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Focus on nonprofits: Montana Natural History Center thrives on science

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Posted at 3:12 PM, Mar 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-09 17:12:34-04

Missoula coexists as a hotbed for nonprofits, but Thurston Elfstrom said it takes a savvy combination of factors to remain successful.

Elfstrom, Montana Natural History Center executive director, said Missoula is one of the highest per capita communities in the U.S. for nonprofit services, based on United States Census data and other research.

He credits resourcefulness, coupled with providing authentic services, as keys to running a successful nonprofit in a town full of viable nonprofits.

“Conclusions from this research indicate that communities like Missoula have such a high per capita to nonprofit ratio, because nonprofits are providing needed services to the community,” he said.

For example, the MNHC mission promotes and cultivates appreciation, understanding and stewardship of nature through education. It connects people of all ages to nature – and seems very successful.

“I think that successful nonprofit’s abilities to survive are directly related to providing needed and desired services combined with a bit of entrepreneurial scrappiness to not only survive, but to thrive.”

Overall, the challenges of running a successful Missoula nonprofit, said Elfstrom, depend upon tight relationship-building – even as a common pool exists for many of the same staff, volunteers and donors.

“I have always believed the way to succeed in a competitive environment is to align yourself with people who share the same goals and create strategies where everyone wins,” he said. “This applies personally, professionally and organizationally. Creating lasting partnerships that are mutually beneficial is a great way to successfully compete for donations, staff, volunteers, etc.”

The Montana Natural History Center, 120 Hickory St., Suite A, is located near Ogren Park, Currents Aquatic Center and close to the Kim Williams Trail.

In 2019, MNHC had what Elfstrom called “a very auspicious year” because it logged record numbers of visitors at 5,000 and program participants, with over 6,000.

Simultaneously, it launched new exhibits and programs.

“From all of this success, two things in particular stand out as very clear highlights: our first STEEM Sisters Camp for sixth-grade girls and our work to improve accessibility in the Center and on our grounds,” he said.

“In both of these efforts, we have received amazing support from various groups in the Missoula community. Some very special partnerships were formed.”

Myriad short-term goals at MNHC include providing exceptional nature-based education, leadership and vision for others who offer science and environmental education, plus solidifying a secure financial foundation for the future.

“A perfect example that addresses all three goals is expanding our out-of-school and summer day-camp programming for children and families in order to meet community demand; engaging great partners to assist, and enriching participant experience,” said Elfstrom.

Long-term goals abound, too – as MNHC expands its reach.

“MNHC is well-positioned to expand our offerings and audience and provide more critical support in helping teach science and stewardship of nature to a broader geographical area. We can also reach more people in the places where we already operate,” he said.

But MNHC will continue to focus on public and private educational partnerships.

“We see our role as that of a critical player, partnering with educators to offer an array of both formal, in-classroom programs as well as out-of-school opportunities to keep kids at all grades interested and invested in STEEM subjects — Science, Technology, Engineering, Environment and Math.

“In so doing, we can also continue our mission to educate and provide mentorship about stewarding nature.”

With five years as director under his belt, Elfstrom previously worked over 10 years as a community volunteer and served on boards, committees and projects.

His experience comes to the fore when he ponders the role of nonprofits in the community.

“Nonprofits are business-like in many respects. There are also some similarities to local government,” he said. “Nonprofits are also very unique enterprises that have volunteerism and service built into their DNA.

Aiming for the ideal mix of stakeholders keeps him motivated.

“Because nonprofits are partnerships at their core, as a leader you have to continually work towards the vision and goals of the organization. You have to stay out of the weeds and develop strategies and initiatives that address the mission.

“When you have the right players; incredible staff, an amazing board of directors, enthusiastic volunteers, and supportive members, it makes the job of leadership much easier.”

Founded in 1991, MNHC was the brainchild of a group of educators who were involved in various efforts to educate both kids and adults about the natural history of western Montana. They combined their efforts to create one environmental education organization.

MNHC programming encompasses summer camps, kids’ activities, Visiting Naturalist in the Schools, Master Naturalist certification courses, Field Days, evening programs, “Field Notes” on Montana Public Radio, museum tours and exhibits of flora, fauna and ecology.

It’s not easy maintaining overall leadership while keeping a nonprofit flourishing and afloat. Elfstrom exudes a contagious enthusiasm.

“I have always been very passionate and felt very fortunate to have joined MNHC in the chief role,” he said. “But my leadership role, like any other, comes with immense responsibility and accountability.

“In the final analysis, you have to put the organization’s needs first. When a leader can do this, put the needs of the organization first, it becomes much easier to do great work.”