Evolution of Philanthropy in the National Park System

Point 3

Park philanthropy, driven by needs, opportunities and awareness, was very active in the early years of the National Parks through the Great Depression. During the 60's and 70's there were more "expansion" than lean budget years and philanthropy was not as crucial.

That changed in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13 in California in 1978 and California's Governor Ronald Reagan's move to the White House in 1980. These events set in motion a dramatic shift in public understandings about what government could fund and what people would need to help support though contributions of money and time. People made the transition to thinking that contributions to government agencies were appropriate and necessary.

The National Park Service, like many other public agencies at that time, began to proactively pursue philanthropy and volunteerism. It was an uneasy transition. Parks began to encourage their non profit park partners to aggressively raise funds for park needs. Most park managers and staff were not familiar with what it takes to successfully fundraise and operate a viable non profit organization. During the early 80's:

  • Yosemite National Park launched a $52 million "Return of Light" Capital Campaign through its cooperating association, the Yosemite Association, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks and Lassen National Park announced similar capital campaigns. These concurrent campaigns raised two issues:
    • What was the responsibility of Congress vis a vis philanthropy in funding park needs?
    • Were large fundraising campaigns appropriate for NPS Cooperating Associations, which were chartered by Congress to assist parks with interpretation, education and scientific research?
  • National Parks, beginning with Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area experimented with advertising park gift opportunities through park gift catalogs with some initial success.
  • Although most park superintendents initially opposed the idea of setting up a "poor box" parks began to install donation boxes in parks as part of their fundraising strategy. Most parks have one or more today,
  • Few parks had established 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, nonprofit park friends groups to raise funds for unmet park needs. In 2006, there are over 150 such park friends groups and more parks are creating new ones. They annually contribute time, expertise, materials, completed park projects, program support, and approximately $17 million in funds from private sources.
  • 65 Cooperating Associations operate over 1,000 bookstores both in and outside parks and contribute $26 million in aid to parks annually.
  • 120,000 volunteers contribute 4.5 million hours of time, expertise and energy to assist the NPS parks and programs annually. This yearly contribution is conservatively valued at $77 million.