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Los Angeles: Angels in the Parks

Not all angels have wings.  Some are clearly grounded and quietly working in Los Angeles city parks thanks to the partnership between the Recreation and Parks Department (RAP) and the Los Angeles Parks Foundation.  Just over $106 million has been secured to put 50 new parks in the city in the neighborhoods most in need, based on a 2009 RAP assessment that found that many dense areas of the city lacked sufficient park space.

LAPF Logo1Under its 50 Parks Initiative, 53 sites for new parks have been acquired by the city – taking advantage of the real estate downturn and bulldozing foreclosed homes in some cases – and are being developed into parks, playgrounds and recreation areas.  A quarter of the 50 parks are smaller than an acre in size.

“With the addition of the 50 Parks Initiative, about 20% of the parks established during this department’s long history will be the work of the last seven years,” says Barry Sanders, Recreation and Parks Commission President.  One important partner in this initiative has been the Los Angeles Parks Foundation, founded in 2008 and just hitting its stride.

“Probably thirty years of thinking preceded the creation of the foundation,” says Judith Kieffer, Executive Director of the Foundation.  But like many successful start-ups, it took the convergence of some good leaders – including Sanders – and Jon Kirk Mukri, General Manager for the Recreation and Parks Department.  Sanders now wears two hats as head of the Parks Commission and chair of the Foundation.  “Barry is absolutely the right person for the job – and probably the only one who can make this dual-hat role work,” says Kieffer.

The Foundation’s mission is all about a partnership with RAP.  They are not leading but listening, doing things with and for the department as a support organization, not a policy advocate with a “distinct and bright line of separation” between them so as to be independent enough to bring real value.  They promote the department, raise funds for parks and develop a broader constituency for the fate of public parks.

It Takes Two
“We have a good working relationship and we communicate constantly – one of the keys to making our partnership work.”

It worked well when the Republic of Korea came to the Mayor with a request to restore the Korean Friendship Bell, a gift from the Republic to the city in 1976.  The bell sits high on a hillside in Angel’s Gate Park and had become so rusty that it had stopped ringing.  Korea wanted to provide funds so that the bell would be fixed. The Foundation accepted the funds and then hired an expert to repair the bell which now once again rings for ceremonies and services.

LAPF Photo 2Typically there is some re-energized interest in projects that drive their joint interest; there is no formal priority setting.  The Foundation receives donations designated for a specific purpose that the RAP is interested in and the Foundation acts as a record-keeper.  In other cases, they will take the lead and take on the role of general contractor while working closely with the department. They have helped to construct huge projects, especially ones that have been in the system for years lacking the funding to move forward – and including the 50 Parks initiative.

The 50 Parks Initiative was generated by the department and may be the largest urban park expansion in the country.  RAP spearheaded all the initial fundraising and the Foundation supported them.  Together, everybody was cranking to find sources of funding from numerous public and private not for profit sources.  The Foundation hosted meetings with major donors and local banks; teamed with RAP while they pitched the idea to other city agencies, like Housing; and secured funding from philanthropic foundations that only give to nonprofit corporations.

As of May of this year, 45 sites are now publicly owned and ready to be developed as parks.  RAP has built 13 of the sites already.  Once again, the Foundation plays a role in helping with site development, often taking possession and then hiring a contractor to build, working with the city at every step.  “We get a right of entry from the city to take ‘temporary ownership’ of a park, hire developers, get the park built and then turn the site back over to the city.”

Corporate Partners
One way that the Foundation has provided value is by building a reputation with the corporate community, with new partners stepping up for the parks in big and small ways.  The challenge is to gain their support for not only the upfront capital expense but the long term maintenance of a new facility.  “The sustainability issue is probably the key thing in making the partnerships work. No one wants to do anything that is a downstream maintenance issue for the city.”

So for any capital project or program where the parks department sees a need, the Foundation raises additional funds – as they did for the restoration of the mounted patrol horse unit, where they identified funds for the ongoing need for trainers, feed, vets, etc.  Originally created in the early 1970’s, the Ranger Mounted Unit was established to provide services to the users of Griffith Park’s extensive bridle trails. The Foundation, as one of its first projects, provided the funding to restore the unit and add more horses to the fold.

In another case, the Foundation is raising funds for the planned nature conservancy in Griffith Park and the goal will include a $5 million endowment, thanks to their outreach efforts in helping donors understand the value of an ongoing reserve.

Along with corporate support comes the issue of donor recognition.  The Foundation is finding ways to work with the city on signage that recognizes donors, such as plaques on benches – trying to reflect corporate support without compromising the public park experience.  Recently the city had its first ‘naming’ request and is learning the importance of a program and policies to recognize donors.  More requests are coming, too, from promoters, regarding events in the park that can provide value to both to themselves and the city.

A Business Model Taking Shape
The LA Parks Foundation is small.  They currently have two half time employees who provide help with bookkeeping, communications, the website and membership.  Judith herself works three quarter time.  And this year, a new full time project manager has been hired which they share with the department.

They share that staffer with RAP so both can take advantage of his expertise.  RAP, like many other city park departments across the nation, has seen both cutbacks (30% of their operations budget in the last 4 years) and the retirement of some of its most seasoned staffers.

“Typically we don’t do fundraising for city staffing – this has been a baseline issue for us.  As much as we work well with the department, we know we can’t underwrite their staffing.  We try to be sensitive about the best place we can provide value.”

The Foundation has just crossed the $6.5 million level in fundraising since 2008.  They have exceeded their budget every year since forming as the community embraces the idea of a private entrepreneurial partner committed to the city and its goals for parks.  Their success is linked to a 15-member board that uses its own gifts to leverage more – their giving provides a floor for the Foundation’s operations.  When the Foundation takes on a larger role in construction projects, they work with donors and the city on support for their administrative efforts.

“I also needed to understand and see how the city worked in order to figure out how we could work together,” said Judith. There are no weekly staff meetings between the two organizations, but Judith is talking all the time with the department, and she is out in the parks – a lot.  She also attends meetings with park advisory boards, other city departments, city council members and potential donors.

“We team up all the time and represent each other as needed on the same mission. This integrating of our resources around a common mission has absolutely been the key ingredient to our success.”  The City now embraces the partnership and sees how the Foundation can serve the department – and the staff sees it as a tool for them to have more success around their initiatives. “Everything we do is collaborative; we are hand in glove to get where we need to be.”

As the organization grows and takes on additional projects with the city and with friends of the parks groups around the city, they are looking more thoughtfully at their own future.  “We have always had an annual strategic plan which we revisit regularly with the board.  We are poised for a longer term view to help us identify where the next growth spurt will come from.  The fact that we have exceeded our budget expectations every year – that’s a good sign.”

Lessons learned?  “It was so critical that I work very carefully and slowly to integrate the foundation into the city system; building good relations with the city was key.  We slowly built trust as a reliable partner who wanted to work on their behalf – because the city can take money from donors and offer tax benefits without a foundation.  But RAP knew that money was being left on the table by donors not comfortable with giving money to the city for any number of reasons.”

Los Angeles already has a library and a police foundation.  The LA Parks Foundation is the third of its kind, and one more example of the importance of a private partner playing the role of a go-between, adding value with its flexibility and business-like approach.

KBlahaKathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solution

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