A first-of-its-kind, invitation-only gathering convenes in Austin, Texas, this weekend to discuss philanthropy and partnerships in the national parks.
Many of the power hitters of the philanthropy world will be in attendance: David Rockefeller Jr., a director of Rockefeller & Co.; Rebecca Rimel, president and CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts; Betsy Shure, executive director of the Office of Public Private Partnerships; Ira Hirschfield, president and trustee of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, and many, many more.
In truth, the conference will explore more than just philanthropy in the parks, as sessions on articulating the national park vision, how national parks benefit society, and the next generation of parks are intermingled with those on corporate giving to the parks. And the guest list reflects that agenda, as there are representatives from national parks, friends groups, academia, Congress, and conservation and environmental organizations.
“We’re really trying to bring together people that are interested -- both from the civic side and from the business and philanthropy side -- people who are interested in and working on supporting parks today," says Vin Cipolla, the president and chief executive officer of the Park Foundation. "The universe of park philanthropy is very fragmented, and there is very little opportunity, almost no opportunity, for people around the country to come together and talk about the things that they’re interested in, the things that they’re doing, the things that they see, the improvements and the ideas that they think could matter.
"And so this is an opportunity to create those connections and networks and bridges," he adds. "We are very excited about it because we don’t know of any other time that this constellation of participants involving this work would be coming together.”
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Philanthropy long has been associated with the national parks. An earlier park philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., spent roughly $25 million of his own wealth on national parks. He personally provided the land that today comprises the bulk of Grand Teton, led the way to create the carriage paths that wind through Acadia, and contributed greatly to Great Smoky, Shenandoah, Yosemite, and many others.
And yet, there are those who have concern over having the Park Service rely too much on charitable giving to operate the park system. Indeed, whereas a decade or so ago little of the agency's budget came from non-federal appropriations, now roughly 12 percent is generated from outside sources, according to a Washington Post story from early this year.
Some of the nation's newspapers have come out against the Bush administration's Centennial Initiative, specifically the portion that ties $100 million in federal funding to a dollar-for-dollar match in private funding. They fear such a requirement could lead to corporate intrusion in the parks.
It's easy to see how, with this administration, that a donate-to-your-favorite-park plan easily could become an invitation for companies, industries, and special interests to advertise themselves in the parks, Laura Scott wrote in the Kansas City Star. Further, private donors might feel they have a right to dictate how parks are to be maintained, or where trails will be built, or how big campgrounds will be. Philanthropy quickly could turn into commercialism.
Over at the Baltimore Sun, the paper's editorial board opines that the Bush administration already is too cozy with private interests when it comes to national parks and their missions.
The Bush administration has proved unduly sympathetic to the recreational vehicle industry, which contends its customers aren't content to tool through nearby forests (on snowmobiles) but want to be able to ride up to Old Faithful. Soliciting donations to the parks from those and other businesses, as well as foundations and individuals, raises the prospect that such influence will only grow, says the Sun.
Mr. Cipolla understands where these concerns arise.
"Those are very legitimate concerns," he told me, "and we all need to be vigilant (of) the involvement of corporations in support of the parks, which we all very much want. Corporate citizens are an important part of the philanthropy and partnerships landscape, but we need to be very vigilant for everybody’s benefit. For the public’s benefit, for the benefit of the parks, and the benefit of the corporations that these things are structured in a way that really make sense."
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Who weighs the vigilance?
The Ford Motor Co. is a large giver to the national parks, and its logo graces the home page of the Leadership Summit. Too, Student Conservation Association interns, wearing tan shirts emblazoned with the blue Ford logo, worked in Bryce Canyon National Park in 2005 and 2006 to discuss alternative transportation systems with visitors and provide some interpretative programs. In Acadia National Park, the L.L. Bean logo graces the sides of buses in the park's shuttle fleet. There are other examples if you look out across the park system.
What is an acceptable corporate intrusion into the parks? Is any acceptable if the dollars provided by the corporation benefit the park's visitors?
These can be thorny questions. After all, down through the decades the corporate world has given millions of dollars to the parks to benefit trail systems, research, campgrounds, transportation, and many other vital sectors. That giving, in light of the inadequate federal funding of the Park Service, has been invaluable.
But key to that giving is that the parks not turn into corporate billboards. It can be done, but will it be done? Hopefully this is one of the questions that will be analyzed during the conference.
“Part of our role and objective at the National Park Foundation is to encourage cash philanthropy, to encourage cash gifts, capital gifts, corporate foundation gifts, that support the programs and initiatives of the national park service," Mr. Cipolla told me when I explored this question. "So, obviously that is an important sector to giving, that is an important sector in all giving, whether it’s health, whether it’s environmental, whether it’s the arts, the corporate piece is a very important piece.
"Where the parks are concerned, there are considerations that have to go into it. So I think it’ a very legitimate concern. And I think those concerns are ones that need to be on the table as these things are being looked at, so they come out the right way.”
The conference gets under way Sunday and runs through Tuesday. I'll let you know what transpires.