Formerly communications manager at Conyers, Karen Border has lately moved to an office quite different from the modern one she was used to in Clarendon House, Hamilton. As the recently appointed executive director of the Bermuda National Trust (BNT), her office can now be found in its headquarters, the historic Waterville property in Paget. She couldn’t be happier. Surrounded by beautiful Bermudian antiques, she is constantly reminded of the Trust’s mission, which begins: “To protect and promote Bermuda’s unique natural and cultural heritage forever, by acquiring and conserving land, buildings and artefacts….”
The Trust couldn’t be happier either. They needed a director with both the communications skill set and relevant cultural and environmental knowledge necessary for heading such a multi-faceted non-profit organisation. But they also needed someone with a driving passion for conservation and preservation. Karen Border has those assets exactly.
The Trust faces the challenge of recovering from setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Border’s view COVID has had one advantage: “It has highlighted the importance of protecting and cherishing our own little piece of paradise. For more than 12 months most of us were stuck on this little 22 square miles of island and began to see it with different eyes.” But her passion goes way back to her earliest years. Her interest in the BNT itself began in childhood since her parents were founding members and her mother, Anita Wingate, the very first secretary of the Trust under the first executive director, William S. Zuill.
During her childhood, Karen was also developing an interest in cultural history mainly thanks to visits to the home of her great-aunt Laura Pattisson, Elm Lodge, a house in Warwick dating back to the late 1700s. “Auntie Laura had a keen interest in history and geneaology and had researched the history of the house and its people. She kept it very much like a museum, and it was full of beautiful antique cedar furniture and silver.” Border has lived in the same house for many years and feels a special responsibility for it: “In many ways, my husband and I feel we are just the present stewards of the lovely house, furniture and grounds, looking after it for future generations.”
No wonder she feels so at home at Waterville.
As for her awareness of nature—that also goes back to her childhood. As she puts it, “I think this [awareness] may be in my DNA! My entire life from infancy was steeped in conservation of the natural world due to my father’s job as Bermuda’s conservation officer.”
Her father, Dr David Wingate, is a naturalist, conservationist and ornithologist, renowned for his work with cahows and for restoring Nonsuch Island as a living museum. For Karen and her sisters, Janet and Ros, this meant spending their entire childhood summer school holidays on Nonsuch with only the occasional visit to the Old Town of St. George. On Nonsuch, with little electricity and no television, they learned to be self-reliant, enjoying being buried in books while living close to nature. They had plenty of fun swimming, sailing and kayaking but they also had responsibilities: hand-rearing a succession of rescued longtail chicks, for example, and helping with the Nonsuch turtle egg relocation scheme. Once the turtle eggs hatched, Border remembers, “We would each pick a baby turtle ‘champion’ and see whose turtle would make it to the sea first. We would race around the beach trying to ensure the little turtles were not caught up in seaweed or picked off by ghost crabs.”
In addition, every night Karen would collect land crabs to feed to the baby yellow-crowned night herons their father had reintroduced to the island. Living on Nonsuch also meant exposure to scientific expertise since an endless procession of scientists would visit to study “everything from skinks to snails, from turtles to recording humpback whale song off the south shore.” The girls learned much from conversations with them round the dinner table.
Karen acquired a strong interest in biology, but she also discovered her talent for English language, literature and communications. After completing her International Baccalaureate at the United World College of the Atlantic, she went on to receive a BA honours degree in English language and literature from St. Hilda’s Oxford and a diploma in journalism from University College, Cardiff. These qualifications came in useful when she took the position of internal communications manager at Coopers & Lybrand in London, becoming responsible for developing an internal communications strategy as well as for editing and producing internal publications.
Back in Bermuda with her husband and young family in 1994, Border became a freelance writer while also taking maternity cover communications positions at PartnerRe. She also devoted extensive time to voluntary positions relating to the conservation of Bermuda’s natural and cultural heritage. Immediately taking up membership of the BNT in her own right, she subsequently chaired the BNT environmental committee, and served until 2021 as a member of the council. She was also secretary to the Bermuda Audubon Society from 2006 to 2017 and was its president from 2017 to 2021. Additionally, she has been a member of the Buy Back Bermuda managing committee since 2007. She volunteered to take on the role of administrator for its first campaign, a joint initiative between the Audubon Society and the BNT, because “…every visit home during the years I lived in the UK, I would be saddened to see buildings had popped up in areas that had previously been open green space. By the early 2000s, it was apparent that the only way we could be sure to guarantee the protection of open space was to buy land that was under threat of development.”
Border is clear sighted about her strategic goals and the skills and experience she is bringing to the role from her career in communications. “It is critical to communicate to the Bermuda community the full scope of the Trust’s work and the important role it plays in conserving and educating about Bermuda’s heritage.” She recognises historically there has been a perception the BNT is a primarily a white and rich organisation. Changing that perception is high on her list of goals. “Communication is also about listening,” she says. “The Trust needs to be listening to all sections of the community, particularly the black community whose stories have historically not been so well heard, to ensure that we are truly an organisation that represents the heritage of all Bermudians.” That is why the BNT is engaged with the Berkeley Education Society to save Wantley, a Victorian property built on Princess Street by Samuel David Robinson, one of the most prominent black businessmen and community leaders of the 1870s.
In her goal of deepening the Trust’s connections with all sections of the local community, Border hopes to be a hands-on executive director, helping volunteers on outdoor projects whenever possible. “I’m just as at home in shorts and a T-shirt working with nature as I am working at my desk. I think it is essential to get out of the office and connect with volunteers, members and the community using our spaces, as that is where I hear new and inspiring ideas for ways we can better conserve and promote Bermuda’s heritage.”
But she believes her organisation and administrative skills are key. “I think anyone who knows me would describe me as ‘organised and efficient,’ which sounds a bit dull, but will stand me in good stead in this role! The Trust”, she continues, “is an amazingly complex, multi-faceted organisation that encompasses historic homes and museums, nature reserves, archaeology, education programmes, well-researched publications, collections of antique furniture and silver and much more. It is run by a mixture of paid staff and numerous volunteers, some of whom are experts in their field and some of whom are enthusiastic amateurs. It is my job to make sure everyone works well together with the support and resources they need. I want to make sure the internal structure of the organisation is aligned to most effectively deliver on the mission.”
She understands that heading a non-profit organisation rather than a commercial one presents different financial challenges. “The Trust is the responsible steward of 82 properties and 277 acres of land. Unlike a business, we cannot simply divest ourselves of unprofitable sections of our portfolio.” The Trust is mandated to look after the historic buildings and open space they hold “but it is a perpetual struggle to find the money to do so.”
How to ease the struggle? “It is my belief that if we get things right and demonstrate to our members and donors the Trust is an active and vibrant organisation that is delivering value to the community, then we will be able to attract the necessary funding to carry out our work. It will also be important to demonstrate that we are a professional, efficient and sustainable organisation that manages its finances wisely and uses the generous donations we receive appropriately.”
One thing’s for certain: Karen Border will never lose sight of the Trust’s core mission. “I think the reason the BNT is so important is because it can play a crucial role in helping to bind us as one community with a strong sense of who we are as Bermudians, black and white. If you believe an understanding of our shared heritage is important to understand our present and our future, then you will believe in the importance of the National Trust, whose mission is to conserve and promote Bermuda’s natural and cultural heritage for everyone, forever.”