’s longer-term viability by effectively severing those connections gained through the Institute.

Key leaders of this Board need to go, replaced by board members who can restore financial sanity consistent with its mission. A newly constituted board then can re-imagine a different future together.