Yellowstone Forever logo

The logo for Yellowstone Forever.

The nonprofit arm of Yellowstone National Park flexed its philanthropic muscles earlier this fall, raising $1 million over just a few days to leverage another $1 million in matching funds from a larger nonprofit.

Yellowstone Forever bragged about raising that money in a news release this week. The money the group raised is being matched by the National Park Foundation, and the total of $2 million will go toward a revamp of Yellowstone’s North Entrance near Gardiner.

The success spells a positive sign for a nonprofit that was in a tailspin just five months ago.

John Walda, the interim CEO of Yellowstone Forever, said in an interview this week that the nonprofit has found ways to save money by shrinking the organization and reevaluating contracts with vendors for its stores and leases it has on certain buildings. He added that the nonprofit has paid off about $1.8 million of its $4.35 million debt load.

“I’m really pleased with what we’ve been able to do with reduction of the debt and making sure we are the most efficient organization we can be,” Walda said.

Yellowstone Forever formed in 2016 after the merger of the Yellowstone Association and the Yellowstone Park Foundation, two nonprofits that supported Yellowstone National Park.

The new organization found trouble because it spent heavily but never managed to make enough money to balance the budget. A park analysis of the nonprofit’s finances obtained by the Chronicle through a records request showed that spending outstripped revenue in all facets of the organization from 2015 to 2019. For example, in that time, revenue from the Yellowstone Forever bookstores grew by 4% while bookstore operating expenses increased by nearly 14%.

The analysis also reported a massive reduction in the nonprofit’s cash on hand. It also noted the addition of multiple “highly compensated individuals to the payrolls with no commensurate improvement in financial performance.”

This all came to a head over the past couple years. Dozens of employees walked away from the organization, upset with its direction. And the financial picture never improved, leading to a round of layoffs this spring. Critics viewed the organization as top-heavy, in part because of several high-ranking employees who were making six-figure salaries.

In June, the CEO resigned and Walda, who was on the nonprofit’s board, stepped in.

A recovery plan was put in place and Walda said it’s been working well. He said the organization has found $2 million in savings for this year and expects it can save $2.8 million next year.

Part of that savings is a reduction in staffing. Walda did not say how much the organization had shrunk, but said there hadn’t been any layoffs. Instead, the savings have come by not filling vacant jobs.

Paying off part of the debt came through revenue from the park stores, the Yellowstone Forever Institute and other donations, Walda said. He added that they expect to get it to zero “within the next fiscal year.”

The money raised for the north entrance expansion came in during a three-day board meeting in September, and much of the money came from pledges from the board members. Board members also called on other “loyal givers” and made the pitch about doubling their money with a dollar-for-dollar match from the National Park Foundation.

It brings the nonprofit’s total haul for this fiscal year to between $10 million and $11 million. Of that, $3.6 million will go as cash to the park to fund certain projects.

That’s a significant reduction from what it gave to fund park projects last year. Walda said the nonprofit will be in better shape to give more in the future.

“That’s going to grow,” Walda said. “It will be more than $3.6 million.”

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638.