The event marked a crucial step in The Trustees’ effort to gain accreditation through the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, an independent program of the national Land Trust Alliance that certifies land trusts’ adherence to best practices for land protection and conservation.
“It was a hugely reassuring moment,” says Chris Rodstrom, Deputy Director of Land and Community Conservation, who chaired The Trustees’ accreditation task force. “Every one of our properties represents a deep commitment by many people to protecting a special place. It’s so important not only to protect these properties, but also their stories and the record of how they came to The Trustees.”
Gathering critical documents is only one requirement for successful accreditation. Land trusts must meet a series of rigorous standards to qualify. Annual field surveys must be completed on every property and conservation restriction; internal processes need to be optimized for efficiency and transparency; contingency plans must be in place in the event that a land trust goes bankrupt or dissolves itself. These requirements, along with many others, are designed to ensure the long-term health of land trusts and the properties they protect.
“We need strong land trusts that can protect the land they’ve conserved from potential threats, both legal and environmental,” Rodstrom explains. “Accreditation shows that all our policies and procedures are up to highest standards and follow best practices. Donors can feel reassured that their gifts will be safe and that the transaction will be done right. It gives them the confidence to know that we are equipped to protect their property forever.”
The Trustees hold 26,000 acres under direct ownership, with another 19,000 acres in conservation restrictions. With 120 years of experience protecting and managing natural and cultural landscapes, The Trustees have long operated with well-established systems and processes in place. But the accreditation process, reflects Rodstrom, has made the organization even stronger. “Even good organizations can make changes to significantly improve,” he explains. “We’re now in a much better position to thrive for the next 120 years.”
The Trustees received accreditation in 2010, one of only four land trusts in Massachusetts – and 130 nationwide – to earn the distinction. Now The Trustees are using their experience to help other Massachusetts land trusts meet the challenge through its Massachusetts Land Trust Acceleration Program, a grant-funded partnership of The Trustees’ Putnam Conservation Institute (PCI), the Open Space Institute, and the Land Trust Alliance created to help other Massachusetts land trusts prepare for the accreditation application process.
Applying for land trust accreditation is a difficult undertaking, especially for small land trusts. “We have 1.6 staff,” explains Jane Calvin, executive director of the Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust. “And I’m one of them.” Calvin’s organization is one of 14 land trusts around the state participating in the Acceleration Program, which is managed by PCI. Each receives a $15,000 grant to help them prepare to apply for accreditation. “The funding is critical for providing the motivation and capacity to undertake such a large project,” Calvin notes. “We wouldn’t have been able to tackle it without The Trustees’ support.”
“The Acceleration Program is a three-year process to help these land trusts prepare for the accreditation application,” explains program leader Andrea Freeman, PCI and Doyle Community Park and Center programs director for The Trustees. “Once accepted, each land trust receives part of the grant to complete an organizational assessment and create a work plan and budget. Once this is approved, they receive the remaining funds to help complete their preparation. Our goal is to strengthen our fellow land trusts so that the land they care for here in Massachusetts will be protected permanently.”
For most organizations, just preparing to submit the application is hugely beneficial. “The process is the reward as much as the final accreditation,” Freeman notes. Calvin echoes the sentiment. “The program has helped us get organized, develop a timetable, and engage our board. What’s really great is that there’s a team of other land trusts going through the same process. We’re all able to get together, bat ideas around, and overcome obstacles as a group.” She expects to submit her application for accreditation in spring 2013.
With The Trustees’ accreditation application process now behind him, Rodstrom reflects on its positive effects. “We’ve demonstrated that even one of the oldest and largest land trusts can make substantial improvements and become an even stronger organization,” he says. “Now we’re helping other groups improve their practices, get accredited, and increase the capabilities of land trusts across the Commonwealth.”