Barbara Tulipane: Over a Decade in Service to Parks and Recreation

May 8, 2019, Feature, by Richard J. Dolesh

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NRPA’s outgoing CEO shares some parting thoughts.

We must continually reinvent ourselves to meet the needs of the public, because, if we stand still in the midst of change, we will become irrelevant. I have learned that parks are complicated and recreation programs are essential, but, most importantly, I have learned that park professionals make it happen.
— Barbara Tulipane, CAE, NRPA President & CEO, 2008–2019

Barbara Tulipane, CAE, NRPA’s president & chief executive officer, will leave NRPA June 1, 2019, after 11 years of remarkable and productive service to the association. Her time at NRPA has been marked by so many significant changes and milestones that it is difficult to pinpoint which have been the most important.

Barbara took the helm of NRPA in August 2008, at the height of the Great Recession, a time of profound financial turmoil in our nation. In fact, the depth of the effects of the recession had not yet been felt by parks and recreation at that point, but they reverberated in the budgets of park and rec agencies for years to come.

Despite that daunting outlook, NRPA not only returned to financial health under Barbara’s leadership, but grew significantly and exceeded all financial expectations in gaining new revenues, adding new members and becoming the highly respected association that it is today.

Barbara leaves NRPA in far better shape than when she started. From her early days as chief executive officer to president & chief executive officer, her tenure at NRPA has been marked by achievement and success. This is not to say it was a smooth ride the entire time. In fact, when it was a matter of principle and conviction, such as standing up for the rights of all people to have equitable access to park and recreation resources or fighting for full funding for park and recreation services, she welcomed controversy and even thrived on it. Whatever you may say about her time leading NRPA, you will have to agree she fought for parks and recreation every day she was here.

I worked with Barbara during her entire time at NRPA, so it was a privilege to sit down with her for this farewell interview. She is self-deprecating beyond words and very humble when it comes to talking about herself and her accomplishments. Barbara brought much to the success of NRPA over the past 11 years, and we will miss her greatly.

Richard Dolesh: How did you view the state of parks and recreation when you began at NRPA? In your view, what have been the greatest changes since that time?

Barbara Tulipane: When I look back, I think I had a very simple view of the challenges that parks and recreation faced. It didn’t take me long to see that people in the field have a much larger role in the success of their communities, and the fact is that they must have a larger role if their communities are to be successful. And, we all came to this realization together, I believe. We began to see that we had such power working collectively — that we contribute to health and to healthier lifestyles, and we have a great influence on people’s lives.

I also saw that we were hit hard with the understanding that it isn’t a level playing field. Public parks and recreation may largely be free of charge to all people, but where are the resources spent? We have a moral obligation to invest equitably in communities that have not had such investments. In some cases, even more than we have in the past. I hope I have contributed to understanding what equity means for us and why we must all fight for it.

We made great strides on the conservation side, too, with a better understanding of the importance of preserving nature and open space. It is way beyond cutting grass and planting landscape beds to make parks attractive. I would challenge every park and rec agency to ask what it is doing to manage for conservation.

Dolesh: You came to NRPA 11 years ago during troubled financial times, at the height of the Great Recession. How has the financial outlook for both NRPA and parks and recreation generally changed since that time?

Tulipane: The recession was just peaking when I started, and agencies were just really beginning to feel it. NRPA was relying solely on the field to generate revenue for operations — the conference, annual memberships, etc. When the impacts of the recession hit, we really saw how we had to look for alternate sources of revenue, and those sources had to be sustainable.

The recent NRPA/Penn State University study on funding for parks and recreation was illuminating in many ways. It showed us that general fund support for parks and recreation has not come back the way it has for other public services. In addition, full-time positions are being replaced with part-time and contractual positions with no or very limited benefits. Pension-funding reductions are on the horizon. It will be a different business model for parks and recreation in the future. No matter what, park and recreation agencies must offer competitive salaries and people will likely be much more mobile. I think agencies will be less likely to have employees stay for 30-year careers, and that is a good thing, I believe.

The fact is that you can’t replace general support funds with fees and charges. This will not maintain the quality of life in communities that parks and rec has become so important for. Parks and recreation is one of the things that make us a great nation, and it should be cherished and honored. It is a sad fact that the more successful we become and the more we generate our own funds, the more elected officials will say ‘that’s great — good job’ and then take that amount of funding from us to use elsewhere. We must be creative about finding new sources of funds that are not dependent on fees and charges.

Dolesh: What makes you feel your time at NRPA has been worthwhile?

Tulipane: We have made real strides in making NRPA stronger. The partnerships and relationships we have made with other national organizations and businesses have brought the association to the table. We are in the discussion, not just on the outside looking in. We are on an equal footing with other important national organizations and associations. They recognize us now; it is up to us to prove we can bring value to them.

We have also built our brand, and we have earned many awards and have had much recognition for our success. I truly thank the staff of NRPA for what they have done — they deserve the credit.

NRPA is coming back to its roots as a charitable organization. We have to stop thinking we began in 1965. Our roots go way beyond that. People need to realize the history and importance of our mission. We started as a playground association in the 1920s, and, while we are still grounded in that mission, we are now so much more.

Dolesh: What have been your most significant and enduring accomplishments in your time as CEO of NRPA?

Tulipane: Getting NRPA’s finances right. When we were in that crisis mode, we were never investing back into the field. We had no research. We could not answer fundamental questions about the field. There is no future in that! It is not just about getting enough revenue to survive. We must go beyond that.

I would hope that my biggest contribution has been to get people to challenge traditional thinking. I hope that is not perceived as threatening, but as a way to go forward. I believe that you can’t create a culture of success when people are afraid to fail. You simply will never move forward if you think that way.

I also believe that the development of the pillars was very important. I believe that I brought focus to what NRPA does. At one time, we thought we could be all things to all people. We couldn’t. The pillars allowed us to come together in a way we never had before.

Dolesh: You and I have had more than one spirited discussion about calling our business ‘the profession’ vs. ‘the industry.’ Why do you feel that we should also refer to ourselves as ‘the industry?’

Tulipane: We bring financial contributions to our nation’s economy, and we sell those contributions short when we just say that we are ‘the profession.’ When we do, people don’t realize the value we have to communities. When we say just the profession, it is about who we are and how we work. If we just pat ourselves on the back about what we do, it is not enough. Do you think the mom down the street cares about that, or the elected official who votes on our budgets? When we identify ourselves as the industry, however, we identify with jobs, the economy and contributing to the financial health of communities.

Dolesh: What advice would you give to young people entering the field of parks and recreation?

Tulipane: Take risks! Do it your way. Don’t compromise. Learn how to engage with the public and elected officials and how to reach out to everyone. What drives me crazy is when I see young people deferring to those who have been in the field for decades. Be respectful, but don’t be submissive. Bring new ways and ideas to the table!

Dolesh: What gives you hope for the future?

Tulipane: I have met and worked with some incredibly talented people. Their vibrancy and commitment inspire me. Their courage, commitment, endurance and tenacity — I was always most inspired by the site visits I made, and most inspired by those who had the least to work with. I met incredible people working under the most difficult circumstances and with virtually no budget — in south Philly, in the 9th ward in New Orleans, in ‘needle park’ in southeast D.C. These park and recreation staff gave me such hope that I am convinced that with people like this serving their communities, we will do more than just succeed — we will make our communities more livable, healthier, more resilient and more equitable. That is what gives me hope.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Strategic Initiatives.