A Profitable Alliance: Trails Organization, Tuck Students Work Together, Brainstorm Together

By Warren Johnston Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, September 1, 2013

Hanover — On a sunny afternoon last week, six slightly sweaty but promising young business leaders sat on the ground in a pine forest overlooking the Connecticut River, sucked on water bottles and rattled off well-considered ideas for improving the fortunes of an Upper Valley nonprofit.

They came from diverse backgrounds, perspectives and careers — accounting, shipping, energy, venture capital and investing — and from such different places as Korea, Greece, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Hanover. But on this warm afternoon they were working as a team, and as part of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth Allwin Community Outreach Day, and they were providing sound advice for the Upper Valley Trails Alliance.

They also were part of Tuck’s 278 first-year students, working in teams across the Upper Valley as consultants with other nonprofits, helping them sort out a variety of financial, management and marketing questions. The Outreach Day — in its 14th year at Tuck — is designed to:

∎ Introduce the students to the community and allow them to experience issues facing Upper Valley organizations.

∎ Call attention to the important role business leaders play as civic leaders.

∎ Assist nonprofits with a specific issue by using MBA-style knowledge, perspective and approaches.

As a result of the event, some of the students will serve on the boards of the nonprofits as nonvoting members, and the nonprofits can take advantage of the Tuck’s student consulting service and can attend seminars throughout the year, said John Vogel, associate director for the Center for Business and Society.

And the bottom line is that students will learn that giving back to the community is good for business and good for the community, center Director Robert Hansen said last week.

Out on the Mink Brook Trail, the Tuck consulting team practiced the art of managing water and dirt, lessons taught by a master craftsman and the Trails Alliance’s trail program director, John Taylor.

With more than 33 years of land resource management, Taylor knows what he’s doing. He has the demeanor and patience of an educator, which has come in handy in his years of guiding thousands of volunteers in the proper grooming of trails.

“After we put the rocks in there, then cover it up with sticks and leaves. It’s like building a bird’s nest,” Taylor said, as he oversaw the rebuilding of a revetment to ease the impact of downhill water on the trail. “And after a rain, it’ll settle in and look like we’ve never been here.”

That’s a main ingredient in the trail-mending formula, making repairs that don’t leave a footprint and blend into the natural surroundings, he said.

The Norwich-based Trails Alliance, which started as a grassroots effort organized by volunteers in 1999, has about 500 individual, business and organizational members, and has an annual operating budget of $225,000, said the group’s executive director, Russell Hirschler, who has more than 20 years of trail work experience.

About 40 percent of the organization’s revenue comes from memberships with an equal amount from matching foundation grants.

In addition, the organization also contracts with Upper Valley governments, organizations and landowners in 43 towns to build and maintain trails, generating about 15 percent of the budget, Hirschler said. The remainder is raised through such events as the annual Tour de Taste bicycling and eating event.

Since the Trails Alliance maintains about 100 miles of trails over a wide area, the staff of three must rely on volunteers to do the bulk of the work. Volunteers also are critical to the organization’s fundraising effort.

“We are able to leverage our volunteer hours toward our part of federal and state matching grants,” Hirschler said.

Both Vermont and New Hampshire have progressive policies on funding trail creation and maintenance, and federal transportation grants are available. In Vermont, state officials give organizations financial credit toward a match at $8.60 for each volunteer hour. In New Hampshire, it’s $17 an hour, Hirschler said.

“Volunteers are really important to us, not only for getting the work done, but also for our funding,” he said.

On this day, the problem facing the Tuck consultants is how to make the Trails Alliance more visible and better able to attract support from local residents who are 20 to 35 years old.

“There are a huge number of nonprofits here in the Upper Valley, and a lot of them are more socially service-oriented than we are,” Hirschler said.

“Why should anyone give money to us? We’re not saving the whales or lives. We’re not even very visible. We can’t put up signs on the trails that we maintain. Most of the people out hiking don’t know who we are,” he said.

Social organizations are more visible because of what they do, but “we need to get the word out that there is a social and health benefit in what we do,” Taylor said.

“I have a budget for social giving, and I have a budget for recreation. I would give money to you, just like I pay for (lift tickets) to ski,” said Jeph Shaw, who worked with New Energy Partners in Hanover as a senior associate before starting at Tuck. “I would consider it as an obligation for the use of the trails and just part of the money I plan to spend on recreation.”

Although the Alliance has a website, posts on Facebook, blogs and sends out regular email newsletters to members, the organization needs to do more and be more inventive to build enthusiasm among younger hikers, the consultants said.

For example, in Chicago, when Nike opened a new store across from a competitor, the company promoted the store by following 18 women from across the city who were preparing for the city’s marathon. The women had regular posts with tags to their friends and linked to the Nike store. Before long, the campaign caught on, spread across the city and the Internet, and everyone knew about the new Nike store, said Spence Vaughn, who before Tuck was a tax accounting manager with Nuveen Investments in Chicago.

“You could find a group of hikers and do something like Nike did,” Vaughn said.

Having a definitive trail guide also would make the Alliance more visible and let more people in the area know what the organization offers, the group recommended, adding that being more aggressive about asking for money also would help.

“These are great suggestions that we will try to implement,” Hirschler said. “Now, we just have to figure out how to do it.”