Happy Together

Do More With Less by Partnering With Others

With all the economic upheaval brought on by the pandemic, many recreation, sports and fitness agencies and facilities are dealing with even tighter budgets than they already had. And now—with activity picking up and things getting back to normal—they may have to get creative to continue to provide their services and programs, as well as addressing fundamentals like maintenance, marketing and hiring. One way to get help is by partnering with other organizations, from government agencies and nonprofits to local businesses. According to Recreation Management's 2021 State of the Industry Report, close to 90% of all rec industry respondents said they form these kinds of partnerships.

In Naperville, Ill., thousands of the city's nearly 150,000 residents are served annually through the park district's 1,500-plus recreation, sports, arts and environmental programs and many free seasonal events. And visitors can enjoy more than 130 parks with diverse amenities and facilities. Similar to other parks departments, the district's Corporate Partnership Program provides a funding boost to these events and facilities.


"Our sponsorship and advertising program helps offset the costs of some programming and events," explained Stacey Fontechia, sales and sponsorship manager with the Naperville Park District. "We have a wide array of opportunities for businesses and organizations that are looking to connect with our residents and benefit from (our) strong and reputable brand."

"Our opportunities include athletic field sports banners to event sponsorships," continued Fontechia. "When businesses become event sponsors, those sponsor dollars go to support the event's operations. Additionally, we have advertising opportunities at facilities and for specific programs. In those instances, advertising dollars go toward supporting a specific facility or program."

She added that the majority of their partners are small-to medium-size businesses in Naperville and the surrounding communities. "Based on the type of business, there can be some level of creativity regarding how they activate their sponsorship, particularly when they're onsite at an event. Being at events and connecting with attendees is the most interactive way for our partners to get involved."

What objectives might a business or organization have when it comes to forming these partnerships? "The biggest objective for any business is fit," said Fontechia, "whether that relates to budget, location, event or program theme."

She said that aspect is important to the district as well, and they work with businesses to understand their objectives and customize a package that fits their needs, including achieving their own marketing or sales goals. "Developing a relationship that's beneficial for the sponsor as well as the park district is a primary consideration. Our best partners are the ones that are invested in the relationship, see the value of what (we) bring to the table in terms of exposure, and continue to grow the partnership over the long term."


Many association options exist for businesses in Naperville, including athletic park partner, beach partner, community programs and picnic areas partner, multi-use trails partner and play programs and playgrounds partner. There are athletic sponsorship opportunities for youth sports programs or recreation sponsorships including preschool, dance recitals, summer camps and adult sports leagues. Advertising opportunities include hopscotch pavement decals at facilities and parks, branded golf range targets and banners at their beach and sports fields, as well as digital display ads on monitors in rec centers and ads in the virtual program guide and rec news email blasts. "Each of our digital avenues are solid revenue generators for the district and something that our advertisers continue to value as part of their overall involvement with us."

Sometimes municipalities and parks departments get assistance from independent nonprofit organizations established for the sole purpose of supporting these entities. One such group is Park Pride in Atlanta, whose mission is to "engage communities to activate the power of parks." Incorporated in 1989, their work started with the City of Atlanta, and they now have contracts with four municipalities in the Atlanta area. "Our contracts are each unique," said Rachel Maher, director of communications for Park Pride, "but in general we provide community and capacity building through our Friends of the Park Program, and park improvement support through our Volunteer and Grant Programs. We collaborate closely with both our government partners and the communities we serve to ensure that neighborhood greenspaces meet the needs of residents and help them develop a sense of ownership around their local parks."

Funding through Park Pride's Grant Programs for capital park projects and improvements are awarded to community groups as opposed to their government partners, according to Maher, through a competitive application process. "To date, Park Pride has awarded over $10 million to community groups for park projects, and those dollars have been leveraged to invest millions more from matching dollars and government contributions."

Grants are funded by various foundations, and Maher described how collaboration is key to achieving their ultimate vision of an Atlanta where every neighborhood has access to a great park. "Working closely and building consensus among community, government, nonprofit, business, individual and philanthropic partners is central to our success and impact and helps us achieve more than what would be possible on our own."

Maher pointed out how the pandemic highlighted that urban parks are not just "nice to have" amenities, but critical infrastructure, and important for maintaining mental health, as residents sought to exercise, play, relax or socialize. She stated that in Atlanta, only 72% of residents live within walking distance of a park, which is unacceptable. "As Atlanta continues to grow, there's a risk that there will be a missed opportunity to acquire greenspace while there is a chance."


Therefore, Park Pride advocates for an increase to Atlanta's budget for parks and recreation with a special focus on funding for operations and maintenance of greenspaces, and also for acquisition to bring parks to neighborhoods that lack them. They attend meetings, work with city council members, collaborate with other greenspace nonprofits and host educational roundtables, bringing in experts and researchers from across the country. "The ability to speak to residents, funders, partners and community expectations for increased public funding for parks helps to balance our efforts to engage these same groups in supporting their parks both financially and with their time."

Another helpful partner for cities and parks are the various Friends of the Parks (FOP) groups that exist in communities of all sizes. These groups can be a boon to agencies looking to stretch their resources. Their reasons for forming are many, and they address countless needs, including tasks like planting and maintaining gardens, installing bird houses, maintaining trails and cleaning up trash. But they also take on larger endeavors such as fundraising and building political and financial support for park enhancements, applying for grants and promoting parks at public events.

In Chicago, Friends of the Parks plant and mulch trees; work with the city to replace playgrounds; partner with Chicago Public School teachers to provide environmental education; award grants to Park Advisory Councils and assist them with fundraising; and organize and support nearly 6,000 volunteers annually to improve 140 parks and preserves.

In California, Friends of Camarillo Dog Parks organizes support for three local dog parks, educating, promoting and supporting dog-related challenges and ideas, and often working with the Pleasant Valley Recreation and Park District. They sell branded shirts, hats and other wares during events to help raise funds and awareness, assisting with the installation of benches, water fountains, fencing and signage. And to help raise support, they've formed other partnerships and sponsorships with community organizations and businesses. In fact, in the case of dog parks, for instance, there are many potentially helpful partners besides parks agencies, including veterinarians, attorneys, dog trainers, groomers, kennel clubs, dog rescue groups, humane societies, school groups and pet stores.


In the Atlanta area, Park Pride has partnered with more than 100 Friends of the Park groups to spearhead volunteer projects, community gardens, community-led park redesign and to provide grants for parks. FOP members can also attend workshops, featuring topics such as raising funds for your park, creating a planting plan, grant writing, volunteer leader training and more. And the Park Pride Tool Shed is a free service providing basic landscaping tools and equipment to equip volunteers for park projects.

"Friends of the Park groups are the foundation for positive activity, activation and improvement of a neighborhood park," said Maher, who added that these groups often go beyond what the parks department can accomplish itself. "(These) groups raise community consensus and funds around park improvements and are the drivers behind many capital improvements in parks: new flower beds and community gardens, the installation of exercise equipment, restoration of historic landmarks, new playgrounds, walking tracks and trails, green infrastructure, etc. Friends groups are so important because they are made of individuals from the community, and the community knows best what the community needs in their park."

Rebecca Bowen is executive vice president and chief advancement officer at YMCA, and she said that every Y relies on local partners to get their work done. "Ys partner with school districts to works toward an integrated school/out-of-school time environment for kids; they partner with local hospitals and insurers to ensure that low-income seniors can access health and fitness as part of their care plan; in the pandemic, Ys partnered with community health clinics to address equitable access to the vaccine and vaccine hesitancy, restaurants to help provide food for families facing hunger, and school districts to help provide virtual learning spaces when schools weren't fully open. I could go on and on!"

At the local level, Ys develop their own strategies when it comes to forming partnerships in their communities, and Bowen explained that Y-USA offers training in partnership development as part of their organizational leadership certifications. "Y-USA often brokers national or regional partnerships that touch down in multiple communities. When that happens we convene cohorts of Ys to work together on the partnership and issue."

And she agreed that after such a challenging year, partnerships will be even more critical for organizations and facilities. "Public-private partnerships have been on the rise during the pandemic both locally and nationally. We expect that trend to continue."


Pam Cannell is president and CEO of the nonprofit BoardBuild, which has a mission to strengthen communities through the training and matching of diverse leaders with nonprofit boards. "(Our) business model and strategic plan are designed with a focus on collaboration and partnership."

Cannell has been involved with many nonprofits, and is currently vice president of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA). She's also a founder and board member of the Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition (FWDPC), and she explained that forming partnerships is integral for new organizations—"not only for launch but absolutely necessary for growth, scalability and sustainability."

As an example, she listed some partners they've utilized from a water safety/drowning prevention perspective. "The main takeaway should be, start at the top: Who is the decision-maker?"

Her partial list includes municipal government, starting with the mayor and including city council and directors of park departments and community centers; first responding organizations including fire, EMS, ambulance and police; public health department; area hospitals and associated foundations and auxiliary groups; YMCA; targeted neighborhood associations and churches that support targeted underserved neighborhoods; school districts starting with the superintendent; pool installers and maintenance professionals; fence installers; service organizations including Rotary, Kiwanis and Junior League clubs; national industry organizations such as USA Swimming, NDPA, etc.

Cannell pointed out that every organization and individual within them is a potential advocate and ambassador for your mission. And utilizing organizational, corporate and individual social media accounts is the first step in broadening mission awareness. "Seeking speaking opportunities at service clubs will help broaden and deepen mission awareness through education. Elected officials continually seek opportunities to get in front of their constituencies and appear sympathetic to a good cause; invite them to your next program and seize the opportunity to educate them regarding your mission. Think about how your organization can help a partner and they will in return help your mission."


She also agreed that "Friends of" groups can be advantageous. "Again, critical to mission breadth and depth through the expansion of resources, awareness and community impact."

Founded in 1972, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) creates parks and protects land for people. "Our nation's parks and open spaces bring tremendous value to our communities, and having strong partnerships between the members of those communities, public agencies, nonprofits and private sector is crucial," said I Ling Thompson, senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer at TPL. She said their partnerships are vital to ensure they understand the local vision, culture and aspirations that a community has.

Thompson said their relationships with local parks departments and municipalities are incredibly important to their work, and pointed to their annual ParkScore report, a ranking of the 100 most populous U.S. cities by park system, measuring acreage, amenities, investment, access and, for the first time this year, equity. "Parks departments work closely with TPL to contribute data to that report to help us understand progress and investments made year over year to evaluate potential areas to increase park investments or improvements."

Corporations also help TPL's cause, and Thompson pointed to recent campaigns to install climbing boulders in parks across the country and bring parks to underserved communities as examples, as well as joining the Belonging Begins with Us campaign to make community public spaces more welcoming to immigrant communities. She agreed that since the pandemic, it's clearer that parks are essential to healthy, thriving communities. "Corporations are seeing that they have a role to play in investing in parks locally and nationally, yes with their philanthropy, as well as with their volunteerism and by exposing their consumers to nonprofits that align with their values."

Like TPL, Park Pride is committed to equity and making sure that communities that have historically not received their fair share of investments in greenspace begin to see improvements. In 2020, together with their foundation partners, they changed their grant programs, waiving the matching dollar amount on one-third of their awards for communities in designated Community Development Impact Areas (CDIAs). They also challenged the parks department and other agencies within the City of Atlanta to leverage matching dollars to go beyond that one-third commitment. "This is a splendid example of how partnerships and collaboration make it possible to address some of the city's most serious challenges through a combination of public and private resources," said Maher.

When it comes to enhancing their partnerships, Maher believes that municipalities should develop a dialogue, earn trust and be open to input and feedback, since communities know best what they need in their parks. "An adage we often share with Friends of the Park groups is that those who are told 'no' but hear 'not yet' are those that prevail over time. If government partners are willing to give up some control and to work with communities, nonprofits and funders in a positive and creative manner, there's no limit to what can be achieved."

Cannell summed it up this way: "Organizational narcissism will lead to failure. This is one of the reasons that the average life span of a new nonprofit is two to three years. In a post-pandemic environment, the only way to scalability and sustainability is through partnership. The social sector is addressing massive and complicated issues that require a vast complement of coordinated effort." RM