Name: Mark DesMueles

Age: 56

Title: Executive director

Company: Viles Arboretum, Augusta

About: A 224-acre nature preserve with a sculpture garden on Augusta’s east side.

Website: vilesarboretum.org

 

What’s your biggest challenge right now?

Fundraising. Fundraising for major projects, in particular the educational support center. It’s a post-and-beam barnlike structure. Everything we do is education-related. When we care for our botanical collections, that caring translates into the education experience one might have visiting the collection.

Fundraising is always a challenge, no matter where you are, so it’s not a surprise. Most nonprofit executive directors would say it’s always a challenge, but it also poses many opportunities.

Building our endowment. Having an endowment as a nonprofit provides an element of predictability in terms of operating income. That predictability allows us to pursue other projects going forward rather than spending all of our time in any given year trying to raise our operating budget. It allows for the overall enrichment of our programs and what we offer to the public.

What’s the best advice that anyone has ever given you?

Always be open to new ideas. One never knows where a particular idea may take you. An example here at the arboretum was when we brought sculptures into our landscape. There were a lot of raised eyebrows — what does this have to do with the arboretum, with our mission of nature education and wildlife education and running a nonprofit?

I knew what it had to do with all that, but it had to prove itself. We know have a board fully committed to the landscape. Not only has it brought a number of people to view the art, but it has opened people’s eyes who would never have been here before to see our art. Then they say: What is this place? It’s amazing.

The art has also turned into an excellent way to take our young students — we have literally hundreds who come for educational programming, where nature is not a usual part of their day-to-day routine — the art is eye-catching. It’s been a boon to introducing kids to nature through art — the shapes, the sizes, the texture, the patterns.

There have been a number of individuals over my career who have given me the advice to always be open to new ideas. … To be open to new ideas and suggestions doesn’t mean we have to accept them or act on them.

There are a lot of hidden connections one might not necessarily see until you step back and say: This is interesting. With a little bit of time and creative thinking, you find things that are very connected. You have to be careful about knee-jerk reactions to new ideas.

(Embracing new ideas) is a welcoming approach to take. It’s a great door-opener for a lot of people.

My kids are the ones that always used to say, “Keep and open mind.” If you trace it back, they might have gotten that from me.

How do you foster creativity in yourself or your staff?

Always be willing to say, “Hey, let’s give it a try. It sounds interesting,” rather than being negative from the outset.

Some of the ideas might not pass muster, but others might. You can’t get to the one that might without the other ones.

I try to encourage others to bring ideas to the table. Who knows where it will lead?

Also, we are talking to other colleagues and doing research. We might consider what do successful fundraising events look like for nonprofits in California? Some of the concepts we have developed here, like the plein air approach to painting event or the sculpture symposium or the celebration of native pollinators, those ideas have come from what others across the continent have done successfully and we have adapted them to our circumstances.

What’s your biggest fear?

I find the job market, when we are looking for employees, is not as rich as one might expect it to be in terms of skills and abilities and education and learning.

My fear is that we are not doing a good job in training our up-and-coming students in common sense, reliability, safety, punctuality — some of the basics. It’s challenging when you find a large number of people who you end up interviewing who don’t have those qualities.

When we are looking to hire people, they are summer interns, administrative support — across the board, there are any number of positions. It’s an ever-present challenge.

I communicate with other nonprofits, and it’s the same.

Is cybersecurity a concern for you?

A disgruntled individual decided to do harm to what we do — I have no idea who or why — by that person deleting our entire membership database.

We had protocols in place, and we were well-prepared.

It was three years ago, and no information was stolen. We confirmed that. It was not a security breach; it was technical vandalism.

We had a backup, and we had it in a safe and secure location, and we were back up and running on a regular basis, so it did no harm to our operation at all.

But it was a surprise that anyone would think about that.

When computers first arrived, it was pretty simple. Not to say it’s a conspiracy, but there are lots of external factors, and in the world we live in, the internet is very different today with the people in various companies mining the system for personal gain and doing it illegally.

(Online security) is a huge time commitment. I probably spend 10 percent of my time dealing with technology issues and determining which services are appropriate for us. And not to mention the cost – now to have a system either troubleshooted or inspected, you are talking about hundreds of dollars for a single visit. A lot of the stuff has become so specialized that what you used to be able to do on your own you no longer can.