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Nonprofit Organizations Provide Value To State Parks

A recently released study shows that a vast network of more than 100 nonprofit organizations play an indisputably critical role in supporting California’s state parks.

The study, Creating Impact: A Study of Nonprofit Partnership in California State Parks, examines the contributions made by nonprofit, community-led organizations in the wake of the California’s fiscal crisis of 2011–2012 that threatened to close dozens of state park sites, and the efforts to bolster public-private partnerships to foster innovation and bring additional expertise, capacity and resources to the California Department of Parks and Recreation (State Parks) system.

State Parks’ Partnerships Division, Parks California, California State Parks Foundation, California League of Park Associations, a research team and representatives from the nonprofit partner community collaborated on this effort in order to build a deeper understanding of the contributions made by nonprofit partners to California’s 280 state parks, and the benefits of aligning on shared goals and priorities. It is the most in-depth, comprehensive study ever conducted between State Parks and the nonprofit sector.

The study examines the many ways in which nonprofits support State Parks’ mission to provide for the health, inspiration and education of the people of California – by helping to preserve the state’s extraordinary biological diversity, protecting its most valued natural and cultural resources, and creating opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation.

The study also establishes a baseline for future studies, illuminates areas for further research, and identifies opportunities to expand partnership relationships between State Parks and nonprofit groups.

“The value and efficacy of partnerships has never been more evident,” said Armando Quintero, Director of California State Parks. “As we look to strengthen parks with the help of a diversity of supporters and endeavor to inspire the next generation of park stewards in California, we believe our shared vision with nonprofit organizations will be key.”

Quantitative and qualitative data in the study highlight an evolving partnership between State Parks and nonprofit organizations as an effective way to amplify the reach of community engagement efforts, foster ongoing connection to parks with added programming and events, leverage public investments as additional sources of funding and increase park access to more Californians.

The study also found that disruptions from natural disasters are presenting new opportunities to refocus and renew partnership norms statewide.

“The mounting threats from climate change, such as increasingly-dire wildfires and droughts, and other phenomenon, like pandemic outbreaks, have demonstrated the urgent need to build resiliency across California’s State Park system,” said Kindley Walsh Lawlor, President and CEO of Parks California. “Strengthening partnerships between government and nonprofits allows us to do more together on behalf of park visitors and nature.”

Through the public release of the study, the stakeholder group aims to make the findings widely available and, in particular, serve as a resource for local and state policymakers.

“This study illuminates a lesser-known fact about our state park system: the significant investment of volunteers and nonprofits in supporting State Parks’ mission. Californians love their state park system, and many have stepped up with their personal time and money to ensure that state parks continue to provide a high-quality experience to visitors and communities now and in the future,” said Rachel Norton, Executive Director of California State Parks Foundation. “We hope that as policymakers learn more about these contributions, they will gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to steward these incredible places.”

The study provides best practices to help the relationship between State Parks and non-profit groups flourish.

“Our findings show that nonprofit partners to State Parks deliver high-value financial and volunteer resources to our parks and their visitors when partners and park managers collaborate effectively together,” said George Loyer, California League of Park Associations. “Partnerships are also contributing deeper support from local stakeholder communities to improve and broaden access to all communities and in telling up-to-now untold stories of the parks.”

Potrero Group, a California-based research and management consulting firm, served as the primary project manager and research lead. A combination of quantitative and qualitative data was gathered, including a survey of State Parks’ nonprofit partners, an IRS Form 990 review, focus groups, case studies and individual interviews. Recurring themes were identified to characterize the field of nonprofit partnership, examine enablers of successes and current challenges, identify trends affecting nonprofit partnerships and make recommendations.

The full study can be downloaded on Parks California’s website.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation, popularly known as California State Parks, and the programs supported by its Office of Historic Preservation and divisions of Boating and Waterways and Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation provide for the health, inspiration and education of the people of California by helping to preserve the state’s extraordinary biological diversity, protecting its most valued natural and cultural resources, and creating opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation. Learn more at