Debbie Miller


Almost all businesses, institutions and organizations struggled during the past year. Lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic meant many organizations such as zoos and museums saw fewer people come through their doors, affecting the bottom line.

In addition, donors for those organizations may have dialed back on their gifts due to the economic downturn, or may have reallocated their donations to other causes.

Debbie Miller, vice president of development at Holden Forests & Gardens in Kirtland, said her organization had to adapt to keep profits up during a challenging year.

Holden Forests & Gardens is a combination of the Holden Arboretum in Kirtland and Cleveland Botanical Garden in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood, which Miller describes as a “living museum of plants.”

Holden Forests & Garden has a number of educational programs. It also does research, conservation and environmental stewardship.

When donors make gifts, they are supporting all of those areas. One of those programs is called People for Trees, which focuses on engaging the community to plant 15,000 trees by 2025.

During the pandemic, some foundation donors reallocated their gifts toward pandemic-specific causes, such as health care and social services. But Miller said Holden was able to make up those losses with its board stepping up and giving more. Although Holden Forests & Gardens decreased from an operating standpoint from the previous fiscal year, Miller said it raised more last fiscal year, in 2020, than it did in 2019.

Miller said this was possible by focusing a lot on stewardship and working with the board of directors. In addition to the board increasing its giving, the organization also reached out to its contacts and invited them to make additional gifts. Holden Forests & Gardens also did virtual engagement with existing donors.

“One example is, throughout the fall we had what we call the Donor Missions Series,” Miller said. “We invited our donors about twice a month to participate in different presentations that our staff was making. And they were focused on all the areas of the organization. What’s happening in research? What are we doing in community forestry and conservation? How have our education programs had to pivot during the pandemic?”

Another thing Holden Forests & Garden did was communicate more through email. Because the gardens had to close for a period, it had to make sure it was communicating clearly to members and donors what the protocols and procedures would look like.

“When we reopened the arboretum, we reopened to members first for several weeks,” Miller said. “Because they are members, we wanted to make sure they had access first. Every other change, like the number procedures and how we operated during the pandemic, we had to make sure those were going to work before we reopened to the general public.”

With the world slowly opening back up, Miller said the organization has started to do more direct communication with donors. It also hired a major gift officer who’s focused on building individual relationships.

Holden also started hosting private tours of the facility. One of these tours goes through the Leach Research Station, which is a rhododendron research area. The tours, which have been hosted outdoors for the past month, give visitors a chance to see the different rhododendron plants the organization has either created or done research on over time.

Miller magnified the importance of donors for the cause. The organization has about 16,500 members, all of which are considered to be donors, according to Miller. Right now, Holden Forests & Gardens’ operating gifts are about 28% to 30% of its revenue budget. Endowment income provides nearly another 50% of support for the organization.

“It’s extremely important,” Miller said. “If you look at the history of both organizations, the arboretum is here because of the Holden family and a number of other families. There’s a number of families that really helped us grow. And they were all donors. Either cash donors, land donors or helped create endowments. And their legacy continues.”

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