Roles: How Nonprofits Work with Public Agencies

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

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

Nonprofit organizations can have a wide range of relationships and experiences with their public partners, depending upon the ability and resources of the city or municipality, and the condition of the park and its surrounding community. The nonprofits that we examined differ in age and stages of development. This provided us with an informative look at the kinds of issues faced by these organizations in creating and managing partnerships with the public sector over time. And while nonprofits are usually called Friends of ... Park or The ... Park Conservancy these names bear little relation to their actual role and do not necessarily indicate that they will be acting a particular way. Therefore, we have categorized these nonprofits according to the predominant role that they play in relation to the public sector.

Smaller nonprofits are typically assistance providers. These groups help parks departments with education, programming, and volunteers. They also advocate for increased funding for park improvements and expansion. These organizations primarily operate on a volunteer basis with few if any paid staff, and do not have any responsibility for the park itself.

New parks are sometimes initiated by non-profits that act as catalysts. Such groups work with public agencies and others to initiate projects and provide financial support for new parks or greenways. These kinds of partners are typically involved in advocacy, design, and construction issues, and tend to be transitional in nature, redefining their role with the public entity and in relation to the park once the project is completed.

The groups attracting the most attention these days are the co-managers. Nonprofits of this type work in collaboration with the parks department by way of either: 1) a position jointly shared by the nonprofit and the parks department that oversees park planning, design and capital construction projects, and in some cases management and maintenance; or 2) a staff that works with the parks department and/or combines funds for the joint activities of master planning, capital project plans and construction. These groups share responsibility for the well-being of the park.

Some cities take the ultimate step of making a nonprofit the sole managers for a park. This kind of organization manages and maintains parks on its own, functioning as an independent entity with limited involvement of the parks department, and it shoulders the major responsibility for the park. In this structure, park policies tend to be determined by the nonprofit.

Finally, some groups are organized around an entire city or area park system, advocating for more city dollars and activity, training smaller friends groups, and initiating citywide greening programs. These citywide partners represent a different kind of park nonprofit, as they exist not to increase use and activity in a single park or greenway, but to raise the level and quality of open space and parks in an entire city, through neighborhood organizations and park partnerships.

Among our sample group, we found a few organizations that were involved in activities or had characteristics in common with more than one model. We also found that these types of working relationships tend to be fluid and dynamic, evolving as the nonprofit becomes part of the continuing effort to respond to the needs of the park over time. Thus, a newly-formed park nonprofit may start as an assistance provider and public advocate and, only after gaining experience and forming relationships with other organizations, later redefine or enlarge its role to work as a catalyst for the development of a new park or greenway project. Additional funding and staff, on the other hand, may draw a nonprofit into a more collaborative role with the parks department. A change in political situations can also affect a nonprofit's role, forcing the nonprofit into a leadership and advocacy position, or a re-examination of its current, active role in the face of a more progressive or activist government.

Assistance Providers

These groups that simply assist, support, or act as public advocates are a common type of partner relationship. Since volunteers who are not park professionals often staff them, these organizations usually act as public interest groups working on behalf of residents. Commonly referred to as friends groups, these organizations-which may not be incorporated-typically have small operating budgets and do not have any responsibility for the park itself. They derive their power from their ability to rally a constituency for a park or potential open space, and in many cases, to raise outside funds.

While these groups are not seen as peers by their public sector partners, they do help parks departments considerably, providing additional labor, assisting in community outreach, and organizing park programs. They typically define their role as establishing public stewardship by organizing volunteers to assist in activities, such as clean-up days, and providing information to the public. Groups such as these may also involve themselves heavily in fundraising, advocating for park improvements and expansion, public education, and programming. At times, such groups have been known to advocate for park issues and needs that they identify as not being addressed by the parks department.

In some cases, nonprofit organizations having this type of relationship with the public sector additionally get involved in facilitating community and political awareness meetings and workshops, as well as orchestrating new public and private sector partnerships to enable particular park projects to be realized. Examples of this nonprofit type are the Friends of Buttonwood Park, the Friends of Garfield Park, and the Great Plains Trail Network.

Assistance Provider Profile: Friends of Buttonwood Park New Bedford, Massachusetts

The Friends of Buttonwood Park was established in 1987 as a park advocacy and stewardship group to help implement a park master plan. Its staff is entirely volunteer, and the organization operates on an annual budget of approximately $3,500.

Some of the friends activities have grown out of recommendations from the park master plan, including: providing and maintaining an outdoor reading space in conjunction with the public library; initiating a campaign to create and implement a pooper scooper law; and advocating for and instituting an end to the placement of memorial statues in the park through tree plantings with memorializing plaques. The Friends of Buttonwood Park was also active in molding a compromise to a $9 million zoo renovation in the park that impinged on the park's master plan.

The friends meet or talk informally with the parks department on a weekly basis to discuss issues. According to Jean Bennett, co-chair of the Friends of Buttonwood Park, The friends have earned the respect of the parks department to the point where the administration would not do something in the park without apprising the friends of it.

A volunteer organization, the friends have a board comprised of 30 active members who work to promote stewardship, park programming, planting trees, and advocacy. The friends have hopes of expanding their working partnership with the city to become more directly responsible for managing and maintaining the park in the future.


Catalyst nonprofits are well known for their capacity to generate a vision, and initiate and facilitate a process that will bring that vision to the stage where it can be implemented. They can play a critical role in raising awareness, building community and political support, locating start-up funding, and orchestrating new partnerships among key players, such as parks departments, other government agencies, and private firms, to enable a park project to be realized from start to finish. Since they are organized to advocate for a park to be built, they tend to be transitional in nature, for once they complete their original mission, they must redefine their role in relation to the public sector and with the park project that they have seen to fruition.

Catalyst organizations such as these have been formed to create anything from regional greenway systems to small memorial groves within larger parks. In some cases, these organizations have been formed by citizens driven by a vision, while in other cases they have been formed by the public sector to help coordinate several entities, act as community liaisons, and raise funds. The National AIDS Memorial Grove and the Knox Greenways Coalition are examples of this type of group.

Catalyst Profile:

National AIDS Memorial Grove

San Francisco, California

The National AIDS Memorial Grove was established in 1989 by a small group of San Francisco residents who wanted to create a place for people to remember friends and loved ones who had died of AIDS. Now grown from a volunteer board to a paid staff of four, the organization is working with the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department to create the memorial out of a formerly neglected area of Golden Gate Park. The group has a 99-year lease on the grove site from the city, and it has replanted the area, installed memorial plaques and seating, and is in the process of fully endowing a full-time city gardener position to maintain the grove over the period of the lease. As part of its mission, the group organizes monthly Saturday workdays where volunteers gather to weed, plant, and maintain the grove. The San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department is the primary park care provider and is responsible for security and maintenance.

Construction of the grove was near completion in spring, 2000 and the group was close to its endowment target. At this point, the board began to reexamine its focus. According to Thom Weyand, the grove's executive director, the board has broadened the organization's mission and envisions a shift from the creating and upkeep of the grove to that of raising visibility for the grove as a national memorial and as a place for discussions about AIDS. The group will continue to be involved in civic beautification and urban reforestation activities and, since it must provide an annual grant to the city for the gardener and the ongoing maintenance of the site, it needs to have some type of oversight role into the future. As the organization's role in the grove project shifts direction, it may find itself redefining the working relationships it has with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. It has even considered merging the operation with another national AIDS organization such as the NAMES project.


These nonprofits truly collaborate with their city partners by working together for the planning, design, and implementation of capital projects. They abide by policies set by their public sector co-managers and responsibilities for the park are shared. While all of these types of nonprofit organizations work closely with their partners, the roles and responsibilities of these collaborative partnerships differ, as do the ways in which the nonprofits are funded. The Central Park Conservancy, for example, is highly involved in maintenance, while the Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy is not.

Sometimes the collaborative working relationship is cemented by a joint position shared between the nonprofit and the parks department, simplifying the coordination of planning and staff resources. In some of these cases, the nonprofit organization and the parks department share the salary attached to the joint position. Organizations such as the Prospect Park Alliance, the Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy, and the Central Park Conservancy function along these lines.

Co-manager Profile 1:

Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy

Louisville, Kentucky

The Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy's involvement with the Louisville Park System (three major parks and the parkway system that connects them) is structured so that the executive director of the Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy serves as the assistant director of the parks department, overseeing the planning and design division. The conservancy is housed in the parks department's offices, and parks staff works closely with conservancy staff in implementing park improvements. The conservancy provides expertise in park planning and design, raises private funds to carry out programs and improvements, and creates community awareness in order to renew the parks and parkways as Frederick Law Olmsted might approach them today says Karen High, landscape architect at the conservancy. The parks department does everything else, acting as contractor for the design and renovation work, and carrying out all maintenance and operations functions in the parks.

Co-manager Profile 2:

The Central Park Conservancy

New York, New York

The Central Park Conservancy's collaborative relationship with the city of New York and the Department of Parks and Recreation takes a very different approach from that of the Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy. Now primarily focused on managing, programming, and maintaining Central Park, the conservancy has a management contract that includes maintenance, public programming, and capital restoration. A joint position between the partners has evolved over time as the roles and working relationships between the two organizations have changed. The first jointly held position was structured so that the parks department's Central Park administrator also served as the president of the conservancy. That made sense when, as in Louisville, the primary activity of the organization was rebuilding and renovating the park. Now that the park has undergone substantial renovation, though by no means complete, the conservancy has turned to maintenance, operations and programming as its core mission. Therefore, the structure of the partnership has evolved as well, and now the parks department's park administrator position is joined with the conservancy's senior vice-president for operations and capital projects. This joint position provides the authority to coordinate planning, capital development and park policy. The city retains policy responsibility for the park, ensuring that the park remains publicly accountable and continues to function consistently with other city parks. A third type of co-manager partnership combines staff and/or construction funds without a formal organizational structure for joint activities such as master planning, capital project plans, and construction. This form of collaboration tends to be more project-focused, such as on developing or implementing a master plan, and implementing capital projects. Such nonprofits often raise and spend money for capital renovations themselves. Nonprofits such as the Piedmont Park Conservancy, Friends of Hermann Park, and Forest Park Forever follow this model.

Sole managers

Although most cities retain control over the policymaking and maintenance functions of their public parks, a few give away nearly all the authority and responsibility to nonprofits. These almost fully autonomous organizations have the main respon-sibility for managing and maintaining individual parks and act with only limited involvement of parks departments. What really separates them from other organizations is that they are granted the power to develop and change policies related to the parks or greenways for which they are responsible. They are by definition heavily involved in maintenance and operations, and typically do much more than that. Examples of this type of nonprofit are the Yakima Greenway Foundation, and the Maymont Foundation.

Sole manager Profile:

The Maymont Foundation

Richmond, Virginia

The Maymont Foundation provides primary care for Maymont, a Victorian house and estate that is now a public park in Richmond, Virginia. While the foundation is responsible for virtually all aspects of the park, including fundraising and outreach, the issue of maintenance was foremost in its establishment in 1974. At that time, the foundation struck a deal with the city providing that it would maintain Maymont as a public park, if the city allowed it to manage and take over full responsibility for this property. The foundation also receives an annual subsidy from the city for operating and managing costs.

The city is not involved in determining policy for the park as long as the foundation continues to keep the park open and free to visitors. The directors of the parks and recreation and the city planning departments sit on the foundation's board of directors together with a member of the city council. While the foundation has autonomy in most aspects of its role in the park, all major capital improvements must be approved by the city planning department. The foundation is not required to present the results of any master planning efforts to public bodies for approval.

Citywide Partners

Some groups are organized to focus on all or many parks and open spaces in a city, instead of on a single park. This role is fundamentally different from those outlined above. The main reason that these groups differ is that they bring existing expertise to neighborhoods and lend technical assistance in the formation and sustaining of new parks organizations. There is no single model of a citywide partner organization. Some are closely linked with their parks departments; others operate outside the system completely.

Citywide Partner Profile:

Partnerships for Parks

New York, New York

Partnerships for Parks is a joint venture between New York City Parks and Recreation and the City Parks Foundation. It has two main functions-to cultivate grassroots and other organizations that are interested in taking care of parks, and to promote parks and green-friendly activities in the city. It considers the former to be its key role: to nurture friends groups through direct outreach and assistance, and to link them together into a strong, citywide constituency for parks and open space. To accomplish this, outreach coordinators in New York City's five boroughs provide links to the parks department for community and friends groups, who are given access to workshops and materials that Partnerships for Parks produces, everything from How to Start a Friends Group to Tips on Planning Special Events. Certain parks and projects are given individual attention by a catalyst coordinator.

To fulfill its other role to promote parks and park causes across the city Partnerships for Parks coordinates citywide volunteer events, maintains a database of parks supporters, produces a news-letter, and advocates for parks issues. It is closely linked with the parks department-the two share offices and staff, and the nonprofit's $2 million operating budget is divided equally between the city and the private sector.

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