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Better Together

Partnerships for Program Success

By Rick Dandes

Recent economic conditions have forced many community recreation administrators to be creative when looking for ways to finance new programs or renovation projects. One increasingly popular solution to that challenge is collaborating with like-minded public or private organizations. By doing so, a cash-starved parks and recreation department can gain access to the resources it needs to achieve its goals and provide the programs that are most important to the community.

But how do you find partners in your community?

"There are a broad range of possibilities," said Crystal Ross, assistant director, Dallas Park and Recreation Department.

"We go about it in a couple of different ways," she said. "First, through promoting the opportunity to partner or sponsor a program via our website. When people click on our home page, those opportunities are listed there. Our current hot issues are presented on our website."

Ross also uses the department's social media page, letting people know about new programs, and new initiatives that are occurring within her department, and then stating that there are opportunities to partner with the department to grow or enhance a particular initiative.

Lastly, Ross said, "we take advantage of the free media. There are community talk TV shows that we go on. If we have a new program initiative that we are trying to roll out, we will try to get on their calendar and do a face-to-face interview. Being on TV can help reach a mass audience. Typically, during the interview we'll say that we are searching for partners to help grow or enhance whatever that particular program is."

In Louisville, Ky., Ben Johnson, assistant director of recreation, Louisville Metro Parks and Recreation, said he is always looking for partnership opportunities. "In my role as assistant director I go to many community meetings to represent the department," he said. "I have a wide range of responsibilities and partnership opportunities. Every meeting I go to, or appear on TV, radio or post something on the Internet, I look for ways that we can find partners. It helps that given the facilities I oversee, I can also offer to potential partners space to work in our facilities."

In Louisville, Johnson explained, his department has access to facilities larger than he has staff for. "With the economy and nature of programming," he said, "I know that I am not going to get additional staffing so it ends up being a win-win scenario, getting other individuals or organizations into our facilities. It brings in more traffic, we can work with them; they can work with us. I do everything I can to make that known to small organizations. That we have the properties."

You also should try reaching out to local college or university faculties with partnership opportunities, suggested Jennifer VanSickle, Ed.D., professor, sport management, University of Indianapolis, Ind. "Make it clear that you have opportunities for the school to get involved in a program that will help do things that you wouldn't ordinarily be able to do because you don't have the finances and personnel. It will also give our students a chance to learn."

There are many possibilities when it comes to partnering with government agencies, but in some cases, a public-private partnership can be an ideal solution to a problem.

Establish a relationship with the school, VanSickle said. Look for friends. Go to the school's website and look for staff in the management or recreation management departments.

"Some universities," VanSickle said, have what they call a center for community engagement. Those are all places where people currently in the field can find a partner who might help a school provide an enriched learning experience for their students, but also benefits the community, particularly when a municipality might not have the staff or money to roll out the program.

In Pennsylvania there are seven LDDs, or Local Development Districts, where municipalities can work with experts to find grant money or private partnerships. There are also SEDA-Council of Governments, explained William C. Seigel, executive director, SEDA-Council of Governments, Lewisburg, Pa.

SEDA-Council of Governments is an organization that serves 11 Pennsylvania counties, covering about a fifth of the state. It exists at the request of the county commissioners to provide technical assistance and services to businesses and communities throughout the 11-county region. The region is generally rural with a number of small municipalities that basically have volunteer management, so the COGs work very closely with the citizenry and elected officials to facilitate the development of quality of life improvements.

"Most of the time, potential partners come to us," Seigel said. "Our reputation in this region is such that municipalities and businesses that have a recreational need reach for our assistance. Municipalities will come to us with any number of challenges. It might be to develop recreational facilities. It might be to address the fact that they have a swimming pool that has been a deficit operation for many years and is in need of major improvements. We will actually go in and help educate the citizenry and evaluate options, and unfortunately there have been some instances where the conclusion of the process was the community can't really afford to maintain this facility."

But those are the exceptions, Seigel said. Most of the time, when his organization gets engaged with a community, it is to find ways to leverage funds, using local municipal funds, private funds, maybe bank, Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) funding, contributions from businesses and residents to develop recreational facilities.

Public or Private, or Both?

There are many possibilities when it comes to partnering with government agencies, but in some cases, a public-private partnership can be an ideal solution to a problem. "Right now," Seigel said, "we are working with a municipality where a citizen active in the local bank reached out to us and said there was a problem property located in his community. He asked what could be done to turn it around and make it a gateway or a passive park.

"In that case, this individual agreed to work with the municipal government to raise private money if the municipal government would agree to own the facility. Our role was to use the private funds to first help raise those monies and then educate that individual on how he might do that. And secondly, reach out to a funding stream in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) community partnership program to leverage additional funds. The goal was to undertake a passive park, gateway kind of project in that community."


Seek out grant programs. You can partner with your state if you know where to look. Seigel, for example, was aware of a grant program that allowed him to access state funds to develop safe, modern playgrounds to replace seriously outdated equipment that was less safe.

"In that instance," Seigel said, "we became a conduit for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where we proposed to develop eight parks in eight different communities. We then received the funding from the Commonwealth, and we put together with each community a park design, worked with playground equipment manufacturers, did a bulk purchase where we bid out tractor-trailer loads of safety surface, drainage material and the play apparatus. We oversaw the funding and the installation of these eight parks. This was a great partnership."

There are development organizations all over the country. Also worth looking into: the National Association of Development Organizations (www.nado.org).

In Dallas, Ross said, "We partner with our school districts and try to provide additional green space opportunities where families can play." He added, "We partner with schools in regard to promoting programs, whether it is after-school programs or sports programs, as well as seasonal camps for kids."

The rationale for the partnership is easily explained, she said. "We are targeting similar audiences. Their kids are our kids. Their families are our families."

Most recently in Dallas, their partnerships are really growing on the programmatic side with the medical community, Ross added. "We've had a very successful relationship with Baylor Scott and White Health Center for the last eight years. And very recently we've been partnering with WellMed Charitable Foundation to build a senior center. They have been trying to get into the Dallas market, so for the last couple of years we've partnered with them in growing our senior program and providing senior events."

WellMed reached out to Ross, she said, because her department already had a program dedicated to seniors age 60 and older, and that is their target audience. In 2018 they donated $150,000 in support of senior initiatives. "But they wanted to open a senior center in Dallas, so they selected us as their partner," Ross noted.

The new center, a 25,000-square-foot health and wellness center, which opened in December 2018, offers free programs, with focus on nutrition, fitness and education. It is a repurposed facility, formerly an Office Depot. One side of the space is dedicated to a clinic, and the other side is for recreation.

Ross's team is partnering with WellMed to create the recreational programming.

Johnson, in Louisville, has also partnered with the local school district. "It's been very successful," he said. "The partnership is with Jefferson County Public School District, and they have a permanent office in one of our facilities. They put their resources into remodeling the space, updating the technology, and their permanent staff is located there. There have been zero issues with this. They are putting signage on the building so everybody knows that they are there."

Another successful partnership in Louisville is with an organization called Dare to Care (Food Bank), a local nonprofit agency with a program to feed the hungry and conquer the cycle of need. "We partner with them and they provide hot meals at our community centers for young people, 18 and under, and we do that five days a week," he said.

"It's not a recreation program, but it is vital to our community. There is no cost to the community, no paperwork, no free reduced lunch eligible. All you have to do is get in line and you get a hot meal. We try to give kids some foods that they might not have had before."

Johnson also has forged a relationship with other nonprofits, such as AMPED (The Academy of Music, Production, Education and Development), by turning over a former library space to the organization. "We figured they could get better use out of it than we could," he said. "It's still our building. They just have to maintain it as part of the contracted agreement."

AMPED is a free youth music program that provides a safe environment for Louisville's young minds to explore their creativity through the power of music. AMPED participants can learn songwriting, music composition, recording, engineering, videography, photography and more.

Back to School

Many universities these days have a center for community engagement or centers for service learning, said VanSickle, of the University of Indianapolis. Those centers are designed to bring faculty members and community members together to find projects that are beneficial for students and that give something back to the community.

Sometimes a recreational program will make so much sense to a partner that people will want to work with you to help make it happen.

"Community organizations like YMCAs and parks and recreation can say to the university, 'We have opportunities for you that students can get a learning experience that enriches both.'

"At our university," VanSickle added, "We have done some things with our local parks and recreation where we do programming or fall break camps and spring break camp for low-income kids, and generally the camps are free or low-cost. My students will plan them and put them on under the direction of someone at that park center. Students get to learn about event planning and management, and the park gets a camp run by college students."

Service learning is something that has taken off during the past 10 years, VanSickle said, "Especially at liberal arts schools. Reach out to them; these service centers are all about putting people together to find projects for volunteer opportunities."

Avoid or Overcome Challenges

There can be many bumps in the road when forging a partnership, said Seigel, of SEDA-COG. "One is that communities that are challenged more and more to provide services with less and less funds are always somewhat apprehensive about assuming the long-term responsibility of a recreation facility. That challenge is exacerbated by the fact that the vandalism and mistreatment of public facilities seems to be on the rise. Those two things combine to make a difficult decision sometimes for a municipality."

Any other challenge you run into is finding the funding. If you qualify for a government grant, you often need to identify the match. You'll need to meet the requirements of the grant, and develop the program in such a way that it satisfies both the community need and the funding agency requirements.

Some of the challenges in Dallas, being a large municipality, is that there are steps to becoming a partner, Ross explained. "We have a lot of people who may knock on the door and want to partner with us, but there is a process," she said.

"Partners do need to go through our park and recreation board and, depending upon the term of the partnership, it may need to go to counsel. There is the approval process, which for some entities is discouraging. We are trying to streamline processes so that it is not intimidating to potential partners because we know we can do so much more when we have different agencies and corporations partnering with us. I do think many times the process of becoming a partner can be a bit daunting."

It is not as easy as just handing over $100,000, Ross said. Many things go on behind the scenes that partners may not be aware of.

"We are trying to educate, trying to share information as best we can through our park board members, and through how we advertise, and how we communicate to the public," she said.

Be sure to find a good fit, VanSickle said, "It's about finding the right organization to work with. It is important for someone in the recreation field to outline before they even start looking: What is it that I want to achieve? What do I want to accomplish? And what am I willing to do to make this happen?"

For a good partnership to happen, VanSickle said, "Communication is key. What are the expectations? What program will I deliver as the community partner to the school, for example? And if I am the faculty member what will I deliver, and what do I expect of the partner? What can I bring to the table, and then what are my needs and what will I deliver?

"Those communications have to happen, maybe in the form of a memorandum of understanding to make clear the scope of the project. Having something in writing can help eliminate some misunderstandings. Unfulfilled expectations, I have found, are the biggest barriers to success in this type of partnership."

Johnson believes there is no hurdle that cannot be overcome.

"In my mindset," he said, "there will always be huge challenges, but it just takes people with the right mindset to overcome them. Funding is a major problem for us, and the other one is just being a municipality. We have rules that have to be followed."

Johnson is "one of those folks who push the limit and push the line and challenge the status quo. If there is a challenge, I still look for ways to make it work. Don't start with a negative attitude. I have found that sometimes a recreational program will make so much sense to a partner that people will want to work with you to help make it happen."



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