Heather Comstock Connects

Helping nonprofits and other volunteer organizations develop strong relationships and a clear voice in the community.

Government and NPO Partnerships: What You Can Learn From Our Parks

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This is an old whale skull on the northern part of Assateague Island above the section owned by the state of Maryland. I think the abandoned swim noodle adds a nice effect!

I am huge fan of parks! Living here in Maryland, we are very fortunate to have about a gazillion (I counted) parks from mountains to beaches all within a very short drive. When I visit the parks, I am in awe of the dedication of the staff, the commitment of the volunteers, and ways parks and local nonprofits build innovative partnerships to make interesting things happen. The park service is a government agency and is subject to government budgets and restrictions. By teaming up with groups such as a “Friends Of…” organization that is a nonprofit, the two organizations can harness the benefits of both structures to support the park’s mission. How does this work and why?

It is local. A local organization, place, or group has an advantage in that they know the people and area they serve. They start with an existing connection for potential supporters that just doesn’t exist for a larger national brand.

They know the area. Consider the geographic areas served by Valley Forge National Historic Site versus Yosemite National Park. They are engaging two different groups of people. While there is overlap, Yosemite’s focus is more on the wild outdoors while Valley Forge tells the story of a key moment in America’s fight for independence from Britain. Smaller park support groups can keep their story more focused and strengthen those connections with the public and build a stronger base of support.

The structure supports what each does best. Nonprofits can’t have police, but parks need rangers to enforce laws, help & educate visitors, and protect sites. On the other hand, nonprofits are really good at developing fund-raising campaigns, cultivating memberships, advocating for their park, and planning special events.

They facilitate communication. The friends groups provide another avenue for communication between parks and users. Parks can learn more about the visitor’s experiences and the friends groups can help visitors understand the park policies and needs.

These partnerships are not limited to the federal parks. Maryland State Parks represents a beautiful diversity of public places from the Appalachian Trail and Civil War sites to Assateague Island! Locally, the Historic Londontown Foundation operates a park site which is owned by Anne Arundel County.

Get out there and explore your local parks, but also look at ways these partnerships work. How and what are they doing? Is there something there you can adapt for your own organization?

Be sure to check out the parks on social media (federal and state) – they are doing a wonderful job of engaging the public and telling their story in that medium.  Here’s a roundup of some great places to check out:

Patapsco Valley State Park – they have everything from hiking & biking trails to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution within the confines of Maryland’s first state park.  All within in a half hour drive of Baltimore!

Fort McHenry National Shrine – a gem in Baltimore City and home of the Star Spangled Banner.  The excitement of the rangers is contagious!

Anne Arundel County Recreation & Parks operates a variety sites that have been re-purpsed from the Baltimore &  Annapolis Trail which uses the railbed of the B & A Railroad to Fort Smallwood which was part of the network of sites designed to defend Baltimore’s harbor (Fort McHenry’s Ranger Scott Sheads co-authored a wonderful book on the topic with Merle T. Cole.  Trivia tidbit – West Point Graduate Robert E. Lee was assigned to the project early in his career!)


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