Leadership

How giving at national parks is ‘all about love’

The National Park Service receives appropriated funds each year for preservation and maintenance of the 419 parks it manages around the country, but some of the agency’s most innovative and high-impact projects also rely on volunteer and monetary donations from citizens and organizations. Reginald Chapple is responsible for managing those partnerships at NPS. He spoke with Federal Times’ associate editor about the impact such donations have and why philanthropy is all about love.

Tell me about the work that your office does and how it relates to the larger mission of the National Park Service.

THE OFFICE IS IN charge of our 219 friends groups and then the relationship with our National Park Foundation. So, our 219 friends groups are each attached to one of our national parks. There are 419 national parks, but there are only 219 friends groups, and that’s because some of the parks are either brand new or they’re small. And people know Statue of Liberty. They know, say, Golden Gate National Recreation Area. They might even know Mount Rushmore. But not many people know places like Tuzigoot or Dinosaur [National Monuments] or someplace like that, so those tend not to have a friends group yet. And, so, there’s where our National Park Foundation actually takes over.

Ethics is important for us, as well. As we do this work in philanthropy, we want to maintain the high standards of transparency and accountability and maintain the integrity and trust of the American public.

How important would you say philanthropy is to the mission of National Park Service?

OH, IT’S CORE TO the mission. So many times people will hear, “to preserve unimpaired for future generations,” and that’s the part [of our mission] that they know, but if you read the mission statement online there’s another sentence that gets cut off and it talks about partners, and those partners have been a part of the National Park Service since the very beginning.

The railroads, hotels, restaurants — they were all our early partners because they were the ones who worked with us to actually pull people into parks or transport people into parks, give them someplace to stay and then to feed them, as well. And, so, we broadened out those partnerships over time.

And now, with our Find Your Park Campaign and the Centennial Campaign, we’re really talking about this kind of 21st century or 22nd century Park Service, where we have social media, where we’ve got another audience that we need to consider. And corporations are looking at this, universities are looking at this.

We’ve got the baby boomer population, which is just as large as the millennial population, and we’re needing to cater to both now.

Are there any projects that National Park Service has done recently that stuck you as particularly impactful based on philanthropic donations?

ANTELOPE FLATS AND GRAND TETON is one of those projects where we had the National Park Foundation raise a certain amount of money and the local friends group, in this case the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, raised another; then the National Park Service put in an amount. We were then able to capture an inholding [privately owned land inside the boundary of a publicly owned, protected area] that was near the airport. So, when you land in Grand Teton you’re actually looking down on Antelope Flats. Now, when you go there you can see elk meandering right over the roads and their pathways have not been impaired.

There are more youth programs that we have going on, as well; bringing Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts into national parks for our campsites is really important for us to introduce the next generation park goers to the National Park Service. That doesn’t always result in dollars to the National Park Service, but we’re able then to move young people into a park and give them a park experience they can remember for the rest of their lives.

We weren’t thinking of ourselves as some kind of lifestyle brand or a major tourism economic engine, and we’ve had to begin to look at ourselves that way. We are the No. 1 tourist attraction in two states: New York with the Statue of Liberty and Arizona with the Grand Canyon.

For Chinese visitors, national parks are their No. 1 destination and so we began working with other entities like the Convention of Visitor Bureaus and United Airlines. So being able to match up the data in terms of park visits, the times, managing capacity and load and lease sites, we then have a united effort both with the corporate community, with individual donors who want to help with sites and giving the Chinese visitor, the international visitor a whole different experience that is seamless.

What are some motivators that you’ve found are the biggest draw for people to either donate money or to participate in partnerships?

I THINK IT’S THE idea of being able to be associated with park names. It’s really impactful for people to be able to say, “My planned gift is going to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.” Great Smoky is one of our biggest flora parks, meaning that they have a lot of biodiversity there, so when you go there’s this season of the year that just relates to fireflies. We had a donor wanted to leave her husband and her’s fortune to Great Smoky for these lightning bugs and firefly ceremonies that were there.

That’s the kind of neat thing about this idea of philanthropy. It allows for individuals to participate in a certain way and then to be associated long-term with the national park. And, for some people, that is worth more than gold to be associated in that way, because we are sort of like America’s photo album.

As someone who has chosen a position in civil service, how does that job of serving the country kind of impact your outlook on philanthropy as a whole?

I THINK SOMETIMES FOLKS think of philanthropy as this afterthought; “I’m just going to get a tax write-off for it.” But when you actually work in civil service it adds to that mission that you have of public service. Connecting the American public with their national parks and giving them a way to give back, in addition to tax dollars, helps move the Park Service forward faster, maintain our buildings and programs and bring them to a higher level of quality.

We can’t do that alone. We have 7.2 million hours of volunteer time a year, and there’s about 315,000 volunteers.

We’ve entered into the Combined Federal Campaign season that promotes volunteering and donating funds, so does this provide a different lens for you all on how you approach your jobs?

IF YOU’RE THINKING PHILANTHROPICALLY, this is the end of the calendar year, so folks are trying to offload any extra money that they have, and we have had to learn to gear ourselves up for that and provide the policies and mechanisms to be able to capture those dollars and give people a way to give. Our 219 friends groups have been able to do that and our National Park Foundation has done that as well, with very sophisticated social media campaigns.

The Combined Federal Campaign gives us a whole different mechanism for individual employees to understand the power of philanthropy. You may not give to the National Park Service, but being in a giving spirit changes the way in which you approach our work, I believe. It’s not just a place where you work; it’s a place that you want to be of service to someone else. Philanthropy means love, and we’re about a season of love in the Park Service.

Is there any story of giving that inspires you or motivates you in the work that you do?

WHEN I FIRST GOT here about six years ago, the director of the Park Service had met [private equity firm founder and philanthropist] David Rubenstein. They both served on the Kennedy Center Board and he was in the elevator with him. David Rubenstein said, “So, how can I help with the Washington Monument?”

By the time they moved from the top floor down to the bottom level, David Rubenstein had committed to actually funding a part of the Washington Monument [repairs]. So that is just incredible that it can happen that quickly, that folks at all levels — whether you’re giving $25 to become a member of a friends group or giving multimillions – you can find a place to help at a national park

[Rubenstein] said, “Show me other places where I can give.”

And, so, the Lincoln Memorial became the place, the statue of what we know as Hiroshima became another place, and he just began to look for more opportunities to give. That’s emblematic of what happens when you’re interacting with a park.

We have some folks that work with us that started out as just a donor or a volunteer and then migrated onto our staff because of the love that they have for the National Park Service and its mission. So, philanthropy is all about love.

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