Blazing a New Trail
While walking on a local trail, have you ever noticed a new bridge over a stream? Have you seen a series of rocks buried in the ground at an angle, diverting water from the path?
Those improvements were likely made by a volunteer.
Conservation organizations are constantly looking for people to offer their time to help build and maintain trails, whether that means digging new tread, lopping branches or pulling invasive plants. They also need assistance with cleaning up trash, planting trees and documenting species.
Because New England is home to many small land trusts, preserves and nonprofits, a person curious about volunteering might find it difficult knowing where to start. And for small conservation organizations, it can be challenging to recruit volunteers. Enter Nature Groupie, a centralized website that connects volunteers with conservation projects throughout New England.
Nature Groupie began as a collaborative project in 2013 between UNH Extension and The Stewardship Network in the Great Lakes region, then four years later rebranded as Nature Groupie and adopted a playful cursive logo, bright orange color and energetic mascot.
The website connects outdoor enthusiasts with volunteer opportunities at places they love by sharing events that help forests, coastal ecosystems, communities and wildlife. But maintaining a website and facilitating volunteerism requires money and resources, which quickly led to a challenge: finding a way for the Nature Groupie platform to sustain itself.
An Idea Takes Root
Malin Clyde serves as the Extension specialist for community volunteers and project manager (and founder) of Nature Groupie. She championed the rebrand after participating in the UNHInnovation (UNHI) I-Corps™ Site, a National Science Foundation initiative that fosters entrepreneurship on campus.
Jenna Matheny, director of technology transfer, explains, “UNHInnovation helped secure trademark protection for the Nature Groupie brand and provided customer discovery training. Nature Groupie is a great example of how UNHI supports and nurtures new ventures from idea creation to company launch.”
After setting up the website, Clyde strategized with Charlotte Thompson, stewardship outreach program manager for UNH Extension and a member of the Nature Groupie team, on how to grow the brand through merchandising.
To generate startup capital, in fall 2020 the Nature Groupie team launched a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of raising $20,000. Kickstarter is an online platform that helps creative projects get up and running. Members of the public can back campaigns by making financial contributions, but the projects only receive those pledges if the goal is met. After a month of spreading the word through online networks, Nature Groupie exceeded its goal with $22,229 from 273 backers.
Based on their pledge level, individuals who supported Nature Groupie’s Kickstarter campaign received either a T-shirt, long- sleeved shirt, hat, enamel mug, water bottle or a bundled package with multiple items. Top supporters were mailed hand-knitted mittens. The Kickstarter helped launch the official store in August 2021.
Through rebranding and launching a store, Clyde says a major goal has been to expand the network of volunteers and create more inclusive spaces. “We are thinking consciously about making outdoor volunteering more welcoming. Traditionally, volunteers are retirees or land-trust insiders. There are a lot more people who want to give back,” she says.
Nature Groupie was branded specifically with a younger demographic in mind — the twenty-something to thirty-something crowd. The tone is all about having fun and being happy. Nature Groupies are uplifting folks who focus on the positive change one person or one community can make.
The network is now extending beyond New Hampshire through its online store. Residents as far north as Alaska and as far south as Florida pledged to the Kickstarter campaign.
Not everyone who appreciates the outdoors has the time or capacity to volunteer, so purchasing merchandise provides an alternate way to support this work.
Launching an apparel brand comes with its challenges.
Her team had to think critically about the logistics of production. Questions surfaced like, “Who should we buy boxes from? Where will we keep these boxes? How are we going to transport packages to the post office?”
They researched eco-friendly materials, companies with transparent manufacturing practices and brainstormed how all the products could be shipped in a manageable way, using packaging made of 100% recycled materials.
They also had to shift their marketing strategy because of the pandemic. “We were projecting that we were going to meet customers out at fairs, events and music festivals — that we’d get to know our constituents. But because of COVID, we had to shift to an online shop,” says Clyde.
Clyde and Thomspon are joined in their Nature Groupie efforts by Extension and N.H. Sea Grant staff who manage volunteers in natural resources, including Alyson Eberhardt (coastal ecosystems specialist for Extension and N.H. Sea Grant), Emma Tutein (Extension field specialist in natural resources and land conservation), Haley Andreozzi (Extension program manager in wildlife outreach) and Wells Costello (citizen science coordinator for Extension and N.H. Sea Grant).
For the summer of 2021, they also received support from UNH student interns Sydney Gendreau ’22, Julia Matthews ’22 and Olivia Pitta ’22.
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
As Nature Groupie continues to evolve, Clyde and Thompson are focused on operating with a triple bottom line, which means being conscientious about their social, environmental and financial impact.
Thompson, who conducted much of the business research and created the online store, says, “Going through this process has made us think about our story, refined our vision and reinforced the importance of Nature Groupie.”