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Park Friends 101

Updated: Jun 22

By Charlie McCabe

Above: An Olmsted designed bridge in Franklin Park, Boston - on my route to the Saturday parks forum


On Saturday morning, I helped out with a forum hosted by the Boston Park Advocates, a group of park friends and nonprofit park leaders. We had about 40 people and representatives from the City of Boston Parks and Recreation Department, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) came and spoke on current projects and priorities and answered questions from the many volunteer park adopters in the audience. As part of this effort, I put together a two-page Park Friends 101 primer and thought it would be a good addition to my ongoing series of posts on public/nonprofit park partnerships. Generally, there's always a lot more to cover, but it's a start. This is very Boston-focused, but at some point, I'll work on a revision that is more generic.


Park Friends Groups 101

How long: Park friends groups have existed in one form or another for over 50 years. Among the oldest organizations are Central Park Conservancy (NYC) and The Friends of the Public Gardens (Boston).


Park Friends groups often start as an informal neighborhood group that seeks increased care or improvements to their local park. Many stay at that scale or grow into more formal organizations, including incorporated nonprofits with a board of directors, paid staff, and formal agreements with public parks agencies.


Advocacy: Advocating for your local park is a great way to get engaged with your public parks agency. In Boston, both the city and the State Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) have processes for park adoption and stewardship. The all-volunteer Boston Park Advocates can also assist. Key is advocating for annual public parks budgets as well as specific issues in your local park. Ensuring a safe and welcoming space for all is a key goal.


Programming: If your park suffers from a lack of activity, organizing and funding park programming is another way to advocate and promote your park. The City of Boston and the DCR have their rules and permitting requirements available on their websites, along with any fees required.


Action/Volunteering: Volunteering is a good way to get involved in your local park. The first step is to get to know your city/DCR parks staff and find out what’s on their list of concerns. Often, simple activities like helping with trash collection, watering, mulching, weeding, and even painting can significantly help improve the look of your park and help parks staff manage their workload. Ask what’s on the staff’s list and how volunteers can help These efforts can establish trust and a solid working relationship between volunteers and staff, paving the way for bigger projects down the road.


Most parks do not have dedicated staff and have “daily service” done by a staff person covering a dozen or so parks in a single shift. Another key volunteer activity is to serve as “eyes and ears in the park.” Since neighbors can visit more often, they can pass on observations in the spirit of cooperation. While agencies handle busier warm weather months with additional seasonal staff, winter months have fewer workers (especially true with Boston-area DCR parks.) If issues arise in a park that needs immediate attention, parks staff are usually pulled from other tasks to address that issue.


Funding: Most park funding is public dollars. Most city and state parks agencies are funded at less than 1% of the budget, Boston and DCR (state) included.


According to annual research performed by the Trust for Public Land, parks department budgets are 92% public funding, 5% nonprofit funding, and 3% volunteer time. Boston’s breakout is 82% public funding, 16% nonprofit funding and 2% volunteer time. Boston spends $168 per resident, versus $98 on average in the 100 largest U.S. cities.


Raising Funds: Raising funds for programming, volunteer supplies, and even larger projects can be challenging, but rewarding. First, determine the approvals needed, such as an event permit or a small project permit (see links in the references section below). Further, you may want to obtain grants from foundations or corporations.These often require an organization that is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit to apply and supply required information. Often a citywide parks organization offers services to Friends groups to fundraise and recognize donors under their umbrella, but the Boston Park Advocates cannot; it’s essentially an all-volunteer friends group, too (under the Friends of Public Garden).


But there are good examples of friends groups working with a parks nonprofit, like the Charles Gate Alliance working with the Emerald Necklace Conservancy or the Friends of Malden River working with the Mystic River Watershed Association.


Funding additional maintenance and operations needs is a next step for many friends groups, especially where professional services are required. For example, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, the Esplanade Association, and the Friends of the Public Garden all fund tree care, pruning, planting, and removal in their respective parks. Again, work with your local public parks agency staff to determine what might be required and how to proceed.


Funding capital improvements is often a city or state parks agency focus, but there are sometimes opportunities to assist with larger projects. Generally, given the large sums of money required and the need for transparency, a government entity might require assistance from a nonprofit partner, as well as written agreements with the public parks agency. Engaging with your local elected officials through events or tours in the park is another way to help your park and the public agency maintaining it.


© Copyright 2022, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC

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