Making the Most of Public-Private Partnerships

Trends in Park Foundations & Beyond

As cash-strapped parks departments struggle to do more with less, partnerships with private organizations can help them succeed in that effort. While direct support and partnerships with companies is one approach, more and more municipalities are also securing additional funding through parks foundations, friends groups, conservancies and other similar entities.


"There's a whole emerging ecosystem of organizations that are forming to help cities meet the needs of offering outdoor recreation and indoor recreation opportunities for their residents," said Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance. "And there really is no one size that fits all. What we're seeing is that the type of organization depends on what the local context is."

These include conservancies in cities that were initially formed to bring large historic parks back to life. "They actually required a special expertise and additional resources that the public agency might not necessarily have had at that point," Nagel said. "That continues today, and a lot of cities are designing and building new parks again that require more resources because they are downtown and require greater programming, greater activation and have a higher level of design."

Another category of park foundation is the citywide park foundation that can provide support, programming and resources to friends groups, conservancies and other entities in a municipality. This type of group can also function as a convener of groups.

Frank Lance, president and CEO of the Baltimore-based foundation Parks and People, notes that the city of Baltimore has a number of different friends groups focused on improving specific parks. "One of the problems we have is that all of these entities have a similar mission for their various parks, but they're working as their own fiefdoms," Lance said. Such a situation can leave well-meaning groups with similar missions competing for the same funding from the state and other sources, whereas a group fulfilling the convener function can help all parties achieve greater success.

"We've been much more effective when we go as a unit," Lance said. "Almost like labor, like a union—when we go and we say, 'Here's the vision we have for all of the city: We all believe in green space, we believe in reducing the heat index, we believe in the positive benefits of trees and clean water and clean air, so together our agenda is …' "

According to Nagel, a survey of citywide park nonprofits by the City Parks Alliance found that their core functions focused on five main areas:

  • Advocacy to promote the importance of parks and the need for increased public investment in things like tax or bond referendums and specific projects that may not be at the top of the city's list but that advance community equity goals.
  • Fundraising efforts that include individual donations, annual and capital campaigns, fee-for-service arrangements, corporate and foundation partnerships and grants, events, board donations and other sources.
  • Community engagement through programs and other fun events that activate parks and through engaging residents in decision-making about park design, improvements and programming.
  • Capacity-building to help friends groups and volunteer networks earn mini-grants, navigate city processes, build skills and knowledge, and act as a fiscal sponsor to help them fundraise without a 501(c)(3).
  • Capital projects and programs that significantly increase the city's capacity to deliver capital projects and programs through fundraising, project implementation, or funding other nonprofits to lead implementation.

At the local level outside of larger cities, Donald Ortale, founding executive director of the National Association of Park Foundations, sees park foundations existing in three categories. "They are either talked about and never started, they're up and running and legal (or think they are) but are struggling for strategy and for relevance, or they exist and they're really, really strong."

Building a Strong Foundation

According to Ortale, a great time to start looking at establishing a park foundation is when your park funding is falling short of what you need to maintain your buildings, operations and programs. But you also need more.

"One of the things I focus on as the right time to start a park foundation is after you've recognized the need for alternative sources of funding but also have an assembly of citizens that have come together to suggest that they would be knowledgeable enough and enthusiastic enough to volunteer their time to serve on the park foundation board," Ortale said. He also recommended that at least three to five people be recruited for this responsibility.


The benefits of creating a park foundation with nonprofit status come in the potential for accessing grants and revenue from alternative funding sources that parks departments are either unable to access or less able to secure.

"While I'm not a CPA, I can tell you with a degree of certainty that when you are a 501(c)(3), you open yourself up to many more opportunities that fall under corporate philanthropy, corporate marketing, family foundations, and also provide for a greater understanding and a greater opportunity to secure individual donations from those people that are looking to give tax-deductible donations," Ortale said.

Nagel noted that when park nonprofits are formed, the first wave of board members are often people who are committed to the mission. "And now we're seeing with the emergence of many of these newer nonprofits is that people are being very mindful of including community voices in those boards," she said.

According to Lance, these voices are also important as credible messengers whose passion and commitment to getting a park or playground built in their neighborhood cannot be denied. "This is someone who will advocate on behalf of that community no matter what's taking place," Lance said. "That voice at a state testimonial, at a legislative hearing — that voice is invaluable. In rec and park, you have to have that voice that no one can say no to that person. So we always start with that community voice."

Nagel noted that over time, the composition of many foundation or parks nonprofit boards shifts to include more people with fundraising capabilities or expertise. "I would imagine that any citywide nonprofit that has been in existence at least a decade is looking at how it can attract some board members who can provide personal resources or connections," Nagel said.

Success With a Project-Based Focus

Lance has seen the most success with funders after first convincing them using passionate community advocates, and then showing them their money is not being spent in vain by putting the money to work on visible projects. "It can be any small little thing—the swing set got replaced, a new slide went in here, that old building is demolished and now it's a pocket park. It could be anything, but people have to see it taking place," Lance said. "Because once you start that, it creates this snowball effect. Other funders start seeing, 'Oh wow, that community really is changing; that group is getting it done; let's invest.'"

Brooke Pardue, president and CEO of the Louisville Parks Foundation, has likewise seen her organization have success with a project-oriented approach. "The reality in the nonprofit world is that it's extraordinarily difficult to raise money for general operating expenses," Pardue said. "People want to give to projects. They want to see where their money is going."

The organization first served mainly as a fiscal agent for things like land acquisition for the parks department. It has since grown, in part because of the overwhelming success of the Louisville Jack O'Lantern Spectacular. Based on a festival that previously was held only in Providence, R.I., the event is held in Louisville's Iroquois Park and draws visitors from around the country to its artistic display of more than 5,000 illuminated carved pumpkins along a 1/3-mile walking trail. (In its eighth year in 2020, the event was drive-thru to protect visitors' health.)

Proceeds from the festival benefit the Louisville Parks Foundation, and the festival's success has given the foundation the funds to cover its operating expenses and focus on attracting donors for specific projects. "One of the first things we did as a foundation after I was hired was to put together a comprehensive strategic plan, and we call our number-one priority 'project through partnership,'" Pardue said.


Whereas previously the foundation would make money from events like the Jack O' Lantern Spectacular and would write checks to the parks department for priority projects, the foundation now identifies park projects, assesses the fundraising viability of the project and finds partners in the community to help the foundation reach that goal.

One recent example is the Breslin Park Skate Park, which features a "Skateable Art" structure designed to be enjoyed by all ages. Partners for the project included members of the skating community in town, who raised more than $20,000 for the project, as well as local businesses surrounding the park. The park foundation also contributed roughly $20,000 of its own money toward a $115,000 shade structure that was part of the park renovation. "We always have skin in the game, as well," Pardue said. "But then we were able to go out and raise the balance."

When it comes to corporate sponsorships, Louisville Parks Foundation garners support in three main ways. One is to ask for them to contribute donations to projects, like Churchill Downs did for recent soccer fields in South Louisville near the racetrack.

Another way is through in-kind contributions, such as the work a local construction company did putting in a nature play area in Russell Lee Park. "The vast majority of the work that construction company did putting this together was pro bono, so that's another way that companies can help," Pardue said.

She also works with the local business community in getting them to sponsor events like Jack O' Lantern Spectacular, including Yellowstone Select Bourbon's sponsorship of an opening-night event for the lantern festival. She urges foundations going after corporate money to think about whether they're going after corporate foundation dollars, corporate donations or their marketing budget. "If it's the marketing budget, what do you have to give them in the way of exposure or advertising out there that they think is a good investment of their marketing dollars?" Pardue said.

To further attract donations for varied project types, Ortale noted that some towns have had success establishing multiple, highly focused foundations. He cited the example of Wheaton, Ill., where three foundations have been formed under the park district umbrella: the Play for All Playground and Garden Foundation, the Cosley Foundation (supporting the Cosley Zoo) and the DuPage County Historical Museum Foundation. The practical advantages of such a setup are in better attracting donor and volunteer support from a wider range of community members.

"It provides an opportunity for people who might be animal lovers but not necessarily users of the park, or historians who are not necessarily animal lovers," Ortale said. "It gives a reason for [more of] those people who are park and rec enthusiasts to be able to support the park and rec environment in their community."

A Strategic Plan

Like the Louisville Parks Foundation, Baltimore's Parks and People organization has a strategic plan, and it's revised every three years to take advantage of new opportunities and serve the local community where support is needed most. "We look at who we are, and we look for our niche," Frank said. "We're not trying to be redundant if there's someone who's already doing it … When we see the opportunity for work to get done and it's needed, then we fill that gap."


This includes identifying opportunities presented by a variety of government initiatives that include funding opportunities relating to parks. "Under the Obama administration's stimulus, there was a ton of money for shovel-ready projects, and in a number of cases that dealt with parks and green space," Franks said. "Well, we went after that. We plan to do the same thing this time with this [coronavirus-related] stimulus package."

The organization also looks at opportunities for program funding from sources that include the EPA, workforce development money, and Chesapeake Bay Trust money. "We literally look at funding opportunities and do needs assessments when we do strategic planning," Lance said. "And we say, if we create a program that does XYZ that's still true to our mission, there's funding for this here. Is this something that we want to do?"

Parks and People has also used this approach, along with its 9-acre LEED Platinum campus, to go after opportunities for EPA environmental education grants. High school students from the city of Baltimore come to the campus to learn about things like water quality, tree quality, organic gardening, pollination and other environmental topics.

"We teach environmental science working in partnership with our local power company, Baltimore Power and Electric. We do two things with that program. For those who want to go on to college to study environmental science, we've prepared them … It's also a feeder program to BG&E. So for those who decide to work in this field, then right out of high school BG&E hires them."

Parks and People has other similar relationships with the Maryland Zoo, located across the street from their campus, and with a local construction company. In addition to giving high schoolers four years of environmental education, they also receive a stipend. "They don't have to choose between flipping burgers at a McDonald's or coming to our program," Lance said.

Maintaining a Mutually Beneficial Relationship

According to experts on the topic, parks foundations are most successful when they're formed in collaboration with the public agency and maintain a strong relationship over time. "I think any of the groups that are successful are formed in collaboration with the public agency," Nagel said. "Because it really is an issue of creating an entity that's going to support the public mission of the parks."

As part of this relationship, Pardue noted that it's important to consider that while a park foundation can help a parks department offer new amenities, it should also plan for and consider the ongoing maintenance requirements of those efforts.

"I think that foundations need to be very aware and cognizant of not putting any additional burdens on parks departments," Pardue said. "What you should be doing is helping to replace sometimes-antiquated amenities that will reduce the amount of maintenance that they will require by the parks department." She noted that in a recent soccer field project, her foundation took great care to install turf fields that require less maintenance and to set up an endowment that will eventually replace that turf when needed.

At the same time, Pardue noted that parks departments can sometimes harness the potential of a park foundation most effectively by supporting their role as a passionate, independent entity. "I would say that the best model is a foundation that is run by community leaders who are passionate and is given autonomy to do the work that parks departments are short-staffed in," Pardue said.

And, according to Lance of Parks and People, the parks department/foundation relationship is just one of those that should be continually nurtured to ensure that parks departments and their dedicated partners achieve all they can for their communities. "Be it our state secretary of housing and community development, my city commissioner for housing and community development, my rec and parks director, the secretary for the department of natural resources—I have all their cell numbers and they all have mine," Lance said. "We talk often because they trust me and I trust them. You have to take time and build relationships. We're not fighting each other. The first thing we say in all of our meetings is what we can do that moves the agenda ahead." RM