Saturday, December 23, 2006

Public Parks & Nonprofits

Though a few years old, this interview reveals the great benefits parks partnering with nonprofits can have.

One of our goals is to see the American River Parkway managed by a nonprofit, in partnership with local government, and we would see many of the benefits mentioned in this interview, a great change from the chronically under-funded and mismanaged situation we now have with our Parkway.

Shared Leadership, Shared Responsibility: Partnerships in Golden Gate National Parks

An interview with Brian O'Neill, Superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Greg Moore, Executive Director of the Golden Gate National Parks Association, moderated by Jane Rogers, Program Executive at the San Francisco Foundation.

From Parks as Community Places: San Francisco, 1998, a publication on the Urban Parks Institute's annual conference..

As superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Brian O'Neill oversees an annual operating budget of $29 million, a staff of 470 employees, and a volunteer force of over 6,000. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area encompasses 76,000 acres of land within Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties. It is the most visited unit of the National Park System in America, receiving over 20 million visitors annually, and is perhaps the largest national park area adjacent to any major city in the world. The recreation area encompasses 22 different sites, including 10 forts, over 100 gun batteries, and over 700 historic sites or buildings, including Alcatraz, the Presidio, Muir Woods, and Fort Point.

Greg Moore is the Executive Director of the Golden Gate National Parks Association. He has held this position for over ten years. The Association works in partnership with the National Park Service to preserve and enhance parklands in the San Francisco Bay area. Since its inception, the association has provided close to $25 million in support to park planning, improvement and education programs. The association emphasizes linking community resources to the park and expanding public stewardship of these parklands.

Brian and Greg have a decade-long collaboration on the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In many ways their partnership has a great deal more in common with those working in urban parks than they have with most of their colleagues in the national parks system.

Jane Rogers is the Program Executive for Environment at the San Francisco Foundation, which is the local community foundation for the city and county of San Francisco and the regional community foundation for the Bay Area. She also supervises the Foundation's Awards and Fellowships Program. She has managed the San Francisco Foundation's Environment Program for 13 years, focusing on the livability and sustainability of the Bay Area's urban environment and natural ecosystems.

The interview took place on April 5, 1998 at the St. Francis Marina in San Francisco, California.

ROGERS: Let's begin at the beginning. How did the Golden Gate National Parks Association arise?

MOORE: How did the Parks Association begin? We began out of a very simple recognition that in an urban setting there were many, many ways to connect the Golden Gate National Parks to the community that would add value to what the Park Service was already doing. In an area of 5 million people, the opportunities for volunteer service are incredible, and the benefits of community engagement are truly remarkable.

"The National Park Service needed one non-profit partner whose sole purpose would be to look at the big picture with us."

O'NEILL: Since the park extends almost 80 miles north and south -- and included within its boundaries are ten former military installations, with over 1,250 buildings -- it was clear to us from the very beginning that we neither could nor should do it all ourselves. We knew that we were going to have literally hundreds of different partners -- partners that joined with us to carry out programs, facilities and operations within those buildings.

But our vision was that the National Park Service needed one non-profit partner whose sole purpose would be to look at the big picture with us. To be able to set a clear vision and help us mobilize the community to have a sense of ownership of a park in a way that would translate into support, and bring the individual pieces together into a unified whole.

ROGERS: Let's hear about some of the advantages that the two institutions brought to the formation of this partnership.

O'NEILL: I love the fact that the National Park Service has a deep keel and is an agency that is in business in perpetuity. But with that comes all sorts of issues. So when we were selecting a partner and determining the advantages of having that kind of partner, the ability to be fluid and flexible was a great interest to us.

For example, at the National Park Service, we have our own policies and procedures, and of course we want to respect those. But we also want to have the ability to find ways to tap into the genius of the communities around the park. A non-profit can engage the community in ways that is difficult for the government to do, and that is a very, very important element of advantage in the partnership.

Additionally, as a public agency, a lot of our money is appropriated by Congress in one-year allocations. So the ability to leverage money and put larger projects together was clearly an advantage of a non-profit partner, as we saw it. And let's face it, people are skeptical about government today even under our best attempt to be good public servants -- but they are able to translate their passion and commitment to a cause with a non-profit in a way that's very difficult for them to do with a government agency.

MOORE: From my perspective, I have always respected the challenging job the National Park Service faces in operating the park on a daily basis -- after all, over 20 million people visit these parklands each year. At the Association, we are not as immersed in daily operations and therefore have more time to look ahead and forecast how to best position the park and its future. We also have the advantage of volunteers who can be more objective in their views and offer unique expertise to our mission.

Another advantage we obviously gained is the positive reputation of the National Park Service. It has a wonderful public image. People love the national parks. We clearly could work from the basically good reputation of the organization and people's associations with national parks around the country.

"A non-profit can engage the community in ways that is difficult for the government to do, and that is a very, very important element of advantage in the partnership."
Finally, we have the opportunity for collaboration and teamwork with a federal entity -- the ability to forecast where the resources are coming from, and when they are threatened. To take advantage of what the public agency can bring to the table staff-wise, resource-wise, and community relations-wise, has been fundamental to our growth as a non-profit.