Managing the Tucson Botanical Gardens takes more than a green thumb, it involves oversight of 25 staff, 14 directors, 600 volunteers and 5,000 members — something the gardens’ executive director Michelle Conklin does passionately and proficiently.
It was for these skills and more she won the Tucson Local Media and Inside Tucson Business Executive Excellence Award for CEO of a large non-profit company.
“This is kind of like the Academy Awards where you really don’t expect to win,” Conklin said onstage. “I even told my husband not to show up, because I did not expect this.”
Inside Tucson Business hosts the annual Executive Excellence Awards to recognize the men and women of the board room who oversee businesses large and small throughout the Greater Tucson Metro Area. Nominations were filed by colleagues, friends and customers in a variety of different categories. This year, the awards were held Nov. 14 at Desert Diamond Casino & Hotel.
As the executive director of the Tucson Botanical Gardens, Conklin is in charge of the entire staff of the park, but also plans rotating exhibits and new improvements to the park. Her nominator for the Executive Excellence Award stated she has a spirit and drive for excellence, and a true passion for the gardens.
“When people visit the Botanical Gardens, they tell me they really do feel a spirit there,” Conklin said.
In her time as executive director, Conklin has added multiple special exhibits and events to the gardens, including the GrowDown! Garden Design Competition, the Butterfly Magic and Orchid Pavilion, and the Savor Food Festival. These and many more led the Canadian Garden Tourism Council to name the Tucson Botanical Gardens as one of the top 10 public gardens in North America to visit.
“I think she has a great combination of gifts,” said John Smith, Conklin’s friend. “She’s unique and tenacious. She doesn’t force anything on anyone. They leave her office thinking it was their idea in the first place.”
Visitor feedback in the park often comments on the improvements of the Tucson Botanical Gardens during her tenure, with one visitor noting her tireless efforts to improving the gardens for the entire Tucson community.
“We’re part of the fabric of the city; we help define what the city is,” Conklin said, speaking about cultural nonprofits. “When I think about a city, I think of the cultural organizations in that city.”
Conklin’s reputation as a leader in her field also led to the Tucson Botanical Gardens being the only other public garden selected to host New York Botanical Gardens’ exhibit on Frida Kahlo.
“I’ve been blessed with a board who’s followed me in taking risks, even in times when taking those risks was particularly scary.” Conklin said. “For us, failure is okay as long as you’re trying something different and new. We have a staff where everyone’s on the same train.”
Conklin joined the Tucson Botanical Gardens in 2002, entering the nonprofit industry with prior experience in sales and administration. This balanced and unique skill set allowed her to employ her motto: “Nonprofit is just an IRS designation, not a management style.”
“There is no difference in running a nonprofit versus a business, other than we apply for grants and are held to a higher standard.” Conklin said.
Her nominator also stated that not only does she incorporate business ethics into her job, but also the ethics of philanthropy.
“It’s not your grandmother’s botanical gardens,” Conklin said. “That’s for sure.”