For over 188 years, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) has been a leading voice in urban agriculture and community forestry. Their longevity is due in large part to excellent volunteer recruitment and retention—what began as a group of 80 farmers, botanists, and horticultural enthusiasts has grown to a fanatical base of over 23,500 members. The secret to their success? Collaboration. By taking a humble but pragmatic approach, PHS has positioned themselves at the center of an ever-evolving system of stakeholders spanning local government, private sector partnerships, and state and national networks. They’ve done this by allowing their volunteers and partners to take center stage in everything they do. Below are five ways that Pennsylvania Horticultural Society sets the standard for collaboration in urban forestry:
- Always Remember: Everything Starts with Volunteers
PHS runs a community forestry educational series around the Philadelphia area called the Tree Tenders Program. Open to both PHS members and non-members for a fee of $25 (which barely covers the food and t-shirts that trainees receive), prospective tree tenders receive expert instruction from licensed arborists, plant pathologists, agricultural extension educators, and city administrators. Over the years, 3,000+ concerned citizens have graduated from Tree Tenders training, each with a firm understanding of the tangible benefits of the urban forest and the tools to care for it responsibly. The Tree Tenders program is a microcosm of PHS’s commitment to collaboration—non-profit partners, city liaisons, university staff, and local small businesses are all represented among the many presenters who are given the rare opportunity to hold the floor with a targeted audience of 50+ concerned citizens. Partners get exposure and borrow authority from PHS, while PHS gives their volunteers access to high-quality educators and hands-on experience.
The same citizens who are engaged in their communities enough to seek out Tree Tender training are the ones who vote. So just how influential is PHS’ reach in the greater Philadelphia community? Let’s take the example of the 2007 Philadelphia mayoral race: while environmental justice had never figured prominently in prior elections, suddenly all five democratic candidates were jockeying for who could promise the most tree plantings. First, two candidates promised they would plant 23,000 trees…then another promised 50,000…and not to be outdone, a fourth promised a whopping 100,000 trees over the next eight years. The final candidate simply promised to plant, “as many as we possibly can.” Previously, PHS had drafted environmental policy documents and met with candidates, and the announcements were conspicuously made around the time of PHS’s annual Philadelphia Flower Show. And while politicians making campaign promises may seem inane, what actually happened afterwards is the truly shocking part—eight years later, the mayor’s office is on track to have planted 300,000 trees, three times the amount even the most ambitious candidate felt comfortable promising.
- Become an Extension of Local Government
Influencing public policy doesn’t mean much if you aren’t willing to help with the execution. Mayor Nutter, the candidate who won the 2007 mayoral race mentioned above, launched the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability to advance Philadelphia’s environmental goals. One of the offshoots of that office is TreePhilly, an initiative under Philadelphia Parks and Recreation—they are directly responsible for providing over 15,000 free street trees to Philadelphia residents and for pruning another 10,000. These services seem in direct competition with PHS’s policy of providing free trees to approved Tree Tenders groups across the city, but in fact, they are complementary. While PHS works to expand the footprint of their tree tending groups, many neighborhoods (especially in the center of the city) remain unrepresented. Residents of these neighborhoods who reach out to PHS are handed off to TreePhilly, who will provide 1-2 free yard trees. In this way, PHS’s community outreach activities actually work to strengthen the city government’s own tree planting initiatives, and Philadelphians find access to free trees universally accessible, either through their neighborhood tree tending group or directly through the city.
- Think Outside of Your City
The Plant One Million campaign has become one of PHS’s most highly touted initiatives, which is actually a tri-state partnership across non-profits in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The initiative has already accounted for over 470,000 combined tree plantings, spurred by an effort to raise the cumulative tree canopy cover of the 13 counties around Philadelphia to above 30%. Working across state borders with both the New Jersey Tree Foundation and the Delaware Center for Horticulture, PHS not only opened new channels for exposure to a broader community and access to sponsors they might never have been able to work with otherwise, they also were able to expand the scope of their tree planting goals by pooling resources and coordinating events across several invested partners. For an organization headquartered in Philadelphia for the better part of two centuries, PHS has shown a willingness to open their programming and initiatives beyond the borders of the city that birthed them, and has consistently found ways to collaborate with bordering counties and communities in ways that inevitably enrich the resources they are able to offer to Philadelphia residents.
- Offer Local Businesses Something Valuable
One of the secrets to PHS’s success is the way they conceive of local businesses. It’s often tempting to simply approach companies asking for sponsorships and ad placements, selling them on corporate responsibility and goodwill. But the strongest partnerships go deeper than a logo at the bottom of a pamphlet—PHS brings local businesses into almost everything they do, and not just as sponsors. For instance, Bartlett Tree Experts, one of the largest landscape management companies in the country, is a longtime partner of PHS. Yes, they sponsor initiatives like the Plant One Million campaign and the annual Flower Show. But they also volunteer their time at events and train Tree Tenders. And it’s not just goodwill: let’s say for instance that it costs Bartlett about $60/hour to send two of their best arborists out in the field. Well if those arborists spend an hour at a Tree Tenders event showing 50 volunteers the right way to prune their trees, and that turns into just one $2,000 job…well Bartlett just made about 16x their investment. You get the point.
- Always Buy in Bulk
While regional partnerships and relationships with local businesses have expanded the scope of PHS’s initiatives and helped them garner exposure with new audiences, national partnerships have (somewhat paradoxically) allowed them to offer more value internally—to their members and volunteers. PHS’s McLean Library is a cardinal example of this principle. While the library boasts over 10,000 physical titles in circulation, they have been able to add thousands of digital resources to their collection by joining several national consortiums. PHS members also have access to collections from botanical gardens in New York, Missouri, and San Francisco, as well as national agricultural libraries. By finding groups with aligned interests and goals on a national scale, PHS is able to dramatically supplement the resources they can offer members at minimal cost. For non-profits large and small, it’s always easier to take advantage of economies of scale by partnering for content than it is to try to carve out resources in isolation.
(Free) PHS Resources
- The Tree Tenders website
- A step-by-step guide to organizing a community tree planting, complete with flyer templates, tool checklists, tree planting diagrams, and more
- A video library with tutorials and educational content on how to care for trees
- Advanced training is also available for volunteers with prior experience in forestry and for alumni of the basic training program
- Over 200,000 trees and planting sites logged to date
PHS regularly contributes lists of newly planted trees to be added to the map
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