NOLS: A Sustainable Business Promoting Sustainable Leadership

In 1965, Paul Petzoldt, a climber and mountaineer, saw a gap in the provision of wilderness education. Legend has it that Petzoldt was on a climbing expedition to K2 that failed to reach the summit, and deduced that in spite of the experienced mountaineering team he was with, their “expedition behavior”, or cohesiveness as a team, was sorely lacking. He came back from that trip and founded the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander, WY, with the mission of being “the leading provider of wilderness education.”

Indeed, the curriculum that instructors deliver over a 14-day, 30-day or semester-long course uses the outdoors as its classroom, fully preparing students with the practical outdoor living skills necessary to succeed in their surroundings, with lessons in compass and map-reading, pitching a tent and cooking tasty vittles using a backcountry stove and fry-bake. Moreover, the instructors emphasize leadership principles, weaving these into the expedition experience through formal and non-formal activities and discussions, at the same time, endeavoring to convey that the concepts and methods of communication taught on a NOLS course are applicable and adaptable for front-country living.

But like many activities perceived as ‘non-essential,’ NOLS has suffered during the recession. “The economic downturn has affected us globally as a school, said Don Ford, Director of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) branch in Palmer, AK, where he has been Director for over 20 years. NOLS has experienced this through a “later enrolling pattern, a few cancelled courses for the summer, more uncertainty for Fall and Spring enrollment,” explains Ford. “Last summer in 2009, we sent 45 student groups of about 545 people into the Alaska wilderness, whereas the 2010 summer looks like 48 or 49 courses, and approximately 560 students.”

Leadership at the School is confident that in this challenging time, the NOLS curriculum remains more relevant than ever. Ford adds, “We are enrolling ahead of last year, and added two courses so far.”

The NOLS model, employing over 800 instructors to work in its 14 locations across the globe, including Alaska, Australia, Brasil, India and the Rocky Mountains, has built-in flexibility to weather such a storm. In fact, these part-time field contractors represent 80% of NOLS’ employees, allowing the School to adjust its staffing needs to within a small margin of error. 50% of NOLS’ budget goes to salaries and benefits, but as variable, instead of fixed costs.

John Gookin, the Curriculum & Research Manager at NOLS, is working on his PhD in Sustainable Education. His viewpoint is, “One thing NOLS learned from the economic downturn after 9/11 is that if we are TOO adaptable with not hiring staff during a downturn, we then will have problems finding quality staff during the eventual rebound. So during the current economic recession NOLS committed over a million dollars to overstaffing courses (last) summer when student projections looked gloomy. As it turned out, this provided the opportunity to add more courses at the last minute when enrollment surged just before our peak season started.”

Working at NOLS is not a get-rich scheme in anyone’s minds. The instructors’ starting daily wage is $70/day, including room and board (ie: tent and dehydrated food rations) while on course. Prodeals with outdoor equipment and clothing companies discounting up to 50% off retail prices sweeten the deal. The instructor candidates must pay $4,590 to attend a five-week course designed to teach them the NOLS curriculum. NOLS offers four of these highly competitive ‘Instructor Courses’ (IC) a year in the US, and has not had trouble filling places. The acceptance rates for the 12-15 student ICs is approximately 65% while the successful completion rate is closer to 96%.

While instructors acknowledge the low pay, they say the benefits outweigh the negatives. “I find the lifestyle works for me, explains Andy Weidmann, a NOLS instructor for four years. I appreciate the values and curriculum that we teach at NOLS. I have worked in jobs other than outdoor education and find that the NOLS leadership curriculum, with its emphasis on communication and conflict-negotiation skills, is even more vital in the front country.”

Weidmann, 31 years old, continues, “At this time in my life, it’s not important to me to own a house or settle down. I’m really happy with what I’m doing –providing education and a transformational experience for people who normally don’t get outside as much, so I know I’m making a difference in their lives. And as for me, I work really hard when I’m on course, but I’m getting paid to walk around pristine wilderness for 30 days with an engaging group of young people. I love it.”

These sentiments are echoed by many other instructors. Carrie Sessions, a 25-year old originally from Washington, DC, has worked seasonally for NOLS since 2006. “I believe this is a life-changing event in high school girls’ lives. I think it’s the one time in your life where you have a chance to attain self-confidence and sense of self.”

Perhaps one of the other telling points of NOLS’ broad appeal is how the instructors themselves represent a diversity of ages throughout the two genders.

Doug Lowry, 51 years old and a full-time cranberry farmer in Massachusetts, has worked 1-2 courses per year since 1995. “It’s life-affirming. I get to see beautiful places through the eyes of students that are full of potential. It’s very satisfying work.”

The dedication and expertise of NOLS instructors is not lost on the student participants: Emily Barnet, a NOLS student from New York on a month-long backpacking trip in the Alaskan Talkeetna Mountains, June-July 2008, wrote: “I think that most of the technical skills that I learned on my NOLS trip — such as lighting a Whisperlite stove, setting up a tarp, and heel-planting down a snowy slope — will be with me forever. I think that the interpersonal skills that I acquired are the most useful and most important. I learned that people who are superficially different from me, whom I likely would have dismissed in the “real world,” can provide me with the emotional support that I need and even can teach me a few things about myself.”

Elliot Smith from California, described his NOLS experience thusly: “NOLS was more that just a camping trip, it was a life changing experience. Because of NOLS I have learned what it takes to be a good leader, learned how to analyze and make tough decisions, and learned how to work efficiently and effectively in a group.  The principles and skills I learned from NOLS will help me in school and the professional world.”

Ultimately, the high praise from NOLS alumni, now numbering over 75,000 all over the globe, are what will help see the School through this, and any future storm.

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