In early 2015, the Virginia-based Fairfax County Park Foundation (FCPF) Board of Directors inquired if there were established norms in the park and recreation industry concerning required donations from board members, the funding source of foundation staff and membership programs. Unfortunately, they found no centralized source of information about park foundations, so answering these questions was more challenging than expected.
Stepping up to fill the informational void, FCPF staff performed an in-depth electronic literature search and conducted telephone interviews with NRPA staff, the executive director of the National Association of Park District Foundations (NAPDF), a fellow of the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration (AAPRA) and numerous park foundation executive directors. Following is an overview of the results of that work.
Research found no industry-wide best practices, benchmarks, mission statements or fundraising activities for park foundations. None of the contacts even had a consolidated list of park foundations, nor did they have suggestions for developing a comprehensive list. Comments were offered such as: “If you find any, I would be surprised” and “I’d be interested in your research results.”
Because of the significant absence of information about park foundations, additional research was needed. To ensure that the research would not be solely based on staff opinions and comments of national award winners, efforts were made to identify additional park foundations.
The researcher developed a list of park foundations using the Internal Revenue Service list of exempt organizations, Guidestar USA Inc. and NAPDF’s 390 Facebook friends. The universe was modified by eliminating international park foundations; national, state or special-interest park foundations; and entities that were considered too small (less than $800,000 annual contributions and grants) or, on the surface, did not appear to be comparable to FCPF. Seventy-one park foundations were reviewed.
Using GuideStar, income tax returns were obtained for each park foundation in the sample. The park foundation’s year of formation; website information; number of directors, staff and volunteers; annual revenue; staff salaries; total fundraising expenses; and fund balances were gathered and analyzed.
Attempts were made to contact park foundations by telephone or email so that detailed information could be gathered. The park foundation websites or Facebook pages were scanned for noteworthy information to answer the questions posed by FCPF’s board. Park foundation representatives were cooperative, but frequently did not have answers to some of the specific questions being asked. Follow-up contacts were made but not all park foundations responded to all of the questions. While the results are not statistically valid, they provided sufficient information to respond to the initial questions that prompted this research.
Eight of 19 park foundations (42 percent) responded that they require a minimum donation from their directors. The required level of annual donations ranged from $500 to $25,000. Several responders commented, however, that serving as a director involves other resources than making a monetary contribution. Directors have a wide variety of valuable experiences and abilities to offer the park foundation board.
Thirteen of 18 park foundations (72 percent) responded that foundation staff salaries were paid using some or all of foundation donations. The park foundation staff ranged from 0 to 508 employees.
Fourteen of 22 park foundations (63 percent) had membership programs. One foundation representative commented that memberships are a good way to show community support and are helpful in responding to grant and sponsorship applications. Memberships also allow for measuring growth and may encourage some donors to give additional funds to move to the next level of membership.
Research disclosed that in 1894, three decades before the Madison, Wisconsin, municipal parks department was created, private citizen members of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association purchased, developed and maintained public lands for all to enjoy. Today, many park and recreation departments receive benefits from relationships with friends groups and park foundations.
In addition to the traditional fundraising role for their park and recreation districts, productive park foundations also conducted some of the following activities:
- Provide financial assistance to people in need so they can benefit from park and recreation programs;
- Promote the social, educational, environmental and cultural life of communities;
- Promote park programs and facilities;
- Use the experience and facilities of community foundations where appropriate;
- Encourage community involvement and volunteer activities;
- Own, maintain, manage and operate facilities and programs on public spaces;
- Coordinate and leverage the efforts of friends groups volunteers;
- Serve as a fiscal agent for groups working to improve parks;
- Conduct organized opinion campaigns advocating for additional park financing from annual local taxes and park maintenance and development bond funds;
- Monitor park planning and operations for economy, efficiency and equitable treatment; and
- Restore public space, maintain public trees and beautify schools and open space.
Park foundations provide different types of services in support of their park districts. The research found that the level of contributions and grants were larger when park foundations provide fiduciary services for support and friends groups, mobilize volunteers, offer grants, promote or operate events, publish a list of needs, or provide advocacy and coalition services. The expanded roles create synergy resulting in improved park maintenance, greater taxpayer support per resident and an enhanced national reputation regarding the quality of community parks.
In order to have forward momentum, park foundation leaders need to periodically review their organizational structure, mission and use of resources. With a good measure of creativity and a committed board of directors and staff, park foundations have unlimited opportunities to help improve and support the activities of nearby park agencies and cultivate greater recreational opportunities for the communities they serve.
Howard R. Albers is a Research and Communications Volunteer with the Fairfax County Park Foundation.