A watchdog group on Tuesday raised questions about how the National Park Foundation spends its charitable dollars, saying the non-profit organization lacks transparency and is top heavy. Foundation CEO Neil Mulholland adamantly rebutted those charges, saying they were "factually incorrect."
The give-and-take focused primarily on the Foundation's Fiscal Year 2011 financial analysis, which shows $4.5 million was spent on program grants to the parks, another $4.5 million on program support, and $4.7 million on fundraising and general administrative costs.
The Foundation was chartered by Congress specifically to support the national parks. But according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, only about a third of the donations it takes in trickle down to the parks.
"Focusing only on 2011, the latest year, less than $1 out of $3 is going into parks, which I think would surprise a lot of people," Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, told the Traveler.
Mr. Mulholland acknowledged during a phone interview that someone glancing at the financial summary contained in the Foundation's annual report might reach that conclusion. But he added that "there's a lot that goes on here, and that we do day in and day out, that we don't brag about it, we don't report on it."
As for how much of the Foundation's annual budget is spent on the parks, the CEO said that in 2011, 72 percent of the non-profit's income went back to the parks, and in 2010 the amount was 77 percent.
There's no question the Foundation supports the parks. In its latest round of "impact grants" to the parks, it sent $650,000 into the National Park System. Nearly $7,000 went to Dinosaur National Monument to help develop a monitoring and preservation plan for 150-million-year-old fossils in the monument's new exhibit hall, and $9,200 went to Grand Teton National Park to help re-sod some historic cabins in the park.
Additionally, in past years the Foundation has helped underwrite programs to bring inner city youth into parks to not only become familiar with and comfortable in the outdoors, but also to study climate change in the parks; helped fund a program at St. Croix National Scenic Riverway to connect at-risk teens with nature through a photography course; funded an "Active Trails" program in the parks to get volunteers involved with trail work, citizen science, and other activities, and; underwritten Electronic Field Trips that send live broadcasts from national park settings into classrooms around the country.
But gleaning details of exactly how the Foundation spends its charitable donations is difficult, as it is exempt from filing IRS Form 990, which breaks out income, spending, and financial practices. Without that form, Charity Navigator, a non-profit that ranks charitable organizations based on their spending, cannot assess how wisely the Foundation spends its income.
Even the Foundation's own financial summary is vague, lumping expenses into just three categories -- program grants, program support, and fundraising and administrative expenses -- without providing any indepth details on that spending. That lack of detail is troubling, according to PEER. It's impossible to verify Mr. Mulholland's interpretation of the numbers, said Mr. Ruch.
“I’d be delighted to respond to that if he would put it down in writing and put it out in the public," the PEER executive director said when told the Foundation considers both program grants and program support -- a combined $9 million in FY11 -- as going out to the parks.
"There’s no way to examine those claims, because he’s not putting the numbers out. And what numbers we have indicates -- unless he for example is saying the Christmas Tree Lighting is sort of the program he’s talking about -- we have no way to examine that, and that’s sort of part of the problem. Their books can reflect whatever they say they want them to reflect," charged Mr. Ruch.
The National Christmas Tree Lighting event, a free-to-the-public, open-air production complete with live musical acts held in Washington, D.C., on President's Park on the first Thursday in December, should not be considered investing charitable dollars back into the parks, said Mr. Ruch.
“To say that these are the programs that go back to benefit the parks is B.S.," he said. "So, for example, his people would point out that when they assist one of their corporate sponsors with a marketing promotion, they count that as going back to the parks. That’s program support. We’re saying that doesn’t go back to the parks. It’s the same as saying doing outreach for Coca Cola and the African American community is the same thing as building a trail. That shows what the problem is.”
Mr. Mulholland disagreed.
"It’s an event of national significance that dates back to 1927," he said of the tree-lighting ceremony and production that drew an estimatedy 20,000 spectators last December. "One of the things about the National Park Service, we tend to focus on the 58 iconic landscape parks, but we need to remember the other charter mission of the National Park Service is preserving our American history, and continuing our American traditions, and this is one of them."
The event, which last December featured B.B. King and Maroon 5, is wholly supported by donations given specifically for that event, said Mr. Mulholland. Those donations enable the Foundation to have the lighting ceremony broadcast not only throughout the country via Public Broadcasting System stations, but also overseas to military installations, he said.
The production also carries messages about the National Park Service, the CEO added.
"If you look at tapes of the show you will see that the National Park Service is embedded throughout the show. We talk about the fact that President’s Park is a national park," said Mr. Mulholland. "This is one of the largest events that the National Park Service participates in every year."
While PEER also drew attention to a post-tree-lighting reception that cost nearly $49,000, a bill Mr. Ruch referred to as a bar tab, Mr. Mulholland again pointed out that the affair is underwritten by a sponsor that donated specifically for the event "to thank our donors, to thank the people that put on the show."
In total, the 2011 tree-lighting-event cost nearly $1 million. Part of that bill was $41,500 allocated for airfare for celebrities such as B.B. King and Maroon 5. Another $22,500 was spent on "car service" -- chauffeurs -- for the talent. Another $135,500 was budgeted for set construction. Underwriters Laboratories underwrote the $993,676 bill, according to the Foundation.
In examining the Foundation's balance sheet, PEER also claimed the Foundation wrongly credited itself for dollars raised and spent for the Flight 93 National Memorial. The Flight 93 Memorial Campaign, the group contended, has its own board and does its own fundraising.
But John Reynolds, who chairs the Flight 93 Federal Advisory Commission, took strong exception to that contention.
“I’m flabergasted that they would make that claim. They’ve (the Foundation) been with us since the very beginning of our fundraising and have been doing all the fundraising," said Mr. Reynolds, reached Tuesday in a taxi cab in New York City where he was consulting on Gateway National Recreation Area and linking it with surrounding state and local parks.
"They (the Foundation) did the fundraising for the first piece that we dedicated on September 10 of last year, and they’re doing it for the remainder. I’m just flabergasted. The whole fundraising staff is there and they’ve been there for a long time."
While Mr. Ruch's organization claims the Foundation "raises the bulk of its funds by concentrating on a handful of large corporate donors," Mr. Mulholland countered that 40 percent of its revenues come from corporations, 30 percent from individuals, and 30 percent from foundations.