Educational Institutions

National Outdoor Leadership School

  • Lander, WY

Mission Statement

To be the leading source and teacher of wilderness skills and leadership that serve people and the environment.

Main Programs

  1. Wilderness Education

service areas


Self-reported by organization

ruling year


chief executive

Mr. John Gans

Self-reported by organization


Education, Leadership, Outdoor, Wilderness, Expedition, Experiential

Self-reported by organization

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Also Known As



Cause Area (NTEE Code)

Educational Services and Schools - Other (B90)

Youth Development Programs (O50)

Environmental Education and Outdoor Survival Programs (C60)

IRS Filing Requirement

This organization is required to file an IRS Form 990 or 990-EZ.

Programs + Results

How does this organization make a difference?

Impact statement

We believe positive, ethical leaders change the world. Based on this belief, NOLS has, over the last 46 years, become the leader in wilderness education. Founded in 1965 by legendary mountaineer Paul Petzoldt, NOLS takes students of all ages on remote wilderness expeditions and teaches them technical outdoor skills, leadership, and environmental ethics.

What NOLS teaches cannot be learned in a traditional classroom or on a city street. It takes practice to learn outdoor skills and time to develop leadership. The backcountry provides the ideal setting for this unique, experiential education—NOLS classrooms are some of the world’s wildest and most awe-inspiring locations. We believe living in untouched places like our classrooms will teach students responsibility for all that surrounds us.


What are the organization's current programs, how do they measure success, and who do the programs serve?

Self-reported by organization

Program 1

Wilderness Education

NOLS was founded in Lander, Wyoming with 100 students, and now operates in 13 areas spread over five continents, and, in 2010, had more than 15,000 students enrolled in NOLS programs worldwide. NOLS has nine branch schools across the globe and supports expeditions of 10 days to a full academic year in length.


NOLS offers opportunities for students from age 14 to over 70, and has alumni from all 50 states and 42 countries. Students learn seven critical skills of leadership on each NOLS course. Through working with a team, students develop and practice communication, self-awareness, tolerance for adversity and uncertainty, expedition behavior, vision and action, judgment and decision-making, and competence. Graduates, equipped with the proper education and skills, have learned to lead others not only in the wilderness, but also in their schools, jobs and communities.


In addition to NOLS' wilderness course offerings, the school also provides custom courses and consulting services for businesses, universities and organizations through NOLS Professional Training. This department designs courses tailored specifically for their clients ranging from native youth on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming to the NASA space shuttle astronaut teams, from Google, Inc. to the United States Naval Academy.


The Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS (WMI) brings yet another dimension to the school. Integrated into NOLS in 1999, WMI teaches wilderness medicine practices and protocols, and certifies students in first aid, first responder, and emergency medical technician training. WMI has trained more than 100,000 students, and actively works with a consortium of wilderness medicine providers to create standard operating procedures for the industry.





Population Served

General Public/Unspecified

Charting Impact

Five powerful questions that require reflection about what really matters - results.

Self-reported by organization

  1. What is the organization aiming to accomplish?
    The NOLS community-its staff, students, trustees, and alumni-shares a commitment to wilderness, education, leadership, safety, community, and excellence. These values define and direct who we are, what we do, and how we do it.

    We define wilderness as a place where nature is dominant and situations and their consequences are real. Living in these conditions, away from the distractions of modern civilization fosters self-reliance, judgment, respect, and a sense of responsibility for our actions. It can also be a profoundly moving experience that leads to inspiration, joy and commitment to an environmental ethic.

    We believe that education should be exciting, fun and challenging. With this in mind, our courses are designed to help people develop and practice the skills they need to live, travel and play safely in the outdoors. On our expeditions, people learn by accepting and meeting real challenges. Our instructors are educators, not guides. They are committed to inspiring students to explore and develop their understanding of wilderness ethics, leadership, teamwork, natural history, and technical skills.

    We believe that leadership is a skill that can be learned and practiced. With students and staff, we encourage the evolution of judgment, personal responsibility, and awareness of group needs-key leadership traits-through practical experience and timely feedback. We value integrity, experience, accountability, and humility in our leaders.

    We accept risk as an integral part of the learning process and of the environments through which we travel. The recognition and management of risk is critical to both the development of leadership and to the safety and health of our students and staff. We believe successful risk management stems from good judgment based on experience, training and knowledge.

    NOLS is an international community composed of talented individuals who care deeply about what they do. We value diversity, integrity and personal responsibility while recognizing that our strength lies in teamwork and commitment to our mission and each other. We appreciate creativity, individuality and passion among our staff and as an institution. We take our jobs seriously and pursue our mission with enthusiasm, and we cherish our sense of humor and our ability to laugh at ourselves.

    We seek excellence in all we do. We recognize that maintaining excellence requires that we question decisions, learn from failures, and celebrate success. We are committed to high quality experiences where every moment and every relationship counts. We evolve and adapt with new technology, changing techniques and differing circumstances.
  2. What are the organization's key strategies for making this happen?
    Since our founding in 1965, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) has provided excellent skills-driven wilderness experiences for our students. NOLS remains mission-focused, even while growing our suite of programs and is a leader among our
    peers and competitors in the education arena.

    The mission of NOLS is to be the leading source and teacher of wilderness skills and leadership that serve people and the environment. The purpose of the NOLS Strategic Plan is to strengthen NOLS over the life of the plan while remaining true to the mission. The five strategic initiatives for the NOLS 2014-2020 Strategic Plan are:

    1. Extend NOLS’ Influence with Improved Marketing
    NOLS is a crucial educational institution with offerings of significant relevance to new and repeat students. NOLS must take well-informed action to reach and educate new, as well as traditional, audiences.

    2. Exceptional Student Experiences
    NOLS experiences are profound and lasting due to the combination of curriculum, pedagogy and field practices, staff excellence, and support systems for program and staff. This combination must be maximized through a continued commitment to excellence in curriculum and teaching, especially in the context of a diversifying and growing student population.

    3. Alumni Engagement
    The NOLS community of graduates and former staff is an incredible opportunity for
    enrollment, advocacy, and philanthropic support. NOLS will expand offerings and
    services to support alumni and engage this group as drivers in expanding the NOLS
    brand and reach.

    4. Planning for the Dynamic Outdoor Classroom
    NOLS will anticipate and prepare for a wide range of natural and human impacts on wilderness classrooms to support growth and adaptability school-wide.

    5. Services and Systems Optimization
    Since our beginning in 1965, we have adapted to internal and external challenges and opportunities. We will continue to refine the NOLS business model to efficiently promote the NOLS mission into the next 50 years while maintaining the fiscal discipline and stewardship that has kept the school on solid financial footing.
  3. What are the organization's capabilities for doing this?
    A central opportunity and challenge of the Vision 2020 strategic plan is a changing external operating environment. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and Pew Trust, in 10 years the majority of high-school- and college-age Americans will be people of color. Likewise, Hispanic buying power is expected to grow by 50 percent in the next five years, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.

    Meanwhile, cutting across race and socioeconomic lines is the trend toward urbanization—80.7 percent of the U.S. population in the 2010 census lived in urban areas, a 12-percent increase since 2000—as well as the trend toward increased “screen time.” According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children ages 8–18 are spending seven or more hours a day in front of various digital devices, and these same children are demonstrating correlated effects such as attention deficit disorders and obesity.

    Our strategic work is to continue our trajectory of mission-focused excellence while also adapting and responding appropriately to relevant changes in our external operating environment. Accordingly, this plan identifies five strategic initiatives that chart the school’s course to 2020. They are responsive to the context described above and balance a commitment to the power of learning in wilderness classrooms with a thoughtful embrace of innovative approaches.
  4. How will they know if they are making progress?
    As we implement this strategic plan, NOLS will tenaciously stay the course in our dedication to such core organizational features as expedition-based courses, meticulous risk management, disciplined financial stewardship, and outstanding instruction in wilderness ethics, leadership, and outdoors skills. The strategic initiatives will both amplify these priorities and complement them by fostering a review of, and if necessary, improvements to our operations and functions that will allow NOLS to strengthen and extend our mission to growing numbers of students.
  5. What have and haven't they accomplished so far?
    On December 31, 2013, NOLS successfully completed the four-year Campaign NOLS: Endowing Our Core Values initiative, raising $21,187,500 toward the endowment and annual fund. In continuing a tradition of excellence, we recognize that financial stability happens over time, not overnight. We also recognize that what we have done to put the right pieces into place over the past four years will foster such stability down the road.

    Since the fall of 2009, the NOLS community has striven to raise a record number of philanthropic dollars. During that time, we not only met, but exceeded three out of the four fiscal years’ annual fund goals; we educated a record number of scholarship students on NOLS field and WMI courses (2,600 since the fall of 2009); we fully funded and completed construction of the Wyss Wilderness Medicine Campus with the generous support of Mr. Hansjörg Wyss; and an internal Staff Steering Committee, committed to creating a culture of giving within NOLS, increased staff participation in philanthropy from 18 percent to just under 40 percent. NOLS staff also raised over $50,000 for an endowed scholarship.

    NOLS also wrapped-up its strategic plan, Expedition 2013, in December, and is rolling out its next seven-year plan. Vision 2020 is focused on improving marketing; providing exceptional student experiences; engaging alumni; access to dynamic outdoor classrooms; and efficiency of services and organizational systems.


Financial information is an important part of gauging the short- and long-term health of the organization.

Fiscal year: Sep 01-Aug 31
Yes, financials were audited by an independent accountant.


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The people, governance practices, and partners that make the organization tick.

National Outdoor Leadership School



Free: Gain immediate access to the following:
  • Address, phone, website and contact information
  • Forms 990 for 2014, 2013 and 2012
  • Board Chair, Board Co-Chair and Board Members
  • Access to the GuideStar Community
Need the ability to download nonprofit data and more advanced search options? Consider a Premium or Pro Search subscription.


Mr. John Gans



Mrs. Kate Gunness Williams

One Percent for the Planet


GuideStar worked with BoardSource, the national leader in nonprofit board leadership and governance, to create this section, which enables organizations and donors to transparently share information about essential board leadership practices. Self-reported by organization



Does the board conduct a formal orientation for new board members and require all board members to sign a written agreement regarding their roles, responsibilities, and expectations?



Has the board conducted a formal, written assessment of the chief executive within the past year?



Have the board and senior staff reviewed the conflict-of-interest policy and completed and signed disclosure statements in the past year?



Does the board ensure an inclusive board member recruitment process that results in diversity of thought and leadership?



Has the board conducted a formal, written self-assessment of its performance within the past three years?