Excerpted from Public Parks, Private Partners, published by Project for Public Spaces, 2000.

The people who run nonprofit parks organizations today have been an invaluable source of information for this book. We have taken some of their ideas and wisdom and have developed the following composite of the keys to success in building an effective nonprofit parks organization. These keys range from information on starting up and hands-on advice to insights from work in different parts of the country.

Understand the playing field before you begin.

Developing and shaping the role of a nonprofit organization usually starts with defining what is currently lacking in the park or greenway or municipality (probably the issues that brought a group together in the first place) within the context of other organizations involved in the area or park, the roles that these other groups play, and how well they perform them. Identifying who and what responsibilities the involved public agencies, community groups, and other nonprofits assume in the park or greenway helps pinpoint where, in these relationships, a particular organization might be most needed. This kind of analysis of other efforts should include an assessment of whether they are being done effectively or not.

Develop an effective, focused community process.

Agreeing on a participatory and formal process to involve neighborhood groups and key elected officials at the outset of a working relationship builds community involvement, stewardship, more responsive design or programming, and political support. One organization noted: …outreach and inclusiveness in the plan development process…. increases trust and legitimacy in the surrounding communities. Another group said: Good communication and the involvement and buy in of key players (the movers and shakers) to the importance of the project has enabled the partnership to achieve its goals.

Identify the assets of the community.

Well beyond the stakeholders described above the parks, planning and public works departments, for example – there are hundreds of groups and people in every city who could be associated with the park in some way, but aren’t. Many of these are organizations that currently use the park, including sports leagues, exercise groups, dog walkers, bird watchers, chess clubs, and countless others. In addition there are probably many individual park users who know a great deal about what happens in the park because they use it every morning, when they walk their dog, or every evening, when they meet friends. These users exist in every park and are invaluable as a resource.

There are also many groups that would like to be able to use the park, but don’t for any number of reasons, including complex city permitting, concern for safety, or simple lack of knowledge about the park and what it could offer them. All of these types of users, current and potential, need to become a part of the assets inventory so that they can be given an opportunity to become future users and supporters. Involving the community in the planning and implementation effort is not only wise, it is necessary for success, said Tupper Thomas, administrator of Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

Develop a vision.

A vision for the park or greenway that is flexible enough to change and realistic to the extent that it is feasible will, in the long run, facilitate a coordinated park strategy and build in support for park plans, programs, and projects. Many nonprofits noted that the development of a master plan was an important factor that enabled programs and projects to get underway. Whether or not a master plan exists, a vision that evolves from a community process is essential. The benefits and liabilities associated with master planning are discussed in Chapter 5.

Gauge the Capacity of the Nonprofit Organization.

The role of the organization should reflect the group’s capability. Many of the groups presented here began with small, defined roles, but had big visions and dreams. The roles grew along with the capacity of their organizations as they proved themselves and gathered momentum. Once the missing link in the playing field was determined, the ability of the organization to fill the gaps can be evaluated.

While every situation is different, the general steps in assessing an organizations capacity are:

  1. Begin by determining the tasks and activities that may be required for the organization in order to carry out its role.
  2. Consider the staff and or people that will be needed in the day-to-day operation of the organization and whether the organization can be adequately staffed for the work required.
  3. Think about whether the leadership, staff, board, and/or volunteers have the skills or knowledge required.
  4. Determine whether the budget and funding of the organization will allow it to carry out these activities.

Maintain a clear focus.

Some of our interviews suggested that one of the key mistakes of nonprofits involved in parks is to take on too many activities, rather than focusing only on those that achieve the mission. In some cases, involvement in these activities has overextended the capacity and ability of the organization to staff and perform them well.

Limiting the roles of the organization at first can work to a nonprofit’s advantage, as working relationships and partnerships only develop once a group has demonstrated its capabilities and built trust over time. For new groups, this may mean taking on small projects like clean-ups to begin with and formalizing a relationship with the parks department much later. The exception to this rule is when the public sector takes the lead in establishing a nonprofit and contributes start-up money and expertise to do so.

A more informal and flexible working relationship is often particularly important for both nonprofits and the public sector to achieve their goals while they are in the process of developing a new working partnership. One nonprofit recommended: Start slowly, maintain flexibility, and don’t be too structured until you know exactly what needs to be achieved for success. However, some feel that being involved in a broad range of activities has been important in putting forth an inclusive, more responsible management mission.

Define a realistic mission statement.

The mission of the organization should largely reflect or define the activities it gets involved in. The mission statements of all 15 organizations in our sample can be found in the case studies that follow in the next section.

Cultivate the public/private relationship.

Although the relationship between the public and private sector is different in every city, all groups must regularly work with, or in support of, their partners. Some have fostered this relationship by locating in the same building or office, believing that a close working environment allows for ongoing mutual support and an open attitude toward solving problems as they arise. When the nonprofit has a good relationship and rapport with the park staff, especially park gardeners and maintenance workers, the result, more often that not, is trust and respect, a mutual understanding of park issues, and better park care. Some groups take it upon themselves to recognize park workers regularly, holding barbecues, awards ceremonies, training seminars, or other events just for maintenance or recreation staff.

Some organizations build a relationship with the parks department into their organizational structure through the joint appointment of a staff member, typically their president, as a staff member of the parks department or other city agency, as well. This practice has the added effect of reinforcing the public aspect of the park, because it allows the director to balance competing issues. In contrast, without this perception, a strong nonprofit may be seen as overly responsive to its donors, and less so to the public in general.

On the other hand, nonprofits also feel that an important aspect of the working relationship is the freedom, independence, and lack of interference from city agencies to operate and manage the park. These organizations tend to be nonprofit organizations that are primary care givers for the park who prefer to have the independence to manage and maintain the park facilities as they see fit. One nonprofit commented: Our experience is that the total independence we have in operations is the cleanest way to work. The onus is on us to raise the money, but we know if we do there is no bureaucratic interference in how it is spent. Another way of getting more autonomy is through additional activities, like maintenance, because the more these groups are doing, the less they have to ask for from the parks department. However, eventually this dynamic will reach a point where the public vs. private question will come up.

Select the right projects.

Many groups we spoke to told us that the best way they found to develop credibility was to start with short-term, yet inspiring projects that could be completed within a few years or less. Completing projects on time, within a budget and honoring commitments made to public and private sector donors help to enhance credibility, especially for longer-term capital projects.

Tupper Thomas, of the Prospect Park Alliance, described this issue perfectly. For a first project, you have to pick something that can be done pretty quickly and that can be very well received. Pick a good sexy project. We selected to renovate our carousel for about $700,000. The carousel was a good selection because it was visible and it didn’t cost so much that it was impossible to raise the money, but it was nonetheless impressive and very challenging, it had naming opportunities (each horse could be bought), it had a great history, there was nothing controversial about it, it was a popular amenity, and it created a new destination in the park. We also discovered that foundations liked it for the same reasons.

Make a long-term commitment.

Many groups expressed the importance of having a long-term view and emphasized that the public sector and the nonprofit should both commit themselves to long-term involvement. The financial commitment ensures that both partners have a stake in the project and provides a real incentive to achieve a successful outcome. Having its own money invested enables the nonprofit to move ahead with plans and projects and not just talk about it. The necessity of both partners to commit to a long-term relationship also was seen as important. The director of one nonprofit said: Partnerships need to realize and expect the long term commitment that is necessary to accomplish the tasks at hand. It is this long term commitment that is often lacking in grassroots organizations.

Recruit a strong board.

A strong board provides critical expertise, leadership, and fundraising for nonprofit organizations. A diversity of talent in the areas in which the nonprofit expects to be most active such as fundraising and capital projects-and ex-officio representation from the public sector partners, are all key aspects of board selection. Many of the organizations we interviewed described their boards in different ways; in some cases the board actually functioned as the staff of the organization. Many groups noted that the selection of their board was the most important step in determining the health and long-term effectiveness of their organization.