Asking and Getting: Behind the Surge of Philanthropic Support for the National Park Service

 Zion National Park. photo:  Asif Islam/shutterstock

Zion National Park. photo:  Asif Islam/shutterstock

Facing mostly flat federal funding and growing needs, the National Park Service and its charitable partner the National Park Foundation set out about four years ago to see if could turn some of its prestige and warm public perceptions into cash. 

With another year left in its largest push for philanthropic support to date, the foundation has raised about $460 million, blowing past previous fundraising numbers and making private support a growing presence in one of the country’s most beloved public institutions. 

The Centennial Campaign for America’s National Parks launched publicly in 2016 to coincide with the parks’ 100-year anniversary, with an original goal of $350 million. That goal was quickly bumped up to $500 million, which the foundation will almost certainly exceed when the campaign wraps up at the end of 2018. The National Park Foundation had been raising around $20 million annually as of 2013—last year, that number had surged to $159 million. 

National parks have always relied on donations, even since their very early days, either through the National Park Foundation or the 200-plus “Friends” groups that boost individual parks. But they haven’t been quite the fundraising draw that universities, museums or even city parks have been for high-dollar private donations. There’s also been considerable, understandable resistance to corporations playing a larger role in national parks’ funding. 

But the foundation’s been a rising force of late. At the same time, the park system and its 417 sites have struggled to cover costs associated with record attendance, aging infrastructure and conservation needs, relying on its $3 billion congressional appropriation and revenue from fees.

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"I think the enthusiasm was always there,” says Will Shafroth, NPF’s president and CEO. “It's just that either the case wasn't made very effectively, or we weren't actually asking enough people for the money.”

Nevertheless, the campaign has been a major undertaking, involving a New York ad agency, more fundraisers on staff, an upgraded direct marketing campaign, and—a source of controversy—a lot of corporate support. 

What does the emergence of this new fundraising powerhouse mean for national parks? For one, the agency will be able to polish up a number of its fading gems, with several improvement projects lined up. It also signals a new era of increased public engagement for the park system, and a closer relationship with private donors and corporations, along with the challenges that entails. 

How They Did It

The National Park Foundation is a unique entity in that it was chartered by Congress in 1967 to support the park service, and has some shared leadership with the government agency, but is still an independent entity.

Shafroth says much of the success of the Centennial Campaign—which started its quiet phase in 2013, but has been in the making since around 2011—arose from better alignment between the National Park Service and the foundation, including mapping out what needed funding the most, and out of that, what would likely attract donors. 

“It was kind of a remarkable thing that happened to our fundraising—all of a sudden, people could see that we were totally connected with the park service, and they wanted to give more,” Shafroth says. 

The campaign has raised about 65 percent ($300 million) of funding to date from individuals, 21 percent ($97 million) from corporations, and 13 percent ($61 million) from foundations, roughly the splits they had aimed for. 

Those numbers are the result of increases across categories, which Shafroth chalks up in part simply to doing more fundraising. They hired additional major gift officers, and with guidance from board members like Ellen Malcolm—founder and chair of influential Democratic fundraiser EMILY’s List—ramped up their direct mail fundraising to individuals. They pulled in some notable big donors to make high-profile contributions, including Roxanne Quimby and David Rubinstein, and large institutional funders have included the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.  

But a big component of the increased fundraising has also involved trying to change the way the public engages with national parks, to secure their future base of support. The foundation hired advertising agency Grey New York to craft public outreach, increased social media presence and online content, and developed celebrity park ambassadors. That was a response, in part, to research in the lead-up to the campaign that showed millennials were less interested in parks than previous generations. 

"We need to appeal to them where they are now, through social media, through celebrity ambassadors, through other kinds of platforms, which is a fundamentally different way of approaching a problem than handing people a brochure when they drive into a national park,” Shafroth says. 

Concerns Over Corporate Partnerships

One big hit in that realm has been the Find Your Park/Encuentra Tu Parque campaign, a sharp marketing effort to make the public, younger adults in particular, more aware of the variety of national parks out there. 

The campaign is also an example of the success the foundation has had in terms of drawing corporate donors and partners. Connecting with millennials, it turns out, is also a major priority for the private sector. Corporate partners primarily funded the Find Your Park campaign, and along the bottom of materials such as its website and posters, you’ll see the logos of Budweiser, Subaru, Disney and a few more (you can opt to hide them on the website).

With close to $100 million raised so far, corporations have been a boon for the foundation. Subaru alone has given $6.5 million total, and other large contributors include American Express, Humana and REI. 

“That's enormous.” Shafroth says. He expects funding from corporations will only increase in coming years, judging from the high interest they’ve seen from companies so far. “We’re working our butts off to raise money from individuals and foundations, but we feel like there's a sort of unique lane for the foundation with corporations, and to do this kind of alignment in tasteful ways."

Increased corporate backing, however, has drawn criticism from parks enthusiasts, advocates and employees who want to guard against rising commercial presence and potential conflicts of interest in the parks. 

Relationships with corporations have been a recurring source of controversy for the national parks. In 2011, for example, former Director Jonathan Jarvis came under fire for blocking a planned disposable water bottle ban in Grand Canyon National Park following conversations with Coca-Cola, a major donor to the National Park Foundation. 

More recently, Jarvis outlined a set of updated guidelines for donations and partnerships called Director’s Order 21 (DO-21), which critics saw as an opening to commercialization that gave too much leeway to donors. Watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) was harshly critical, with Executive Director Jeff Ruch stating, “We are concerned that influence peddling will soon become a major recreational activity in our national parks.” Media coverage slammed the order too, fearing a Pandora’s box of corporate presence, and putting the park service on the defense

The final rules that went into effect at the end of 2016 ended up scaling back some of its original proposals, which cooled some concerns. The current policy allows various types of written donor recognition, such as in-park plaques, donor boards or paving stones. Logos are allowed only in credit lines on temporary materials, as in the Find Your Park marketing materials example. It also prohibits naming rights for any “unit of the National Park System or a National Park System facility,” including any historic structure, trail or visitor center.

“Anytime there’s a government agency involved and you’re having corporations pay for it, you have to find a way to do that that does not cross the line, if you will, in terms of ‘Yosemite, brought to you by Starbucks,’ which some people like to throw out as the worst-case scenario,” Shafroth says. “The Park Service has rules and regulations in place so that will never happen.”

But at the very least, the fundraising policy and the Centennial Campaign itself do signal a higher level of fundraising across the system, with corporate partners a growing part of that drive. That will almost certainly remain something of a minefield for an institution that so many hold sacred.

Philanthropy and the Future of the Parks

The other challenge when ramping up philanthropic support is, of course, deciding where the money goes. That’s especially the case for a public institution that is often struggling for sufficient funding. 

The park system, as of September 2016, has a maintenance backlog of $11.3 billion, and federal appropriations over the past decade have been more or less flat. As with many federal agencies, there's some uncertainty under a reckless executive branch and a highly conservative Congress.

We often see a tension in philanthropy for museums and universities when donors exert their influence, hoping to fund something shiny and new. At the same time, you wouldn’t want philanthropy to take over core costs of a public institution. Then there are equity concerns, like those associated with city parks. Popular draws like Central Park are philanthropic darlings, while low-profile green spaces fall into disrepair.  

When fundraising, Shafroth says NPF won’t raise money for anything the park service doesn’t hold as a high priority, citing a list of top needs the agency has identified. They might not have much luck fundraising for things like road repairs, but he says there’s no shortage of needs that are appealing to donors. 

Large 2017 contributions include $3 million for a Washington Monument elevator replacement, $1 million for the Statue of Liberty, and $1 million in support for parks in Utah. Donations to purchase inholdings, chunks of private land within park boundaries, have been a draw, as have cultural and historic projects. 

How the foundation’s rise will impact the overall park system in a macro sense is also an open question. For example, for a set of reasons that likely includes the increased outreach, the National Park System is setting attendance records, which can bring its own set of budget and management issues. The foundation has actually begun shifting some of its outreach to encourage attendance at sites that traditionally see fewer visitors.

There’s also the lingering fear that exists in many areas of philanthropy that it could undermine the perceived need for public funding. Shafroth acknowledges that as a hypothetical concern, but finds himself motivated by the parks he visits that have serious needs, like a recent stop in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, which hasn’t seen any major investment since the 1960s. 

“It was a stark example for me that there's been insufficient investment,” he says. “I'm a realist. The government's not going to just give the park service billions of dollars to go do this in the near term, so we have to step up and try to accelerate that... The system is in dire need of some big investments."