Australia’s much-loved open gardens not-for-profit, Open Gardens Australia is to close down in 2015 after operating for 27 years. OGA’s Board decision has shocked some, while leaving others nodding their heads sadly, but wisely.
Open Gardens Australia (formerly the Australian Open Gardens Scheme and, to many just ‘The Scheme’) was founded in 1987 to spread a love of gardens and gardening by opening gardens to the public, covering the insurance and offering marketing assistance to the garden owners. Garden were listed in the OGA Guidebook, a publication similar to the UK National Garden Scheme’s ‘Yellow Book’. The Guidebook rapidly became indispensable when planning holidays and weekends, as well as the garden magazine editor’s best friend for finding quality gardens to feature.
All of OGA’s suplus funds were passed on from the not-for-profit organisation to community garden grants, targetting schools, hospitals, and groups.
OGA CEO Liz White says:
“Supported by wonderful volunteers and a passionate gardening community, OGA has partnered with garden owners to open almost 20,000 gardens, and raise more than $6 million for charities and local causes….. Though we are sad to bring the OGA story to a close, we are incredibly proud of the contribution we have made in this country”
So what happened?
Open Gardens Australia management has worked hard to try and reinvent the organisation for the 21st century. It’s a very lean organisation, running mostly on volunteer hours and the paid time of a very few – who also regularly end up doing things for love.
I have been involved with OGA for many years, first as garden selector and then as a member of Sydney’s committee. I’m sad that it’s come to this but I was wondering about the inevitability of this several years ago.
1. Increased competition: Even a decade ago, what OGA did was quite unique. Since then, nearly every country town, garden club, community organisation and many charities have taken that model and made ‘opening gardens for money’ their own. We have successful open garden festivals in Bathurst, Griffith, Berry, Bowral, Leura, Galston, Rydal, and most of those are only a short drive from Sydney. Similar competition has grown Australia wide. I’m not saying this is a bad thing as it makes sense for local communities to want to control their own destiny and raise money for local causes. But it’s gradually weakened the national model to the point where there’s only just over half the number of gardens to open this 2014-15 season as there was in 2003-04. Even individuals have also successfully opened their own gardens for various charities, although I wonder if they’ve really investigated the insurance implications of this, as their household policy was never issued with several hundred paying visitors in mind!
2. Paying for information: Although the Guidebook has been developed over the years into an interesting stand-alone publication, I’ve always believed that it’s an inherently flawed business model. Guidebook sales have been falling steadily, just as they have with most print magazines. In the days of the internet, most now assume they’ll be able to find the information they want freely available online. I think there’s a basic problem with a business model that recognises ticket sales to garden visitors/customers as a significant revenue stream but then tells those customers they’ll have to pay to find out where the gardens are. Would you pay nearly $20 for a business’s catalogue? Or would you say, ‘hang on, isn’t it you that’s trying to sell me something??’
3. The unwieldiness of a large volunteer organisation: It’s ironic that one of OGA’s huge strengths – its very big group of dedicated volunteers – has also been part of its downfall. Unintentional of course, but I think it’s true. When people volunteer, they often feel like they have more rights, rather than less, to require things to be done a certain way. This makes for not just inertia but straight out resistance to change, with many people needing to be talked to and persuaded about even small changes. I’m not saying that change for its own sake is good, but the financial situation in OGA has been deteriorating for some time and yet we’ve still had many volunteers refusing to accept necessary changes and even leaving OGA as a result. Many have complained that OGA ‘wasn’t broke’ so why were any ‘fixes’ necessary. The financial documents have told the true story for some time but reading an accounting spread sheet, or a P and L statement isn’t what many think of as a good way to spend their volunteer hours. Again, completely understandable, but it means that the true picture stayed obscured for those volunteers.
4. National inefficiency v local efficiency: You’d think that centralising things like insurance, management and finance would create efficiencies, but I think in OGA’s case, the opposite is true. When local communities or clubs decide to put on a garden opening event, it’s a one-off for the year. People willingly volunteer their time knowing there’s an end to it. When it’s a national organisation managing events all through the year, it’s not possible to run it only by volunteers. So you have to pay staff. OGA has been criticised by some of its volunteers for becoming too ‘top heavy’ with paid staff but my observation is that for what they’ve been expected to do, OGA has run a very lean ship, with employees regularly adding unpaid volunteer time to their paid hours to get things done.
5. OGA is too generalist: the comparative success of OGA’s events like plant fairs, chook open days, or Sydney’s ‘hidden’ festival, indicates that the public in this century is more likely to engage with one-off occasions than a steady trickle of open gardens each weekend. Garden owners choose (mostly) their own opening weekend and this results in a ‘one here, one there’ national program, with no obvious theme or strong geographic grouping. Perhaps it’s a sad indictment of this century that garden visitors require a bit of theatre to make them interested in visiting gardens, but there it is.
So, are people still interested in visiting open gardens? Are we going to lose this as one of our weekend things to do? Personally, I hope not, but in an increasingly high-rise and urbanised society, and one more populated by cultures which are less interested in gardens, the luxury of a suburban garden and pride in its appearance is starting to look like a 20th century anachronism. Maybe the future lies in the SIngapore ‘City in a Garden’ model, where taxes pay for public gardens on every spare square metre of land outside buildings, including parks, street verges and even stormwater easements. These are then enjoyed by all, rather than gardens that are private spaces for individuals. Or is that garden heresy?