City-wide Parks Foundations: We Need More of Them
Updated: Jul 31
By Charlie McCabe
Photo from Fairmount Park Conservancy, Philadelphia.
As I wrote in my two-part piece earlier this year, there are a number of nonprofit organizations that work alongside public park agencies to develop, operate, maintain, and program public parks in cities across the United States. As promised (see, I didn't forget!) one of the most interesting of these types of organizations, though not as common, is the city-wide parks foundation. I'm going to expand on this type of organization over the next several pieces, as I believe that they are important to know about and frankly, need to be in a lot more cities than they currently are.
To remind you, city-wide parks foundations work to advocate for, and obtain funding for, the parks system of an entire community. They offer support for "friends of parks" groups, including funding, volunteers, technical advice, training and more. A few notable examples of city-wide parks foundations are the Austin Parks Foundation, Park Pride, the Seattle Parks Foundation, the Portland Parks Foundation and the Denver Park Trust. In New York City, a combination of organizations serve this function, namely New Yorkers for Parks and the City Parks Foundation.
Photo from Park Pride, Atlanta.
My goal in this piece is to give you a broader introduction to these organizations and then in follow-up pieces, profile a few of these organizations and some of the programs that they offer and how they serve a valuable, and yet undervalued, role in our urban park systems.
Most city-wide parks organizations have started through advocacy for public parks, usually responding to a lack of funding for public parks in their city. The first efforts are looking for ways to get more funding for the city parks and recreation department. Often this comes through encouraging city elected officials to increase the annual parks budget or supporting a campaign for increased funding for capital projects through a bond election or other tax increase. Usually, this starts as a coalition of individuals that love parks and have been volunteering in parks. Depending on the success of such a campaign, the group of organizers often decides that a permanent effort is required and they form a non-profit organization.
Photo from Austin Parks Foundation, Austin.
One of the key challenges that organizers of city-wide parks foundations face is how to fund and sustain the organization. While individual parks non-profits can point to efforts to replace, rebuild, or restore parks and point to tangible efforts, advocating for increases in the public parks department budget is a lot less tangible. As I've noted before, most city parks and recreation department budgets are less than one percent of a city's annual budget, and they have to compete with education, public safety, and the many other facets of life that a city government must manage. Thus, city-wide parks foundations must look for ways to bring in revenue without diluting their mission. Over the past 25 years, they have developed a number of ways to do that, marrying specific funding to specific programs, including:
Partnering with other civic organizations to tackle demonstration projects, such as programming and revitalizing downtown parks, drawing funding through programming sponsorships and grants for park improvements. City-wide parks foundations initiate capital projects, including parkland acquisition, design, redevelopment, and ongoing operations & maintenance, working closely with the city parks department and associated neighborhood groups.
Serving as the nonprofit partner for the city's adopt-a-park program, working with neighborhood groups to adopt, program, and improve parks. The city-wide nonprofit serves as the fiduciary agent for all of the adopt-a-park groups, obtaining support via grants or fees. The Partnerships for Parks program, developed by the City Parks Foundation in NYC is the original example, widely replicated in other cities, such as Philadelphia through Fairmount Park Conservancy's Love Your Park program.
Developing a strong volunteer program to bolster neighborhood groups as well as help address operation and maintenance issues that the city parks department identifies. Encouraging corporate groups to volunteer (in exchange for a donation to the foundation) is a good source of revenue, as is encouraging sponsorship for the program around annual volunteer events. Again, the City Parks Foundation has led the way through their It's My Park initiative. The Austin Parks Foundation initiated the now bi-annual It's My Park Day, based on the City Parks Foundation model.
Neighborhood Park Grants programs. Several city-wide parks foundations have grants programs that allow neighborhood groups to apply for improvements to their local parks, working closely with the city parks departments. Thanks to grants from philanthropic organizations (as well as revenue from events in parks), both Park Pride in Atlanta and the Austin Parks Foundation have robust programs that have resulted in millions of dollars invested in neighborhood parks, with a focus on historically underserved communities.
Given the wide range of programs and ways to fund them, I am surprised not to see more city-wide parks foundations being formed, particularly with the needs of city park systems continuing to grow while public parks budgets remain flat. City-wide parks foundations are a key partner to public parks agencies, and despite the challenges in starting up and sustaining them, I hope to see more of them in the coming years. My next piece will focus on my personal experience with the Austin Parks Foundation, and additional pieces will feature the challenges and successes of other foundations.
Copyright 2022, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC.