National Park ServiceU.S. Department of the Interior
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Cuyahoga Education Center

Description: Since 1993, the National Park Service (NPS) at Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) has been involved in an education partnership with a mission to deliver quality, innovative, and cutting-edge environmental education programs to students and adults in Northeastern Ohio.

The partnership started and continues to be essential to operate the 128-bed residential Environmental Education Center (EEC) located on 500 acres of the park. EEC opened its doors in spring 1994. Its facilities consist of an administrative building and two campuses developed from rehabilitated farm structures. Each campus has a dormitory, dining hall, kitchen, science lab, and meeting room. In 1999, November Lodge opened, adding a large multipurpose room, computer lab, and art room to the facilities.

The standards-based curriculum taught at the center integrates science, arts, environmental issues, and history. The programs incorporate the latest technology, including computers, digital cameras, and global positioning instruments. Current revisions are infusing problem-based learning approaches into the experience.

The concept for a residential environmental education facility at CVNP was introduced in the General Management Plan, dating from 1977. Planning for expanded environmental education began in the 1980s, led by the Division of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services and predating major partner involvement. Then in 1988, John P. Debo, Jr. began his tenure as the park's Superintendent. This leadership change played a key role in the focus of the implementation of environmental education in the park, shifting residential environmental education to a park priority.

The Superintendent believed that an operating partner would be essential to make a residential center possible and self-sustaining. An operating partner was also valued for facilitating operations that are complex or impossible for the federal government including:

  • Recruiting staff with experience in residential environmental education.
  • Compensating residential environmental education staff, which traditionally works over 40-hour weeks.
  • Handling fee income from programs.
  • Operating food service.
  • Fund raising.

Beginning in 1988, park interpretive staff began courting the University of Akron as a potential operating partner through its Department of Physical and Health Education. However in 1992, with drastic budget cuts and turnover of the university president, the university pulled away from the project.

Construction and curriculum development continued even while the operating partner remained uncertain. Superintendent Debo approached the park's friends group, Cuyahoga Valley Association (CVA), to take on the partnership role. CVA existed before the park and played a major role in park establishment by organizing grassroots support that Congress needed to see before getting behind the authorizing legislation.

In 1993, CVA accepted the challenge to operate the EEC. According to the organizational structure that was established, the partner staff at the EEC would be subordinate to an NPS employee to lessen pressures on CVA. The role of the pre-existing CVA executive director would be minimally expanded and an administrative assistant would be hired to support her functions. The financial concerns were alleviated with the promise of financial support from the NPS. Between fees and this financial support, operating costs were expected to be covered.

By March 8, 1994, EEC construction was complete enough for the pilot program to begin with school children.

The first planning team for NPS-CVA partnership at EEC consisted of three representatives from each organization. This team served as the consultation group that gave broad policy direction to key staff members. Within the first year, this planning team was formalized into the on-going Joint Coordinating Committee (JCC) to provide operational guidance and policy direction. This committee consisted of three high-level NPS representatives (the superintendent, administrative office, and chief of interpretation), two CVA board members, and CVA's executive director. The next director of EEC hired by the partner was given the title "executive director" of the center. She reported to the executive director of CVA and attended meeting of its board of directors.

As the nonprofit partner hired highly skilled leaders, the top-down management approach used by NPS staff during the start-up of the EEC stifled and frustrated staff. The first director of the center, hired by CVA, remained in the position for only a year in part because of his frustration with the limits of his authority. Ultimately, the NPS shifted its management style and broadened the authority of the partner so that the partner took over the lead role in center operations. This decision recognized that the partner needed to be able to raise funds and interface with the community at the highest level in order to be effective. It also valued the partner's greater flexibility for adding staff and creating new programs.

Even with the partner now having the lead in decision-making and operations, the NPS continued its strong presence at EEC in terms of funding, staff, and program direction. The NPS identity at the center also remained strong through uniformed teaching staff, use of the NPS Arrowhead, and program content emphasizing the NPS connections. By participating on the leadership committees for the EEC park leadership has stayed involved in the decision-making structure for the center.

While the structure between the NPS and CVA seemed to be functioning better, internal problems remained. The structure of CVA, which now had two executive directors, began to be problematic. The association's executive director played a nominal role in running the environmental center. The center's executive director supervised 22 staff members, gave oversight for a larger budget, and had fund-raising responsibilities, yet had limited access to the association's board of directors. The departure of the center's second director was a result of management concerns that were complicated by the complex structure, which she questioned throughout her tenure. To begin to address the structural issues, CVA created a standing committee of its board to provide policy direction for the center.

As the EEC grew in scope and accomplishments, the standing committee began to function more and more like a board of directors. It took increased responsibility for fund raising, spent time on policy decisions, and worked closely with the EEC's director to create a vision and direction for the EEC. The partnership at this point was primarily between the NPS and the environmental education center. The standing committee was at the core of this partnership, replacing the strong role of CVA in the early stages. Ultimately, this growing independence from CVA resulted in the decision for the center to spin off as an independent nonprofit organization, Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center, in 2000. This decision also resolved some tensions that naturally arose as the EEC essentially outgrew its small parent organization.

The growth in the partner's capacity for fund raising parallels the evolution of the partnership. By the blossoming stage, the partner was making significant financial contributions to the site beyond basic operations. The first-a capital campaign for facility expansion--occurred before the split with CVA. It did not take long for the EEC to outgrow its indoor teaching space and to identify needs not met by existing buildings, such as a large multi-purpose room and technology lab. The solution became a new building, November Lodge, that could be used by both campuses, funded by the partner. While most of the funding was raised from foundations, the lead gift came from a private individual introduced to the partner by a teacher who participates in the program.

The split between CVEEC and CVA allowed CVEEC to further develop an aggressive development program. CVEEC's board had a development committee to facilitate fund-raising. Staff turnover allowed restructuring to hire a higher-level development director with entry-level support. This development program continues to be important for all of CVNPA's programs, including on-going funding for the EEC as well as other projects specific to the park.

The education partnership at CVNP went through reinvention again in 2002, triggered by the park's need for a high performance friends group. Effective July 1, 2002, CVA merged into CVEEC, which in effect meant that CVA dissolved and CVEEC changed its name to become Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association (CVNPA).

CVNP and its partners have been very fortunate to be located in a metropolitan area with a tradition of philanthropy and community foundations that are strong supporters of park programs. However, concern about over-reliance on foundation funding helped motivate the reinvigoration of the park friends group through the merger of CVA and CVEEC into CVNPA. Vigorous membership and corporate volunteer programs were identified as mechanisms to involve individuals and corporations in the park to grow the base of potential donors. Greater attention to board development and earned income were additional identified strategies. CVNPA is pursuing each of these to help ensure a positive financial future for itself and the park.

Geographic area covered: Located in Northeast Ohio, the park preserves 33,000 acres of pastoral landscape along the Cuyahoga River between the cities of Akron and Cleveland. The 128-bed residential Environmental Education Center (EEC) is located on 500 acres of the park.

List of partners and relationships: Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association (CVNPA) and the National Park Service.

Accomplishments to date: In its nine years of existence, literally thousands of individuals have been impacted by its programs. Over 15,000 young people annually have participate in residential school programs, day programs, summer camps, and retreats. The EEC is known and respected for its commitment to high quality educational experiences and is viewed as one of the leading educational programs in the region. A scholarship program allows 25% of participating students to come from low-income families, measured through participation in the federal free lunch program. Most of these students live in urban Cleveland and Akron areas.

Having two organizations fully committed to the EEC has created capacity both in terms of time and more varied staff expertise to engage additional community organizations in the center.

Key success factors:

  1. The funding model for the annual operations of the EEC is a source of success and shared responsibility. By both the NPS and partner owning responsibility for funding, the partnership has been able to tap a broader pool of external funding sources, use each other's funding to leverage additional funds, and have money available for innovation and program excellence.
  2. CVNP has long been supported by Congressman Ralph Regula, who has held a powerful position in the House Appropriations Committee for the Department of Interior. Regula felt that he could make a case for federal funding for the initial center development once local fund-raising efforts demonstrated strong community support. Thus, after $1.113 million was contributed by local foundations through an NPS-run capital campaign, Regula was able to garner $3.7 million in federal capital funds.
  3. Having two organizations fully committed to the EEC has created the capacity both in terms of time and more varied staff expertise to engage additional community organizations in the center. This has been especially productive in the area of professional development, where partnering with others has created a wide variety of opportunities for area educators.
  4. The staff structure is one that is parallel-each organization has its own staff chart and set of responsibilities-and seamless. Both organizations are critical to the success of the other. NPS and partner staff work side-by-side and most projects include representation from both organizations. Decisions are made mutually.
  5. The nonprofit EEC director and the NPS education operations manager have great respect and trust in each other that makes decision-making relatively easy. This sense of trust permeates the cultures of both organizations. Both of these supervisors, along with other senior staff from the partner organization, work very hard to gain trust from other NPS employees not at the EEC, especially in the maintenance division.
  6. As the EEC matured, more autonomy was given to the partner organization in order for them to raise funds and interface with the community. The NPS has the authority to approve the partner's choice of an executive director and to concur with major policy decisions and directions.

Frustrations: In the early phase of the partnership, the top-down management approach of the NPS lead to frustrations on the part of partner staff who had their authority curtailed. This management style was supported by the partnership structure because CVA had relinquished control to the NPS in accepting the partnership. However, as CVA hired talented staff, it became problematic. The curriculum development process was tense because it reflected the management concerns. It was not always clear who had the final say on the curriculum-the NPS leadership who provided the overall vision or the partner staff implementing that direction. Because of a lack of trust among staff, especially between the NPS lead staff person at the center and others, it was difficult to reach consensus.

In early phases of the center, CVA was slow to develop its capability to raise on-going funds for the EEC. This occurred in part because of CVA's organizational structure and in part because early planning for the EEC did not create an expectation for fund raising, rather envisioning paying for the EEC through fees and an NPS subsidy. Because it had low fund-raising goals prior to taking on EEC operations, CVA's board did not have a fund-raising focus and relied heavily on staff to raise funds through grant writing.

The lack of clearly defined roles for NPS staff as the partner expanded its role at the center had frustrated the NPS staff and impacted morale. This issue has been overcome as the NPS staff has consciously worked to more clearly define their goals and feel empowered to collaborate with partner staff at all levels to fulfill them.

Most important lessons learned to date:

  1. Learn the skills of collaboration. Successful collaborators need to understand and be able to clearly articulate their own goals and objectives, as well as listen to and appreciate the goals and objectives of others. Openly empowering staff at all levels of both the park and partner organization to collaborate in carrying out their daily work helps as well. Providing a clearer understanding of each organization's role in the partnership and providing communication frameworks for open sharing has created a healthy and balanced working relationship between the staff of the two organizations.
  2. Hire well. The experiences at the EEC at CVNP point to traits needed by leaders to be fully successful in a partnership. These include abilities to share control, manage inclusive decision-making processes, and articulate and help others rally around a shared vision.
  3. Accept organizational limitations. Recognizing and accepting organizational limitations is key. For the partner, it was important to establish a climate that spoke positively about the NPS and did not dwell on shortcomings. The same can be said for understanding the culture of nonprofit organizations. Different employment practices, safety regulations, bureaucratic requirements, etc. can lead to tension if viewed negatively.
  4. Share decision-making and authority. Shared decision making and authority needs to be intentionally planned in a partnership. In the current structure, the nonprofit partner, CVNPA, has the greatest responsibility in decision-making. But the involvement of NPS leadership as advisors to every committee and the board of directors is crucial. Good communication among program managers leads to shared decision-making. Each partner has authority over its own personnel and structure, but program direction and policy is determined jointly.
  5. Develop a culture of trust. The relationship is most successful when it is seen by both partners as mutually enhancing and symbiotic. Both partners need to recognize how valuable they are to each other in order to achieve their mission.
  6. Trust cannot be enforced. Partners can support and celebrate each other so that internally and externally it is obvious that the partnership is rooted in trust. The partner staff is constantly reminded that while their paychecks don't come from the NPS, they still work for the NPS and that they should feel privileged to do so. NPS staff is reminded that the nonprofit partner allows them to have resources to be innovative and successful that would not be available without the partnership. This positive reinforcement maintains a culture where both partners are highly valued for what they bring to the partnership.
  7. Go for the big vision. Partnering is enabling. The synergy of organizations working together brings a bigger pool of talent, ideas, and resources to a project. It also adds a measure of flexibility, giving more alternatives for getting work accomplished. As the project progresses, partnering increases the momentum and community buy-in because more people are invested.

What would you do differently next time:

Suggested resource materials(related to the case study):

For more information:

Name: Jennie Vasarhelyi
Affiliation: Chief, Interpretation & Visitor Services
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Phone/Fax: 440-546-5990

Name: Dave Irvine
Affiliation: Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association
Phone/Fax: 330-657-2796
Email/website: /

Partnership category(ies) (check all that apply)

Fundraising _X_; Capital Improvements _X_; Facility Management _X_; Trails __; Design __; Program Delivery _X_; Visitor Services _X_; Tenant Organizations __, Concessioners __; Natural Resources Management/Restoration _X_; Cultural Resources __; Education/Interpretation _X_; Arts __; Information Services _X_; Transportation __; Mutual Aid __; Fire Management __; Planning _X_; Tourism __; Community Relations __;

Other ____________________________

Prepared by: Jennie Vasarhelyi Date posted: 9/22/02
Phone: 440-546-5990

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