Feature Article - March 2021
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Making the Most of Public-Private Partnerships

Trends in Park Foundations & Beyond

By Chris Gelbach


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.