Business Plans for Nature Centers: An Ounce of Planning is Worth a Pound of Cure

by David Catlin 
David Catlin Consulting LLC

Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Directions, the ANCA newsletter. Members can access the full issue via the member portal.


“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” 
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. 
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice. 
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. 
~ Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll 

“As requested, I wrote the business plan to show profitability by Year Three. The key revenue assumption is that an armored car crashes through that wall and spills its contents. . . . And don’t stand where the comet is assumed to strike oil.” 
~ Dilbert, by Scott Adams


Let’s say you decide to leave behind the frustrations and odd hours of the environmental field, and instead determine to open a little roadside shop selling the kaleidoscopes you have fashioned over the years out of old pairs of binoculars.

You talk to a former colleague who has made a similar (and highly successful) transition to owning her own wild foods restaurant, and she says, “You need a business plan.”

Impatient with what you regard as her overly-cautious approach and eager for advice from a true expert, you pick up a book on how to start a retail business. The first thing written there is, “You need a business plan.”

Still fancying yourself a person of action rather than words, and fired with the brilliance of your kaleidoscope idea, you approach the local bank for a start-up loan. The loan officer hands you back your application and says, “You need a business plan.” Maybe you weren’t cut out for the world of commerce after all, you think. You sign back on with a local environmental nonprofit, recruited to lead in the creation of a brand new nature center. And the first item on the to-do list handed to you by the Board chair?

A business plan.

Whether you are planning to develop a new interpretive center or re-evaluating the direction of an existing one, the steps are essentially the same: assess the status of things as they are, outline (or affirm) the strategic direction the center should take, and spell out the details of the steps you’ll need to take to get there. This brief outline, though, focuses on the development of a new center.

Step 1: Gather the Facts 

The first step is to gather the facts that will help you determine the steps that follow. It’s important to conduct an objective analysis and keep an open mind as you gather information about the feasibility of developing a new center or expanding an existing one. The product of this step is a separate document that can go by various names: an “internal and external audit,” an “environmental scan,” a “summary of findings,” or something similar. What you call it doesn’t matter, as long as you begin the planning process with a clear idea of where you already are. 

Here are the contents of a typical example:

I. Resource Assessment

Gather all the relevant information you can find about the resources that might support or limit your efforts to build and run an effective nature center: 

      • Natural resources of your site (flora and fauna, special land- forms, bodies of water, ecological phenomena such as nesting sites and unique habitat types, etc.)
      • Built resources (existing buildings, roads, trails, fences, or other human-created features, including the location and availability of utilities and zoning or easements that may limit your development options) 
      • Environmental problems (determined by a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment and asbestos and lead-paint examinations of existing structures, if appropriate) 
      • Cultural and historical resources (archeological sites, historic structures, etc.) 
      • Human resources (time and talents of staff and volunteers, potential partners, etc.) 
      • Financial resources (committed and potential funds, along with an assessment of potential donors and their interest in the project)

Much of this information will be available from existing public sources. Some will require field work. It may be necessary to hire consultants for some aspects of the work.

II. Market Analysis

Examine the potential markets for the programs and services your center will offer, as well as any items you might want to sell, facilities you might offer for rent, or services you might offer. This step is designed to examine what audiences you expect to attract, the demographics of the community that will be using your center, the needs of the key audiences, and how your center might address those needs. 

      • Overall area demographics 
      • Demographics and preferences of current users (for existing centers or projects that have some history of use at the site) 
      • Description of potential market segments (elementary school classes, local families, youth groups, eco-tourists, landowners, etc.—potential market segments may vary somewhat depending on the project) 
      • Trends in the environmental learning center field (and related fields) that suggest new or altered products and services you might offer.

This process typically incorporates information gathered from public sources, surveys, interviews, focus groups, and your peers in the profession. (Another great reason to attend ANCA Summits!).

A market analysis can be conducted in-house or by paid consultants. Part of the market analysis is an analysis of your competition. Explore your direct and indirect competitors, gathering information about the market segments they serve, the fees they charge, and the degree of success they are experiencing. Use this information to assess their competitive advantage and to determine what niche a new center might serve and how it might overcome any obstacles that other competitors are facing. Direct competitors might include: 

      • Other nature and interpretive centers
      • Similar nonprofit attractions like parks, zoos, museums, and aquaria 
      • Commercial attractions like butterfly houses, show caves, and guide services Indirect competitors may be less obvious, but still draw from the same audiences your center hopes to attract: 
      • Youth sports 
      • After-school programs 
      • Summer day-camps

III. Educational Summit

It is often helpful to include some “pre-planning training,” especially if the people responsible for setting the direction of your center have limited planning experience or a short history with your organization. This session can review important parts of the resource assessment and market analysis and can also help the group set reasonable and shared expectations for the planning to follow.


Step 2: Make the Key Decisions 

Developing a strategic plan with key stakeholders is the most critical factor in ensuring that the center will be successful. 

The work you have done in Step 1 plays an important role in this planning step, because it ensures that everyone who participates has the same baseline information from which to work. The facts that you have gathered so far will help you make critical decisions about the center. Those decisions will include selecting its key programmatic goals and desired outcomes, target audiences, size, and other elements. For example, will this be mostly an eco-tourism destination, or will it serve primarily families and schools in the community? What is the “essence of the place,” and what are the most exciting stories to tell there that will help you reach your intended conservation outcomes? Will the center be modest in size—a “neighborhood” kind of place, or will it be a large citywide attraction? Ideally, these decisions should be made by a group of key stakeholders that could include staff, Board members, representatives from partner organizations, outside experts, and major donors. Getting external facilitation for this step ensures that everyone on your team (including you!) gets to participate fully in the conversation without having to worry about guiding the process. A good facilitator will also keep the discussion on track, help resolve conflicts, and forge a consensus that everyone will support.

I. Mission Statement

What business are you in? The Mission Statement tells people, inside and outside the organization, what your center is all about and why it exists. 

II. A Vision

This is your picture of what your center and its community will look like at some point in the future, as a result of achieving the success you dream about. What has changed? What key milestones have you achieved? How has the center contributed to achieving your mission? What role is your center playing in the community?

III. Core Values

More and more frequently, organizations are identifying their most important shared values as a part of strategic planning—the principles they want to guide all of the choices they make.

IV. SWOT Analysis

Which aspects of the project pose the greatest risks? It’s a good idea to conduct a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis as part of your strategic planning. Describe what steps you will take to avoid or overcome those obstacles.

V. Goals

Identify a few broad targets you want your center to achieve. In addition, a key part of goal-setting is determining what market segments will be the primary ones you strive to serve. Consider audiences for programming, fundraising, and other center activities and how each will contribute to your overall goals. Your center won’t have the resources to provide equal support for all audiences, so it’s important to be deliberate about where you focus those resources.

VI. Objectives

Specific, measurable, time-limited outcomes of your efforts, statements derived from the goals. These should cover the period of the business plan, generally three years. 

VII. A Theme

A central message that should be expressed in a single sentence. If a significant percentage of the visitors you expect at your center will experience the place on their own rather than as participants in educational programs, having a central message expressed through the exhibits, trail signs, brochures, and other interpretation becomes essential. The theme should answer the question, “What is important about this place?”

VIII. An Evaluation Process

How will you measure the success you achieve? What will the metrics be, and who will be responsible for reviewing your progress and tracking its milestones? The creation of good objectives is a prerequisite to meaningful evaluation.

There may be written reports or other products that document this planning step, but ordinarily the decisions made here become a section in the final business plan.

Step 3: Determine the Strategies & Action Steps 

After establishing the strategic framework of your center, you need to focus on the programming elements and operational issues that will ensure success. These components will include things like the types of educational programming you will want to develop, how you will fund on-going operations, the number of staff you need, the types of buildings you will require, and other key elements. Together, they form the strategies that lead to the accomplishment of the objectives you’ve established. While some of this work may involve select committees that include state or local Board members and community leaders, much of it can be done by staff.

I. Programming Plan

We tend to think of most of the “program” at nature centers as educational, but “programming” is meant here in the broadest sense to describe all the important things that the center will undertake. If a part of your business model will be to grow native plants and make them available to the public, describe that in this section. If you plan to offer a “natural pet cemetery” on the back acreage of your site, describe that in this section. With respect to the center’s educational programming, address questions like these: What kind of staff-led programming will you offer? How many people will you reach? What kind of self-guided interpretation (such as exhibits and self-guided trails) will you provide for visitors? What process will you use to develop the programs and self-guided interpretation? How will you measure the impacts of all you do? 

II. Site Plan

How will the site need to be developed or changed to support your Programming Plan?

III. Building Plan

Will you need to modify an existing building? Build a new one? How big will it need to be? What features will it need to have to support your operation

IV. Marketing Plan

How will the programs and other services you offer be tailored to the audiences you plan to target? How will you promote your Center activities and services to each key audience?

V. Operating Plan

How many staff and volunteers will you require? What will their jobs be? How many hours a week will you operate? 

VI. Financial Plan

How much will the center cost to build and operate, and where will the money come from to pay for all aspects of planning, building, and operating? (This section will include capital, operating, and cash flow budgets.)

VII. Risk Analysis

What are the key risks associated with this project, and what can/will you do to minimize or avoid those risks?

VIII. Appendices

Detailed information like lists, background reports, and similar items should be attached to the Business Plan as appendices rather than included in the body. The “Summary of Findings” should be attached here as one of the appendices.


Step 4: Use the Product

With all of this work completed, what have you got? You’ve got several things: 

  • A detailed roadmap of the path forward 
  • A written record of the consensus you have achieved among your staff, Board, and stakeholders 
  • A sales tool—a document that demonstrates to prospective donors and investors that you have done your homework, and gives them assurance that their dollars will be wisely spent 
  • Critical background information and guidance for the various people you will add to your team in the future—architects, exhibit designers, new staff, etc. 
  • A starting point for altered directions when change occurs, as it inevitably will.

What you’ve got is a business plan!


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