Which Program Management Course is Best for YOU?

A few months ago, the Sustaining Biological Infrastructure (SBI) Training Initiative released a brand-new training: Creating a Successful Business Plan.

This 2-day course is for people with a background in program management. Participants get to workshop a specific business plan with the opportunity for a follow-up consultation with their expert instructor. This course builds upon the skills gained through our signature three-day Strategies for Success course, which is focused on providing participants with program management skills, and workshops a pitch and strategic plan. These courses are designed for different experience levels, but without formal training it can be challenging to decide which training to start with.

The SBI team and our expert instructors developed a few short questions to help you better understand what each course offers, and what sort of background qualifies you as prepared to move on to the more advanced class. The easiest way to know you’re ready to move on to the Business Planning course, would be to first take our Strategies for Success course. Participants who sign up for both can access a special discount of their Business Planning course fee (email us to learn more) and can rest easy knowing they’ll be completely prepared for the more advanced class. But if you’re unable to take both courses or feel your skills are too advanced for Strategies for Success, check out these questions:

When thinking about these  yes or no questions, it helps to have a specific project or program goal in mind that you would be working on during the training:

  • Do you feel like you have a good grasp of your project’s finances, what resources you need to maximize your impact, and where and how best to acquire those resources?
  • Does your project have a compelling strategic plan that provides a sound basis for guiding new activities and supporting fund-raising?
  • Can you state your project’s vision, mission and value proposition from memory? Do you and others find them concise and powerful?
  • Does your plan incorporate ways to monitor, document, and communicate success?
  • Do you feel like you fully understand who your stakeholders and users are and what they need?

If you can confidently answer “yes” to all of these questions, you’re probably ready to go straight for Creating a Successful Business Plan. If you answer “no” or feel uncertain on three or more of the questions, take another good look at the ‘Strategies for Success’ course outline and see if you think the tools and skills mentioned seem beneficial to you.  Also look at the items in the “what you will learn and do” column and consider if they would help make your five year plan more effective.

Tell us about your decision! Are you ready to move on to Creating a Successful Business Plan, or will you be joining us at Strategies for Success first?  Sign up for our Training News email list to stay up to date on upcoming courses.

Still unsure? We want you to find the most appropriate training opportunity for your experience-level! Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us to learn more, ask more questions, or seek guidance: sbi@esa.org


Pitching Practice


“So, do you want me to give you my pitch?”

“Yep! This is your chance to practice.”

“Ok. So, I study the housing market of frogs…..”

It was a really great opening. I was immediately intrigued, and everything that came next totally related to me personally.

He went on to describe how everyone thinks carefully when they’re deciding where to live (What school district? What commute? What kind of neighborhood do I want?). He elaborated about how frogs also have to decide where to live, but that his research results show that they don’t always make the best decisions. We went on to discuss habitat fragmentation, habitat management decisions, and modeling.

Picture the two of us at a table, in the midst of a large sectioned-off area set up for 50 people. If you could pan out beyond that, you’d see that we’re actually in a large exhibit hall in an even larger conference center. You can hear the hum of other people talking and see movement all around us. In this situation I’m supposed to be the “teacher” and he the “student.” I’m leading a Career Central session on “Honing your Elevator Pitch” at ESA’s 2019 Annual Meeting, and he’s the only person who came.

Clearly this person doesn’t need much help or advice from me – he has already thought of a creative, relatable, and compelling way to talk about his research! After chatting a bit, I send him on his way with a handout (containing some pitch-related resources), some reminders to tailor language for his audience, and encouragement to practice as much as possible while he’s here at the meeting.

On one hand I’m disheartened – only one person showed up to my session. On the other hand, I’m elated. This student, who studies the housing market of frogs, is an excellent example of a young scientist who acknowledges the power of effective communication and the art of “pitching.”

In our Strategies for Success course, the final session is all about pitching. We do this for a few reasons: first, it gives our participants a chance to practice in a friendly environment; second, it links to all the other skills we teach in the course; and lastly, it’s fun! Participants get to role-play funders and give each other feedback.

You never know when you might be in a random situation and have an opportunity to make a “pitch” and you never know where that pitch might lead! Practice, be prepared, and practice some more. The more you practice, the more natural your delivery will be when you’re in a real pitching situation. This will let you truly convey your passion and enthusiasm about your research and the work you do.

From one imperfect pitch-er to another, I wish you much practice, and much success.

Alumni Spotlight: Drs. Aaron Weiskittel and Brian Roth

Drs. Aaron Weiskittel and Brian Roth work for the University of Maine, Orono. Aaron is the Director for the Center for Research on Sustainable Forests (CRSF), founded in 2006, and Brian is the Program Leader for the Cooperative Forestry Research Unit (CFRU), a core research program of the CRSF, active since 1975. Both have experience working in forest industry and have a desire to see on-the-ground implementation of research, and are thus keenly suited to conducting stakeholder-driven programs unique to the university.

A few years ago, Aaron and Brian found themselves transitioning into leadership roles and being presented the opportunity to make structural changes within their programs.

A few years ago, Aaron and Brian found themselves transitioning into leadership roles and being presented the opportunity to make structural changes within their programs. Not surprisingly, one of the main challenges was lack of financial resources, and how to use those limited funds to maximize value for their stakeholders. In Aaron’s words, “As academics, we aren’t trained to be leaders or organizational strategists. The challenge is to maximize the efficiency of research dollars and do that in a way that appeases the stakeholders. We are aware of the sensitivities and differences between those groups, and we need to find commonalities.” They learned about SBI through a site visit from the Organization of Biological Field Stations, and decided that the course sounded valuable to help navigate their transitioning roles. Aaron noted that in a tight funding environment, “The colleague discount was another incentive to us both coming- that made a difference.”

“The colleague discount was another incentive to us both coming- that made a difference.”

SBI helped them develop the tools and methods to think strategically about leadership, as well as provided them the time and space to focus on personal development.  SBI is unique in that throughout the course, it gives participants the opportunity to do just that- apply tools and methods to their program. “A key element of the course was going through the materials and devoting a good portion of time to doing self exercises. Knowing we can go through a systematic process to evaluate and think about potential changes is critical” Brian says, noting that the course also highlighted communication with stakeholders about business models and the value of research. Brian has found that increased program capacity is a necessity to stay relevant and create a buffer for external events- and SBI has helped him to attract new members, and strengths, to his research cooperative.

SBI helped them develop the tools and methods to think strategically about leadership, as well as provided them the time and space to focus on personal development.

Most recently, Brian revisited the SBI workbook when cooperative members requested a business plan for his proposed idea to build capacity for the program by increasing membership outside of the state of Maine. This presented a challenge- selling that idea to members who liked things the way they were and resisted change for fear of diluting the mission. He used the logic model, did a SWOT analysis, and created a presentation to communicate the strategic decision to concerned stakeholders. “I had to speak their language and be very clear and financially driven. The SWOT analysis took on a whole new meaning when I was actually looking at our strengths and communicating advantages and threats to members both inside and outside of our cooperative.”

“You’ll get more than you expect from it. It’s a unique opportunity to reflect on where your organization is, and where you are within it. It’ll give you the tools to make the right changes, and learn new skills that most of us only get by trial and error.”

Aaron and Brian particularly enjoyed coming to SBI as a team. Being there together motivated them to work on things not only during course hours, but in the evenings before and after dinner. They also found that having two different perspectives made it easier to communicate the value of the course to their colleagues at the University of Maine. “We were on the same page, exposed to the same methodology, and can now speak the same language” says Aaron.

To those interested in taking SBI, Aaron says “You’ll get more than you expect from it. It’s a unique opportunity to reflect on where your organization is, and where you are within it. It’ll give you the tools to make the right changes, and learn new skills that most of us only get by trial and error.” Brian adds, “You aren’t alone! We are all facing similar challenges, and at SBI you can work with a bigger group going through those problems and work with a professional staff that are trained in how to get you the tools that you can use.” Both of them highly recommend SBI and have encouraged fellow colleagues at the University of Maine as well as elsewhere to attend, particularly if it can be done as a team.

Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Katie Kahl and Dr. Adrian Jordaan of Gloucester Marine Station

In 2015, The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, had a pressing decision to make about the Gloucester Marine Station: sell it, or reinvest and repurpose the space. The station played host to several biological research programs over four decades since its opening in the 1970s, but was in need of major infrastructure repair and a new funding model if it was to be successful into the future. When a faculty member received an NSF grant to address those issues, UMass decided to move forward with reinventing the station into an extension outpost and cutting-edge research station. With plans for a new seawater system, dock, office spaces, and lab space- the vision of the new Gloucester Marine Station was starting to take shape.

The station sits on the Gulf of Maine, a region experiencing rapid warming and ecosystem change that are causing sea level rise and shifting fish distributions. These challenges particularly threaten Gloucester because of its strong historical links to fishing and the marine environment. The station can play a role in helping to collect data, understand the changes, disseminate the science and help the local community, and greater society, adapt to those changes. Additionally, an existing relationship with the Division of Marine Fisheries, who co-occupy the space with UMass Amherst and have a number of coordinated projects on key coastal species, help further the mission.

“We hope to strengthen this relationship and expand opportunities to other groups to help solve the critical issues facing the communities of the North Shore,” says station director, Dr. Adrian Jordaan.

Dr. Katherine Kahl came on in 2018 as one of 3 new faculty hires to help re-imagine the project. Located full-time in Gloucester, Katie had spent much of the previous year strengthening ties in a community rich with fishing history- a community that in recent decades has been challenged by increasing fishing regulations, climate change, and not surprisingly- conflict between industry and science-based decisions.

“Because you were running the colleague discount, that made the difference for us. Either of us could have come, but that fact that we were both there together has made a huge difference.”

UMass had beneficially reframed the position from a non-tenured research faculty appointment to a 12-month, non-tenured extension appointment- allowing Katie to continue to focus on partnership development and community support, as well as strategic planning- strengths developed in her prior experience working for The Nature Conservancy.The first task for Adrian, Katie, and the team was to develop a strategic plan for the revitalized marine station. She and Adrian heard about SBI though a contact at UMass and decided that the course sounded valuable to develop skills specific to that planning process.

Katie and Adrian joined us in Fort Collins, Colorado, in October 2018 for SBI. While their focus was on strategic planning, they enjoyed every aspect of the course- from the instructors, to meeting other scientists in similar roles, to the team building aspects. And both agree that having each other there was invaluable. “We were both hearing it, through different lenses, roles, and responsibilities. Having the dedicated time together when we are usually 2.5 hours apart was invaluable.” Katie still finds herself referring to the materials monthly and is finding ways to incorporate aspects of SBI lessons into the environmental leadership course that she now teaches.

One of the biggest takeaways from the course was the connection made with instructor Bill Michener, recently retired Professor and Director of e-Science Initiatives at the University of New Mexico’s University Libraries and Project Director for Data Observation Network for Earth (DataONE). Bill’s instruction led Katie and Adrian to change direction with the strategic planning process, specifically because Bill encouraged them to engage their stakeholders right from the start. After several consulting calls following the course, they were able to identify 20 impactful stakeholders to attend a planning meeting in December, which Bill facilitated. “One of the great benefits of having Bill involved was that we could all play the role of the participants. Having an impartial facilitator was very important,” reflects Adrian.

“SBI has helped us to be time specific about short- and long-term goals, identify what is urgent, and then focus on long term strategies. It’s also helped us to develop the proper metrics to monitor success,” says Katie.

In the months following the meeting, the team at Gloucester Marine Station was able to draft a complete strategic plan. The stakeholder meeting helped develop the four focus points: sustainable fisheries, climate change, blue economy, and coastal resilience- and developing the right education, research, and engagement programs for those areas. This year, the complete strategic draft will be reviewed by stakeholders, University administration, and directors of other New England marine stations.
As the Gloucester Marine Station continues to take shape, Katie reflects often on her position, the rich community that she is a part of, and how SBI helped her team shape the direction of the program.“It’s a dream job! I have all these people that want to see the marine station succeed. It’s a lot of work, but so rewarding. I would wholeheartedly recommend SBI to anyone who is taking on a similar project. It’s been the difference maker in helping us move forward quickly and efficiently.” Katie is also looking forward to our SBI- offshoot- a focused business planning course coming up this fall! To learn more, visit esa.org/sbi.  


SBI Reflections from Fort Collins, CO- October, 2018


Over the past 5 years, our Sustaining Biological Infrastructure program has trained 162 leaders with skills to develop and run successful projects and programs. In October, 2018, we headed to Fort Collins CO with our newest version of the course, and left with great connections, memories, and lessons learned. 

Fort Collins, Colorado, a city known for its vibrant music scene, local breweries, and outdoor enthusiasts, lies at the base of the Rocky Mountains just an hour north of Denver. It also supports a vibrant research community that includes the Unites States Geological Survey’s Fort Collins Science Center. Nestled within the center is the John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis, a scientist driven institution which provides a space for innovation and collaboration between scientists and managers. Having hosted groups working on natural resource management, climate change, and ecosystem services; we knew it would be a great location for our course, which brings together leaders of field stations, research centers, laboratories, and natural history collections.

Scientists leading biological infrastructure projects often lack formal training in accounting, finances, business management, and communication. In a world where funding is highly competitive, stakeholders are often diverse, and marketing is confusing, we strive to equip these scientists with the skills and tools to make their projects more sustainable and successful in the long term. The Ecological Society of America’s 3-day Sustaining Biological Infrastructure (SBI) course does just that: it’s designed to help scientists build these skills in an interactive, engaging, and fun setting—and with meaningful takeaways.

Serving as mentors over the course of the workshop, our instructors bring decades of experience and a wealth of knowledge on topics ranging from accounting, strategic planning, business management, marketing, and communications. Although lecture is part of the learning, the course is also very interactive and is shaped by unique class discussions, breakout groups, and partner work. We create a safe environment to foster the open sharing of ideas, feedback, and constructive criticism that help attendees to grow as part of a community and as individuals.

Our Fort Collins course brought together 9 leaders of programs spanning the United States (and globe!) from Massachusetts to the Marianas Islands – leaders of marine labs, botanical gardens, mountain research stations, and bird conservation research. The diversity in project type, location, and age- with our youngest projects in the early stages of development to our oldest project at 43 years old- allow a broad range of knowledge and experiences to be shared between colleagues. This group aspired to develop sustainable and effective organizational structure, learn effective strategies for funding, and establish financial independence. Identifying specific goals through pre-course surveys helps our instructors tailor the course to each group, and directly address those goals through case studies, business model and analysis activities, and the culminating exercise: developing a pitch. Overall- the experience and connections that were made through lots of laughter,

Following up with SBI alumni is always uplifting, as is hearing stories about the work they have completed using skills developed in the course. From alumni surveys, we have found that 98% gained knowledge and skills that will make a meaningful impact on their project within the next 6-12 months, and 95% will recommend the course to a colleague! However, survey results only tell part of the story, and the anecdotes and ideas that come directly from our alumni are the most motivational for us as we continue planning for the future of SBI.

“The resources–the logic model, the things we’ve learned, everything Lynda had to lecture on, can help me to do my job more effectively. Thinking about and practicing “the pitch” one way or another will help as we move forward to diversifying our support out of government grants and into individual or foundation asks.”

“I am excited to use many of the tools to help support our overall objectives. I plan to utilize the workbook to help facilitate projects for my team and how to better direct our work. I hope to have greater success with grants and pitches using the feedback [received in the course].”

“These are topics I have been wanting to spend time on since I started my job. A 3-day immersion was just what I needed. Having a colleague there was doubly valuable.”

The 3-day Sustaining Biological Infrastructure course happens twice each year, but we also present short versions at various societal meetings and conferences. Are you interested in joining a course or getting involved? Please send an email to Jill and Emily at and visit esa.org/sbi to learn more about the course, including future dates. We’d love to hear from you, and to meet you in the future!