Blog: Susan Westhoff

Susan Westhoff is the executive director of the Leslie Science & Nature Center.  She comes to LSNC with fifteen years of non-profit administration background. Thrilled to be returning to the area where she grew up, Susan is excited to reconnect with the Ann Arbor community and all of the amazing cultural and educational partners in the area.

Susan was raised in Canton, Mich., and graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelors of music in trumpet performance. She started out her career working in the Education Department of Ann Arbor's very own University Musical Society.

While the arts remain a passion, she and her husband found themselves spending much of their time outdoors in nature, camping, biking and backpacking. Susan has balanced these two passions by working and volunteering in both the performing arts and environmental education fields. After UMS, she has enjoyed working with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and as executive director of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance and the Trinity Irish Dance Booster Club.

Bringing a deep passion for working with youth, volunteers and cultural partners to her job with Leslie, Susan strives to bring a feeling of community to all her interactions. Susan spends her free time in Ann Arbor with photography, baking and spending time outdoors with her husband, Jim, and their children: Eleanor and Samuel.

Susan Westhoff - Most Recent Posts:

Partnerships Take Flight

On my initial re-entry to Ann Arbor, I was inundated with the many opportunities for families with little children.  Our area is truly blessed with a wealth of museums, play places, stores with story hours and craft times, festivals, fairs and the list just goes on and on.  At first I was quite overwhelmed and immediately thought about how to help Leslie Science & Nature Center stand out and gain visibility. As a geographically hidden spot on the North Campus of U-M, we often hear that people don't know we are there or wish they had found us sooner, so how do I begin to raise the visibility within the sea of competition?

And then I had some meetings with local non-profit executive directors, and I was both surprised and relieved that they had similar philosophies to my own.  Philosophies of collaboration instead of competition.  We can choose to view one another as complementary organizations, working together when it makes sense and supporting one another, or we can view each other as competition and be divisive of our audience.

Partnerships leading to collaboration have proven to be the key to most of the successful programs I have run.  No matter the subject matter, a true collaboration has an immense amount of power both in impact of the program, and in the type and quantity of press and support you will receive.

The key, in the end, is to be sure you are starting your partnership with a true understanding of one another's needs and desired outcomes.  A partnership that does not have clear goals will fall flat based on assumptions. I have found time and time again, if you don't take the time to fully explain and discuss your goals and intentions, or don't know what they are, the other person or organization will create them for you.

At a previous job, I was in the interesting position of entering a partnership mid-stream.  We had committed to starting a community choir, which was a bit off from our core mission as an organization.  The choir was quite successful based on participation, but took a huge amount of resources both in staff time and money.  The community loved the program, but it did not really do much in return for us as an organization.  We did not gain new attendees or audience members; we were not training people to the level that they would join our professional singing chorus; we did not even have consistently great press from our work within this community.  And while we were encouraging music lovers at large, there were never any clear goals set out for how long we would implement the program, what would "Success" look like for the program, and how were both the organization and community benefiting from this partnership.  As you can imagine, entering in the midst of this mire was a challenging position.  In the end, we morphed the choir and tried a few variations on a theme, and eventually it disbanded, leaving several key community members quite disheartened.  If there had been an initial goal of collaborating for a set number of years, or accomplishing a set task, or even an understanding of mutual goals with a timeframe for mutual evaluation...any of these things would have allowed for a much easier dialogue and decision as to the future of that particular project.

The LSNC is currently in the midst of developing several amazing partnerships with some local schools, community groups and hospitals.  As the new executive director, I am thrilled to pull on my past experiences, having learned from both successes and mistakes, to develop very exciting and innovative collaborations with Mott Children's Hospital, the Ann Arbor VA Hospital, the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, and the Ann Arbor District Library, among others.

As an organization, we have quite a long history of healthy and vibrant collaborations, including the partnership that started our raptor program with the River Raisin Raptor Center.  Our initial partnership with the RRRC began when we adopted their education program in 2008.  At that time, RRRC held the permits for birds and handled the initial rehabilitation and training, and we then housed them on site and were able to utilize them for educational programs.  This relationship was wonderful for both organizations, as the founder of RRRC, Dody Wyman, was looking to somewhat retire; and we had both the professional expertise, space and need for such amazing educational animals.  Since then we have continued a wonderful partnership, utilizing Dody's expertise on a regular basis, and slowly taking on increased responsibility for the birds.  We now hold the full permits for our raptors, and have added staff to support an increased demand for their presence at local schools, community events, corporate and sporting events.  In the end, both the LSNC and the River Raisin Raptor Center saw the successful end results they set out to achieve at the start of their collaboration.  And that is the greatest indicator of a successful partnership!

Numbers Aren't Always a Factor of Success

Every job I've ever had has the same challenge in place – how do you measure "success" when your true job is to open minds, create opportunities, and engage people in something they've perhaps never seen/done/experienced before.  On a personal, purely human level, successful programs to me is truly when a person has that "ah ha" moment where they "get it". Whether it's been music, dance, theater, animals, green living, hiking, etc. – if they suddenly understand why it is important or have a new interest in it – that is success, to me.

However, this is not a real measurable phenomenon. Grants, foundations, even those same everyday folks who just "got it" want to see numbers. How many people came to the event, how many people joined as members, how many people donated... Those numbers tell one part of the truth, but never the true impact of an event.

This was on my mind after one particularly successful trail awareness event in Colorado years ago. Trailfest was our biggest event of the year at work. It's an enormous undertaking, and one that we almost cancelled due to the turmoil of some staff turnover and intense drama. However, the staff felt this was critical to make happen, and I am so delighted we did.

To me, this event was by far the biggest success we have ever had in our history. It was successful because of the impact we clearly had on those who participated, it was successful because of the immense interest clearly demonstrated by the increased walk-through from the locals, it was successful because the remaining staff really pulled together despite a lot of stress and quite recent departures of key staff, and it was successful since we (for the first time ever) broke even on the event. Phew! However, the participant numbers were lower than in past years. So how could I convince board members and donors that lower numbers does not equal unsuccessful event

Then, just this past weekend, we had a similar experience at the Leslie Science & Nature Center.  We held our annual (only our 2nd year now) Camp Open House. This is an opportunity for potential and registered youth and their families to come explore and experience a "taste" of our summer camps.  A completely free program, we were disappointed that only about half of the registered families came. However, I still call the day a success.  Why?  I witnessed the relief on parents' faces as they met some of our camp staff.  I saw parents relax and feel comfortable with the idea of their four or five year old attending their very first camp at LSNC this summer.  I felt the reassurance from parents who felt    their child was high energy, as they heard and saw the fun activities we have on site.

This type of familiarity, comfort and appreciation of our organization is priceless.  Our numbers were low, and there are strategic moves we can make to help on that front. But the impact of our event – the emotional, educational, and philosophical impact turns into individual motivation towards action and involvement with our organization.  I have seen this time and time again.

So how do we communicate this type of success to donors, grantors and board members?  How do we reassure new staff that low numbers don't equal failed attempts?  Stories.  Photos. Testimonials. These are my lifeline and that of the organization.  Stories of people transformed by our organization, whose points of view were changed – who started walking regularly, or taking their kids camping because of a one-hour or one-day program – these are the measurements of our success and we see them every single day.

Numbers are fantastic, always, but those stories are worth their weight in gold.

From Trumpet to Trees: Transformation and Evolution

I feel almost as if I'm confessing here that I have a degree in music.  Trumpet performance, to be exact.  It is not exactly what you expect to find as the background for the director of a nature center, and yet I find it is precisely the right fit for me, and for the Leslie Science & Nature Center. I am lucky enough to have spent the last 15 years of my life working for various non-profits, oscillating between the performing arts and the outdoor education field.  Both are areas I care passionately about, and spend a majority of my free time enjoying.  After working at such diverse organizations, I finally realized skills are truly transferable. As long as you have the ability to truly remain open to learning a new subject area, and devote the time and energy to doing so, you can take your management skills almost anywhere.

Not only individuals, but also organizations, go through transformation.  You could call it an evolution, even. There is a beginning, followed by a period (or several periods!) of change, hopefully some calm and steady times, often followed by change again. This transformation keeps the organization relevant and interesting, and I like to think, does the same for me.

The Leslie Science & Nature Center has itself had many layers of transformation. Starting as a component of the city back in the '80s, it was run by the Parks & Rec department until 2007, when it was reorganized to better meet the needs of our larger community in the face of dwindling municipal resources. At that point, a group of passionate individuals decided it would be best to have the organization become a separate 501(c)3 non-profit providing environmental education for children, families, and other individuals by fostering understanding, appreciation, stewardship and respect for the natural world. The city of Ann Arbor provided bridge support to LSNC in its transition, and today LSNC is a sustainable non-profit. In an era in which public access to culture, the natural world and education is ever more strained, the work and mission of our organization is very important and vital to the quality of life of the region.  

In the region, there is not another nonprofit dedicated to environmental and science education with the one-of-a-kind natural site, live animals and innovative programming as the LSNC. We are located in Ann Arbor, on 50 acres of fields, forest, prairie and a pond. The site also houses fifteen birds of prey in open air enclosures; a reptile and small mammal collection; and a green building that incorporates recycled materials, solar energy and composting toilets. Once the home and laboratory to Dr. Eugene and Emily Leslie, LSNC continues to honor and perpetuate the legacy of the Leslies. Reaching all of southeast Michigan from Jackson to Detroit and Toledo to Flint, LSNC serves over 60,000 children and adults every year.  

LSNC offers an array of unique and pedagogically-sound programs to teach science, physics and stewardship principles. Our innovative programming – both onsite and in the classroom – helps learners to master important basic and advanced science principles while developing a connection to the great outdoors through interactive multi-sensory activities. Our programs are led by college-educated, enthusiastic educators committed to seeing young people succeed in school and life. LSNC provides underserved students access to interesting and advanced learning experiences.  

Our work reaches and impacts children from all walks of life, including those with autism, learning disabilities and hearing impairments. While improving the minds of children served is very important to LSNC, our live animals, outdoor exposure and academic enrichment programs also promote wellness and health, from encouraging youth to engage in fitness activities outdoors to helping children think more clearly and concentrate better. Our live raptor programs are especially well-received and popular; these birds of prey, all of whom have permanent injuries that prevent them from being released into the wild, are now used in educational programming. We also educate the general public about protecting and preserving wildlife habitat, and environmental practices such as recycling, composting, and organic gardening.  

Volunteers are a vital part of the LSNC and participate in almost every aspect of the organization.  Volunteers work in the Critter House, assist program coordinators, help out with trail maintenance, garden in our native plant beds, and participate in a variety of special programs. The organization is governed by an independent volunteer board of directors. The board of directors, as a group and as individuals, provide organizational governance, but also take an active role in fundraising, fiscal stewardship, networking, public relations, long-range strategic development, event planning, and board recruitment.  

Leslie Science & Nature Center remains a special place for learning and exploration that is sustained by the community, donors and supporters. Thousands of individuals, annually, visit the Center to connect with nature and strengthen their appreciation for, and understanding of, the complex beauty and magnificence of the natural world.