Morton Arboretum plans 'global search' for new leader

The Morton Arboretum has hired a recruiting firm to help find a successor to President and CEO Gerard Donnelly - a towering figure who planted deep roots at the tree museum in Lisle.

Donnelly plans to retire in September 2022 after more than three decades at the helm. He'll officially step down during a yearlong celebration of the arboretum's centennial anniversary.

The arboretum's board of trustees has created a leadership transition committee to focus on the search for the next leader. The board also has retained Koya Partners, an executive recruiting firm with Chicago offices.

"We will conduct a global search as we seek to find an individual with the right combination of abilities and traits to lead the arboretum into our second century," board chairman Stephen Van Arsdell said.

Donnelly took the reins of a more inward-facing organization in 1990. But he recognized the assets of the arboretum, Van Arsdell said, namely, its more than 1,700 tree-filled acres and a dedicated scientific staff.

"Gerry's legacy at the Arboretum is one of extraordinary strategic vision and accomplishment," Van Arsdell said.

Early on, Donnelly sought more aggressive marketing, new events and collaborations to advance tree science and conservation. With his background in botany and forest ecology, Donnelly said he faced a "learning curve" raising money for the arboretum.

"There really wasn't a professional fundraising program in place at the time, and we needed to build that up," he said.

But Van Arsdell said Donnelly proved adept at fundraising.

"Gerry loves what he does, and it shows," he said. "By describing his vision, Gerry helps others to see through his eyes. And this allows people to see the value of the arboretum, to understand that they can contribute to building a better world by planting and protecting trees."

Donnelly took a "hands-on" role developing projects throughout the arboretum's core. The building spurt brought a new visitors center, a children's garden, restoration of Meadow Lake and a new entrance along Route 53. The arboretum also launched the Center for Tree Science as part of a $63 million capital campaign, drawing more "world-class scientists" to the institution, Van Arsdell said.

"Gerry has done a tremendous job of invigorating the public's interest in nature and the Morton Arboretum and of developing the philanthropic support necessary to facilitate the expansion of the Arboretum's operations on all fronts," Van Arsdell said.

Donnelly is still writing his legacy with the ongoing construction of the "Grand Garden," a new focal point set to open next September for the arboretum's 100th year.

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