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An Eagle Eye on VINS’ Mission

Fledgling Executive Director Leads Effort to Sharpen Nonprofit’s Image

  • A Weathersfield School kindergarten class is introduced to a great horned owl at VINS in Quechee, Vt., on June 11, 2014. (<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    A Weathersfield School kindergarten class is introduced to a great horned owl at VINS in Quechee, Vt., on June 11, 2014. (
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • Charlie Rattigan, the new executive director of VINS, speaks to a colleague at VINS in Quechee, Vt., on June 26, 2014. (<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Charlie Rattigan, the new executive director of VINS, speaks to a colleague at VINS in Quechee, Vt., on June 26, 2014. (
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • At VINS in Quechee, Vt., raptor camp counselor Alyssa MacLeod carries a kestrel to a raptor presentation on June 11, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    At VINS in Quechee, Vt., raptor camp counselor Alyssa MacLeod carries a kestrel to a raptor presentation on June 11, 2014.
    (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • Charlie Rattigan, executive director of VINS, talks with Chris Collier, operations director, after a morning gathering of all VINS employees in Quechee, Vt., on June 11, 2014. (<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Charlie Rattigan, executive director of VINS, talks with Chris Collier, operations director, after a morning gathering of all VINS employees in Quechee, Vt., on June 11, 2014. (
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • At VINS in Quechee, Vt.,  Joshua Detweiler a seasonal educator, weighs a Harris hawk before a demonstration on June 11, 2014. (<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    At VINS in Quechee, Vt., Joshua Detweiler a seasonal educator, weighs a Harris hawk before a demonstration on June 11, 2014. (
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • VINS staff members Chris Collier, left, Joshua Detweiler, center, and Jim Armbruster keep an eye on a rough-legged hawk that flew away from the demonstration it was in at the science center in Quechee, Vt., on June 11, 2014. The hawk was later returned to its enclosure.<br/> (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    VINS staff members Chris Collier, left, Joshua Detweiler, center, and Jim Armbruster keep an eye on a rough-legged hawk that flew away from the demonstration it was in at the science center in Quechee, Vt., on June 11, 2014. The hawk was later returned to its enclosure.
    (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • A Weathersfield School kindergarten class is introduced to a great horned owl at VINS in Quechee, Vt., on June 11, 2014. (<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Charlie Rattigan, the new executive director of VINS, speaks to a colleague at VINS in Quechee, Vt., on June 26, 2014. (<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • At VINS in Quechee, Vt., raptor camp counselor Alyssa MacLeod carries a kestrel to a raptor presentation on June 11, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Charlie Rattigan, executive director of VINS, talks with Chris Collier, operations director, after a morning gathering of all VINS employees in Quechee, Vt., on June 11, 2014. (<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • At VINS in Quechee, Vt.,  Joshua Detweiler a seasonal educator, weighs a Harris hawk before a demonstration on June 11, 2014. (<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • VINS staff members Chris Collier, left, Joshua Detweiler, center, and Jim Armbruster keep an eye on a rough-legged hawk that flew away from the demonstration it was in at the science center in Quechee, Vt., on June 11, 2014. The hawk was later returned to its enclosure.<br/> (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Quechee — With a new leader at the helm and its 40th anniversary just behind it, the Vermont Institute of Natural Science is looking ahead to the coming decades. Executive director Charlie Rattigan, who joined VINS last month, has been tasked with overseeing VINS’ many programs, as well as tending to its financial health. In the process, the award-winning film producer plans to bring the nonprofit’s work into clearer focus.

To that end, VINS is “re-branding” its major components as “centers” — including the nature center, or physical campus; the center for environmental education; the center for environmental research; and the center for wild birds, now called wildlife services, which includes avian rehabilitation.

“Part of the reason for doing that is to clarify more in the minds of everyone what VINS’ mission is and what it actually does,” said Rattigan, a longtime Woodstock resident.

That emphasis on clarity may also benefit its various fundraising efforts. “People are a bit confused because ‘Vermont’ is in the name,” he said. “They wonder, ‘Is this a state thing?’ ”

The answer is no. Some of VINS’ revenue comes from grants, visitors and programs, but the bulk comes from private donations. It does not receive state or federal funding.

Like most nonprofits, VINS has faced its share of fiscal challenges in recent years. Rattigan’s plan for shoring up the finances includes developing new partnerships with businesses, increasing participation in VINS’ education programs and attracting more visitors to the Quechee campus.

C hances are it won’t be easy.

“It’s a tough time now for all nonprofits,” said P.J. Skehan, executive director of the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce and a former VINS employee. “You’ve got to be creative and think outside the box.”

But Skehan, who oversaw the completion of VINS’ 47-acre Quechee center, said hiring Rattigan was “a great move.”

“I think he has a good pulse on what VINS needs to take it into the future … a good pulse on the area and what it needs, and he seems to be good with people,” Skehan said. “With something like VINS, they need a good people person to lead them.”

Getting Back to Nature

On a recent morning, Rattigan walked past the large, shady enclosures, looking at the raptors that for various reasons are unable to return to the wild. He stopped to admire the rough-legged hawk.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful animal,” he said. As he spoke, the bird called out.

“Oh, thank you very much,” Rattigan said.

He kept walking, and then stopped again when a bald eagle screeched.

“Oh yes, good morning,” he said. “If only we knew what they were saying.”

Rattigan’s interest in birds dates back to his childhood in Rochester, N.Y., where his parents fed the birds and he and his brother became birdwatchers. He later earned a master’s degree in fine art from Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Imaging Arts, and as his experience as an independent filmmaker grew, so did his focus on animals and their habitat.

The beauty and importance of the natural world “is something that needs to be communicated to people,” said Rattigan, who serves on the board of Audubon Vermont.

His first film, designed for middle schoolers, was based on The W eb of Life, a book by John Storer that deeply affected him.

The book, “so clearly and beautifully written and so simple to understand,” Rattigan said, illustrates the relationship between living creatures and the physical environment in which they find themselves, and shows how changing their habitat creates a ripple effect.

“The consequences are easily observed,” certainly when it comes to birds, he said.

He went on to produce films for PBS and National Geographic , including Loons on Golden Pond, Birds of the Backyard and Bird watch, a popular series that focused on natural history and conservation and preservation issues. During his career as a television producer, director and writer, he won a number of awards and was nominated for an Emmy.

John Dolan served as VINS’ president for seven years before stepping down from the $74,000-a-year job last fall to move to Massachusetts, where his wife took a job at Clark University.

VINS t rustee Judith Callens then served as managing executive director before Rattigan was hired. Rattigan declined to say what VINS is paying him, but said it is less than Dolan earned and less than he was offered by VINS to take the job.

Dolan cites Rattigan’s professional experience as one of the reasons he will be “terrific” for the organization.

A lot of what VINS does is provide content to a large public audience, trying to reach as many people as possible with an environmental message, he said.

Rattigan “has a background as a naturalist and also has done a lot of work in TV and film, and those are excellent industries to come to VINS from,” Dolan said.

Also, he lives in Woodstock, the birthplace of VINS. “I think it’s going to be very beneficial to reconnect the organization with its hometown.”

In 2009, Rattigan co-founded Green Mountain Digital, a Woodstock-based company that publishes digital field guides. There, he managed the creation of the Audubon portfolio, which includes dozens of mobile apps. Rattigan, a senior adviser for the company, also helped create the outdoor recreation app Yonder. When Green Mountain Digital changed its emphasis to Yonder, which features user-generated content, he asked himself what he should do next.

“Getting back into nature was really my motive” for coming to VINS, and being able to work with people who in very tough times for nonprofits have been able to keep its mission and vision alive, he said.

Tough Finances

During its 42-year history, the nonprofit has weathered a move from Woodstock to Quechee, organizational restructuring, staff cuts, a national recession, and a loss of tourist traffic in the months following Tropical Storm Irene.

In the past few years, it’s been chipping away at a deficit connected to the move and a series of financial hits, including the recession and Irene. In 2010, VINS’ expenses exceeded revenues by $416,000; in 2012, the shortfall was $141,264, according to tax documents.

“We became very focused on cost control, making sure that every dollar was used to maximum effect,” and financial pressures meant they had to keep the workforce small, Dolan said. “There is no doubt that the staff over the last four or five years has really worked hard, in part because there were so few of them to do the things VINS does, but they came through tremendously.”

During the same period, VINS won new grants and brought in new donors, and revenue increased by about $168,000.

“It wasn’t anything Earth-shattering, but we improved on those parts of our financial picture,” he said. “I think Charlie is going to take that to a new level.”

Just a few months into the fiscal year, VINS officials are encouraged, but not yet totally satisfied, by the institution’s financial situation, Rattigan said.

The budget for this fiscal year, created before he arrived, is more realistic in terms of the anticipated visitors, grants and major donor support, he said. “We’re much closer to a situation where revenue actually exceeds expenses, and that’s our goal.”

New sources of revenue could include the newly rebranded centers, which give people an opportunity to contribute in exchange for naming rights, he said. The center for environmental education, for example, could be named in honor of a foundation or individual, “which will help alleviate some of the financial pressure going forward.”

They will also work on growing VINS’ “great cadre of supporters and donors,” reaching out to prospective new supporters, perhaps going to more companies for support, he said. “You want to find a way where marketing and charity can work together.”

VINS is in the process of paying off the mortgage it took on when it moved from its original location in Woodstock to Quechee in 2004. The project, including developing the land, building the facilities and associated costs, totaled about $7.5 million.

“I would say it was not an easy decision, but I think it’s turned out to be a good one,” Rattigan said of the decision to create the new campus.

“I wouldn’t want to second-guess the people involved in that, but I think their goal was to increase the influence and impact that VINS has, and I think that that has actually happened,” with the location on Route 4 allowing more people to access VINS.

The campus includes a visitor center, administration building, raptor enclosures, exhibit spaces, classrooms and nature trails. Some office space is available in the administration building “for future partners,” said Mary Davidson Graham, assistant executive director, and there is room for growth on the grounds. New housing is in the works for VINS interns and AmeriCorps volunteers, who now live in a house VINS owns across the street from the campus.

The internship program has been growing, and the organization plans to sell the aging house and build a larger, greener building on its grounds to accommodate more people. Designing, planning and building the house is expected to cost $250,000. An online campaign has raised about $2,300 toward the project, and VINS is also seeking grant money and donations, said Tom Warhol, VINS’ grant and press release writer.

Adding Value

People who come to the Quechee Gorge Visitor Center are always looking for things to do and see, and Skehan, the Hartford chamber’s executive director, sends a lot of them to VINS. “People like to go for walks and hikes there, and there’s a lot to learn there. … The people who work there are tremendous.”

But to ensure repeat business, “you have to keep adding value,” such as new exhibits, he said.

Rattigan agrees.

People who live in the area need a reason to come down the driveway — not just once, but again and again throughout the year, he said. VINS’ challenge is to come up with inventive, varied programs and activities, “hands-on fun you’d like to do more than once,” he said. That may include projects that have been conceptualized over the years and put on hold for whatever reason, and other suggestions from staff members, who are “the best judges of what works.”

Since moving to its Quechee site, VINS has attracted about 30,000 visitors a year, and Rattigan thinks that could increase to 40,000. To make that happen, they’ll need to ensure passersby know they are there, he said. The nonprofit is seeking approval to install four large, colorful banners along Route 4, each illustrating an aspect of VINS, including its trails and nature center.

“It really is a full nature center. There are snakes to be seen, frogs to be heard, and turtles,” Rattigan said. And while the warmer months are the busiest, the winter woods have their own stark beauty “and the birds are still here.”

George Clark, who serves on the steering committee of New Hampshire Audubon’s Mascoma Chapter, called VINS a “great resource for the community.”

“From the standpoint of a practicing birder, one of the common things that come up is birds get injured, and there is really no other close facility, especially in Vermont, that can handle such things,” said Clark, who previously taught ornithology at the University of Connecticut. VINS has been involved in all kinds of environmental education programs and camps, and being on Route 4, a main east-west road, VINS is “quite a nice added tourist attraction for the Upper Valley,” he said.

A Fan of Deadlines

On a recent morning, Rattigan, dressed in jeans and a black-and-white checked collared shirt, stopped into a few offices in the administration building. A proponent of “management by walking around,” he spent a few minutes talking with staff members about ongoing projects. He likes to keep meetings focused, and limits them to an hour. “A half hour is even better,” he said with a smile.

He’s also a “fan of deadlines.”

In addition to drawing more visitors, VINS’ goals include expanding its research work, with a focus on how the local effects of climate change are affecting birds and their habitat, Warhol said. It will also work to increase participation in its summer camps and naturalist-in-residence program, which have taken off in the past few years. The naturalist-in-residence program , developed a few years ago, brings VINS educators into schools and preschools. In the past school year, the hands-on, inquiry-based program involved more than 500 students, roughly twice as many as the year before, Warhol said. And they want it to keep growing.

The expansion is something they’d been working toward for a while, and when Rattigan arrived, he tasked the staff with marketing it better and getting more grants and donations, Warhol said. “He is providing that extra push for us.”

Dawn Gieseke, director of Rainbow Playschool in Woodstock, said the naturalist-in-residence program has helped the preschool extend its studies. With help from Hannah Putnam, who manages VINS’ school and adult programs, the preschool received a grant to take part in the program. Putnam visits the school once a month for an hour or so, doing finger puppet shows, songs and activities, and she also brings props, such as skulls, claws or feathers, that the children can touch, Gieseke said.

“She just really has a lovely way with kids,” she said. “I don’t think there was a child who didn’t relate, because she works with animals and nature and science.”

Looking to the work ahead, Rattigan said VINS will be buoyed by its mission — to motivate individuals and communities to care for the environment through education, research and avian wildlife rehabilitation.

“It’s an important mission and recognized to be important,” he said, “and it’s probably more important now, given the challenges of global warming.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.