By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Following a long saga of many ups, downs, twists and turns, the American Horticultural Society is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. A sold-out gala with about 240 people was held in September, called “A Great American Garden Party,” which featured dinner, desserts and toasts to the future.
AHS has experienced significant change over the past few years, bringing on three new board members, Amy Golden, Scott Plein and Jane Diamantis, and hiring a new president and CEO, Suzanne Laporte. According to Laporte, who was previously the CEO of D.C.-based nonprofit consulting firm Friends of Compass, both AHS’ future and its century of impact is exciting.
“A hundred years is a long time for an organization to be around and having impact, so we were very happy to celebrate the centennial of the organization,” Laporte said. “ … Many people from the community came [to the gala] to celebrate with us and to just be part of this moment, especially after last year when there was some question of whether we’d still be at River Farm.”
Founded in 1922, AHS’ mission is to educate people about sustainable gardening practices, support gardeners and green spaces and showcase the art of horticulture through programs, awards and publications.
The future of River Farm, AHS’ headquarters and George Washington’s former estate, hung in the air for several years. The AHS board put the 27.6-acre property up for sale in September 2020, but public opposition swiftly followed, with then Gov. Ralph Northam expressing support for keeping River Farm open to the community and many pointing out that selling the property would go against philanthropist Enid Haupt’s $1 million donation that originally allowed AHS to purchase the site.
Eventually, on Sept. 30, 2021, the five board members who supported the sale resigned and the Potomac River-side site was taken off the market. There are currently eight members on the AHS board, but Laporte said the organization is “actively talking to people and recruiting” and hopes to reach 13 board members in total within the next few years.
Since becoming president and CEO in March, Laporte immediately jumped into learning as much as possible about AHS and the surrounding community. She has brought on two new staff members to be part of her leadership team – a chief operating and financial officer and a managing director of property operations. AHS membership reports to the chief operating and financial officer, and the managing director supervises all of River Farm, including the property manager and rentals manager. Laporte is currently trying to fill three other leadership positions.
There is also a new director of marketing and communications. Although AHS already had a newsletter that went out to its 22,000 members, with the new director, it now has a newsletter for the local community about hours of operations, upcoming events and opportunities to meet staff.
“The new director of marketing has already been really helpful, just in helping us increase our communication with the local community, and I hope will ultimately increase our visibility and bring more people to the property to enjoy it,” Laporte said.
AHS will receive funding from the State of Virginia budget for fiscal year 2024, with a $2 million allocation to increase public access at River Farm. The organization is currently working to determine how to spend that money. Laporte said ideas like trails for handicapped visitors and accessible outdoor bathrooms are going into consideration.
In looking at the future of AHS and River Farm, Laporte emphasized that while it’s important to create appeal and accessibility, it’s also important to preserve and maintain safety at the property going forward. In a year or two, fundraising is planned for an AHS endowment and potentially a conservation easement.
“We really have to be able to financially support the property, and so an endowment would help us do that,” Laporte said. “We are also talking as a board about a conservation easement, and we’re thinking about that really carefully because that’s a permanent change for the property and we want to make sure we’re doing it thoughtfully.”
Over the next few years, Laporte said she’d like to see AHS expand in terms of members and programming. One of the new positions she’s looking to fill is the director of national programs, which will work to create more relevant programs for members and those who want to learn more about gardening and horticulture.
“Part of what I’m doing when thinking about bringing in new members is [asking] ‘Do we have programs that will attract them?’ So increasing our impact through programming is really important, and that new hire will help with that,” Laporte said.
Additionally, AHS is in the process of rebranding and will have a brand new website next year that will be a better resource for those interested in gardening, horticulture and the history of River Farm.
“That’s going to take some time and research, but there’s a lot we can do with a more flexible website,” Laporte said.
More than anything, Laporte said that AHS’ primary goal is to promote excellence in horticulture nationwide – and for River Farm to remain the headquarters in which this mission flourishes.
“We’re working on a plan to save River Farm in perpetuity,” Laporte said. “We’re being thoughtful about what the next steps are for preserving River Farm. There’s so much to do right now between River Farm and AHS. I’m really excited about it. There’s just a lot of potential, and it’s a really great moment for the organization.”