Urban Park Roundtable highlights key ways to effectively cultivate corporate partnerships
The United States, along with the rest of the world, continues to urbanize at a steady clip. Despite this ongoing influx into cities, public funding for park and recreation services has only just recovered from severe cuts caused by the Great Recession, according to research by The Trust for Public Land.
Both government agencies and nonprofits continue to look for funding streams to sustain their parks. An increasing mix of public-private partnerships, conservancies, advocacy groups and business improvement or park improvement districts have developed to secure more financial, community and political support for public parks. While there is corporate-sector support and increased corporate social investment in general, many agencies and other partners lack defined guidelines for engaging in and successfully managing that type of support.
One of the many ways the Central Park Conservancy’s Institute for Urban Parks shares knowledge with other parks is through Urban Park Roundtables, which are held each spring and fall. The sessions convene park professionals, leaders and administrators from around the country to collectively develop “next practices” in urban park management and public-private partnerships. With the goal of strengthening the field of practice, each roundtable focuses on a specific topic of relevance to our host city. Participants spend two days immersed in a “community of practice,” through facilitated discussions, peer networking, panels and park tours.
Our fifth and most recent roundtable took place in Detroit, in partnership with the city of Detroit Parks and Recreation Department. The city’s rebound from bankruptcy has been in the works for nearly a decade, making it an ideal location to host this roundtable discussion. Following a 2013 closure of all but 19 parks in the 309-park system, Detroit is experiencing a rejuvenation of its existing open spaces and the development of new ones through critical public agency and nonprofit partner efforts. Using a strategic plan to enhance maintenance services and capital improvements in all of its parks over a 10-year span, the city has leveraged local and national philanthropy along with state and federal grants to enhance park funding.
Clarity in Planning and Engagement
While much of Detroit has benefited from corporate-sector support during its rebound, there have been some concerns about the need for clear planning and engagement when it comes to corporate involvement in its parks and public spaces.
As part of the Detroit roundtable, 30 park professionals gathered to discuss and explore these issues together and share knowledge about how best to craft corporate partnerships. In addition to park representatives from the city, participants joined from park organizations and agencies in Austin, Texas; Buffalo, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; Denver, Colorado; Ferndale, Michigan; Los Angeles, California; New York, New York; San Diego, California; St. Louis, Missouri; and Washington, D.C. The participants also toured several of Detroit’s parks, some of which are supported by public-private partnerships, including Valade Park, Belle Isle Park, Butzel Family Park, Dueweke Park and Tolan Park.
Through facilitated dialogue and park tours, participants raised some concerns and noted areas of interest related to corporate sponsorships in public parks, including:
- The rapidly changing corporate landscape and the perceived need to “chase” a fundable project. How can park organizations adapt to engage corporate partners in a way that is meaningful for both parties, avoiding an arrangement that feels simply transactional?
- The perceived lack of time and capacity for relationship cultivation and the resulting desire for longer-term corporate relationships.
- Participants expressed concern about corporate branding in public spaces and asked how to best balance acknowledgement and attribution with the nature of a public good.
- Educating corporate partners is still one of the biggest hurdles our participants encounter. Ensuring partners understand that funding is required to keep a park in good shape continues to be a challenge.
- Saying “no” often feels wrong, even when the corporate gift is not a good match. But, sometimes, it is the right course of action and will provide longer-term benefits.
- Reconciling the size of the local corporate community with the needs among park organizations and agencies can be challenging. Participants wondered how to address a finite pool of prospects and “competition” among local park projects.
Leveraging Corporate Relationships
Through these conversations, a series of shared suggestions for the basic building blocks of successful corporate partnerships emerged. These findings help provide first steps, as well as guardrails, for thinking about how best to leverage corporate relationships.
Align your fundraising with your strategy. Use it to create points of reference that support strategic partnerships:
- Create a strategic plan and be sure it includes a list of projects and tasks specifically for corporate partnerships.
- Identify what part of your plan a project can support before beginning conversations with prospective corporate partners.
- Leverage the assets and resources you already have. Use park master plans, program calendars and other tools to create alignment with corporate prospects.
- Set your terms, but be flexible. Offer a menu of options or opportunities for support, including price points. This helps to ensure your corporate partner knows the value of your time and the opportunity you will create for their company.
- Get comfortable with saying no! This can be a very intimidating prospect, especially when you are cultivating your first partnerships. But, use it as an opportunity to educate and build your relationship by finding common ground.
Focus on long-term vs. short-term dollars:
- Be honest about the cost. The corporation is getting something of value and that should be made abundantly clear. Staff time, access to restrooms, training (however minimal), refreshments and your other services all have value.
- Make a plan and commit resources for a successful, in-park volunteer day. Invest in making sure it is a well-run, organized event to avoid undermining your staff, turning off current donors or dissuading future donors. Use this as a chance to both address needs and build success.
Build a good partnership:
- Be transparent. It builds trust and helps both partners to establish and set clear expectations.
- Create internal champions. Meet regularly with internal teams and departments to gain an understanding of their needs and communicate how a partnership might serve the organization at large.
- Add representatives from corporate sectors to boards and committees to support clarity and shared vision.
- Be sure both partners know the “theme” of the partnership.
- Leverage on-site events to serve as a visual and physical case for support and offer a direct connection to a specific aspect of a park.
- Grow corporate partner relationships through ongoing engagement.
Create a united local front:
- Establish citywide coordination or partner coalitions between nonprofits/agency partners to develop guidelines, share resources and establish standards across city green spaces for corporate partners.
What Is Best for Your Park and Stakeholders?
Because of the dynamic overlap of social, political and cultural factors at play in urban parks, corporate partnerships with park nonprofits and agencies will vary in scope, scale and execution. One of the biggest takeaways from the Detroit roundtable, however, was that it is OK to set the terms that are best for your park — even if that means passing on the first opportunity. But, using the takeaways from our roundtables will help you find an opportunity that meets both your needs and the needs of your future corporate partners.
Three Common Ways Urban Park Organizations Engage Corporate Philanthropy
Private philanthropy is a critical source of funding for restoring, managing and, in some cases, operating urban parks throughout the country. In 2019, private spending for city parks by 181 park nonprofits totaled $596 million, an increase from $499 million in 2018. This spending often is financed by individual giving, foundation and grant funding, or corporate philanthropy. In the United States, giving by corporations is estimated to have increased by 5.4 percent in 2018, totaling $20.05 billion (an increase of 2.9 percent, adjusted for inflation). These key findings are echoed in the annual Giving in Numbers: 2019 Edition report from Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose (CECP): total corporate social investments increased by 11 percent over three years to a record $26 billion.
While these figures include a wide range of other fields and disciplines besides urban parks, this is encouraging news when exploring ways to engage corporate philanthropy.
- Sponsorships —Corporate sponsorship support is a payment by a corporation to a nonprofit to further the nonprofit’s mission. These can include events, programs, initiatives, park assets and amenities, and people. Organizations generally acknowledge these gifts through public announcements, naming opportunities, press events or print and web media, thereby recognizing the contributions of the sponsor’s business.
- Time — Corporations share their staff in time — often a much-needed boost for organizations with limited capacity and staffing. Examples of time commitments include participation in park-based volunteer events and in leadership groups, such as boards, support for administrative aspects, commitment to a time-bound partnership and establishment of connections for the supported organization.
- Gift-Matching — Gift-matching is a charitable donation by a corporation that matches an individual employee’s donation to a park organization, most often dollar-for-dollar. According to a survey conducted by the Big-Give Research Initiative, 84 percent of survey participants say they’re more likely to donate to a cause if their employer offers a match, and 1 in 3 donors indicate they’d give an even larger gift if matching is applied to their donation.
Editor's Note: To mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus and in alignment with public health officials' recommendations, the Institute for Urban Parks has cancelled the spring Urban Park Roundtable and will resume the Roundtable series in fall 2020.
Maura Lout is the Executive Director of the Central Park Conservancy's Institute for Urban Parks.