What is an Optimally-Functioning Friends Group or Park Foundation?

By Dr. Nathan A. Schaumleffel, Driven Strategic LLC

Friends groups and park foundations are where public park and recreation administration and the nonprofit world of philanthropy, fundraising, volunteer management, and program evaluation collide!

Some have described park foundations and friends groups as “individual nonprofit organizations that support a specific local park or park project with time, expertise, and privately-raised funds.”

Now, from my experience, the world of park foundations and friends groups is a lot murkier, or colorful depending on your perspective, than that!

First, park foundations and friends groups have been known to provide short-term support to a specific park or facility improvement project; or provide long-term support to a specific program, park, or facility, like the Friends of Griffin Bike Park with the Vigo County (Indiana) Parks and Recreation Department; or even provide long-term support to an entire park system like the LaPorte County (Indiana) Park Foundation or the Champaign (Illinois) Parks Foundation.

Some park and recreation systems like Wheaton (Illinois) Park District directed by Mike Benard partner with multiple friends groups that benefit different parts of the park district.

Park foundations and friends groups exist at the city, township, and special park/forest preserve district levels, as well as at the county, state, and national levels. They operate on a spectrum of evolution from a “volunteer corps” to “park administrators.” Let me explain…….

A group of volunteers working under the direction of a public park and recreation agency to maintain and improve a park or facility, whether it be invasive species removal or building mountain biking trails, is the first and most very basic form of citizens engaging as friends to benefit the public agency. Typically, these volunteer groups start as social and service groups and then grow into an informal committee.

As the volunteers and park staff witness the impact of these groups, typically these informal committees evolve and become more structured by meeting as a board, keeping minutes, and perhaps, even establishing an independent bank account. As the volunteerism evolves and formalizes, the group moves from having just a volunteerism role to also having a resource development role.

As the group realizes that it needs insurance and the power of nonprofit 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status from the IRS to jumpstart fundraising, the formal committee tends to find it necessary to partner with an existing tax-exempt organization to operate under its’ “umbrella” while establishing by-laws, incorporating with the secretary of state’s office, and then applying for and receiving tax-exempt status from the IRS and the state department of revenue.

As you can see, friends groups evolve into park foundations, from volunteerism to volunteerism and resource development, from informal to incorporated!

Ultimately, whatever the format, structure, and arrangement of the group is, the goal is to hone the power of the nonprofit sector in terms of philanthropy, fundraising, and volunteerism to further the mission of the public park and recreation agency.

As the friends group matures into a separate nonprofit organization, it is critical that the public park and recreation agency establish a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the park foundation to ensure that the group works within the mission and strategic plan of the public park and recreation agency and in concert with the park staff. Independent nonprofit organizations are often known as park foundations like the Indianapolis Park Foundation, friends groups like the Friends of Shakamak, associations like the Grand Canyon Association, and conservancies like the Yosemite Conservancy. Most of these organizations are established as membership-based nonprofits upon incorporation and primarily generate volunteerism and philanthropy to benefit the park and recreation agency.

What are the Benefits of an Independent Park Foundation?

All iterations of friends groups and park foundations can, have been, and are successful around the United States. However, evolving into an independent, tax-exempt nonprofit organization that signs an MOU with a public park and recreation agency can alleviate liability and risk management issues, facilitate appropriate insurance, facilitate positive communication between the two organizations, and can facilitate:

  • The development of financial resources through annual fundraising, grants, major gifts, capital campaigns, planned giving, and endowment funds (e.g., cash, appreciated securities)

  • The development of in-kind donations of equipment, supplies, and land

  • Engagement of the broader citizenry

  • Increased volunteerism

  • Effective advocacy efforts

  • Land holding

  • Protection from potential litigation against a public parks and recreation agency

  • The Isolation of politics and conflict from making a park system more impactful

Now back to that spectrum of evolution from a volunteer corps to park administrators….

As most of you can imagine, public budgeting trends have not been so kind to public parks and recreation especially post-9/11 and post-recession. Our politicians, the powers of the purse, seem to view parks and recreation as a non-essential service. Now, we all know the benefits of parks and recreation are endless! Especially in the areas of individual human development, community development, environmental protection and conservation, and the “holy political grail”……economic development!

In some states, governments at the local, county, and state levels have opted to contract their park and recreation operations to nonprofit organizations like park foundations and friends groups, and in some cases, sold public parks to for-profit businesses. In some extreme cases, the governments have opted to sell their parks and entirely close their park and recreation departments. For example, in Poland, Indiana, the Clay County government sold the county-owned and operated park to the local Lion’s Club for $2.00. Essentially, the Lion’s Club is functioning as an independent friends group or park foundation.

The pinnacle of park foundation and friends group development, from my perspective, is an independent nonprofit organization that has insurance, a capable board of directors, federal and state tax-exempt status that has an established MOU and a positive working relationship with the public park and recreation agency that also has a strong resource development and volunteer management function that could literally take over financial, human resources, and day-to-day management of a park or park system the day elected officials decide the park system needs to close due to expense and non-essentiality.

An optimally-functioning park foundation can counteract public budgeting trends by invoking the power of philanthropy and volunteerism to replace unfunded budgetary items, which reduce the need for higher revenue-producing user fees and the pay-to-play trends happening across public recreation.

Invoking philanthropy and volunteerism can facilitate us honoring our social work founders like Jane Addams and to recognize the value of accessibility to parks and recreation for all socioeconomic classes as a basic human right. Recreation and parks are extremely powerful tools for human and community development, but only if the masses can afford to access the programs and facilities.

Now that I have shared what a park foundation and friends group can be and what optimal functioning should look like, next time I will share how to set the cornerstone in a park foundation!

NAPF Membership

I truly hope you’ll begin to enhance the park experience in your community by laying the cornerstone of your foundation!

Consider joining NAPF today! You’ll get the capacity-building resources to start, build, and grow the impact of your local park foundation or friends group! Your NAPF membership is the cornerstone to your park foundation!

Please, follow both NAPF (@the_napf) and I (@drschaumleffel) on Twitter!

Also, sign-up for the NAPF blog e-newsletter free for members and non-members, as well as subscribe to the NAPF blog via RSS feed.

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© Dr. Nathan A. Schaumleffel, Terre Haute, Indiana, USA

Photo: Dr. Schaumleffel and Kevin Waltz, both of Terre Haute, IN, crossing the finish line at the 2014 Friends of Shakamak 10K Longfish Dash, a friends group annual fundraiser to benefit the Indiana Department of Natural Resources' Shakamak State Park, Jasonville, Indiana (April 2014)

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