Financial Sustainability and the New Normal

September 1, 2012, Department, by Mary Beth Thaman, Paul Gilbert

The realities of the post-recession era need not mean doing less with less.

The field of parks and recreationis in transition. The move from a mostly tax-supported community service to a more self-supporting model has been greatly accelerated during the recession. Today, much of the talk in the field is adjusting to the “new normal” of lower tax-supported funding. While this is a challenge, it does not have to mean doing less with less. It can be the opening of new opportunities to provide value-added services to the community that help financially support the park and recreation facilities and programs that make a community stronger.

This model of greater self-sufficiency has been taught at the NRPA Revenue Development and Management School at Oglebay Park in Wheeling, West Virginia, for 46 years. In 2012, the school experimented with a new session that generated great interest among the 90 participants. The new session was a facilitated discussion in small groups on the key role of the 3 Cs that are critical to success in the new world that we find ourselves in. The 3 Cs, coined by Regent Mary Beth Thaman, Director of Parks and Recreation for Kettering, Ohio, are:

The Customer  

The experience of park and recreation services is determined by the demands of the customer. The economics are simple supply and demand: The agency supplies programs and services demanded by the customer at a price that generates revenue sufficient to support the success of the organization. Basically, the more an agency can penetrate the market with the programs and/or services demanded by the community, the more revenue and or community support will be generated. The key is correct data collection. Then the agency can best understand the parks and recreation needs of the customer. This information will then drive the next C: Core Business.

The Core Business  

Understanding customer demand clearly will assist with prioritizing the core business of an agency. Historically, park and recreation agencies are notorious for creating business models designed to mean all things for all people. This model is doomed if an agency is striving for fi nancial sustainability. An agency must prioritize core business by the demands of the customer and the programs and services that generate the most revenue. Then provide programs and services that are community priorities; for programs and services less in demand, try contracting or partnering. The community is still served, and the agency uses the resources available to support the highest customer demand. The satisfaction of customers in the community will build relationships, and building relationships will foster the third C: Community Advocacy.

Community Advocacy  

A public sector agency has the benefit of using the “power of voices,”—the more an agency connects with the customer, the more fans the agency can acquire. An agency with a satisfied constituency base and market penetration of more than 60 percent can be a powerful voice in front of elected officials. More importantly, the satisfied customer becomes a loyal fan and the voice for public support for park and recreation services. Building advocacy is staying connected to your customer through superior customer service, quality products, and unwavering commitment to the ultimate parks and recreation experience.

The 3 Cs are really a continuum of connection to the community. The successful execution of one C will drive the others. Financial sustainability comes from attention to all three.

Mastering the 3 Cs is will be critical for the growth and development of park and recreation in the environment of the new normal. And with the skills and approaches taught at the NRPA Revenue Development and Management School, every agency can improve its position in its community. However, building a more enterprise-focused agency while building community and political support must go hand in hand with the expanded enterprise operations.

For more information on NRPA’s Revenue Development and Management School held each March, visit:

Mary Beth Thaman is Director of Kettering, Ohio, Parks and Recreation and Paul Gilbert is Executive Director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.