Advocacy for Parks and Recreation – Part 1

by Dan Hendey, CPRP, CPSI, Education Manager, PRPS

PA Constitution, Article 1, Section 27

The people have the right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, and esthetic values of the environment.  Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including the generations to come.  As a trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

During my first year as a young recreation director for a small borough in New Jersey, I had to present my budget for the year to the town council for discussion and approval.  I spent weeks preparing the budget and developing some capital requests to improve and expand the borough’s parks and facilities. 

I arrived at the town hall to find the council members, mayor, borough manager, and other officials sitting above and behind a raised dais looking down on me while I sat at the table in the center of the room.  I felt like I was on trial and lost a good deal of my confidence right then.  Once we began, it became clear that several members of the council were not fans of recreation, and the oldest, most wrinkled, member questioned the need for any parks or programs.  He challenged every line in my budget and railed against all of my capital proposals.  He led a coalition to cut my budget and deny most improvement outlays, and I left that day hurt, disillusioned, and saddled with a smaller budget.  How could anyone be against parks when I knew how valuable they were?  This was my first lesson in the importance of advocacy.

Advocacy can be defined as any action that supports, recommends, or argues for a cause on behalf of others.  For me, advocacy is selling something you strongly believe.  As professionals in the field, we understand the importance of being outdoors, physical activity, socialization, and building community.  We understand what the writers of the Pennsylvania Constitution meant when they declared that our natural resources need to be preserved and maintained for generations to come.  However, others may not understand the intrinsic values of parks and recreation. We have a duty to share this knowledge and conviction with decision-makers, who directly affect our departments and organizations. 

With a new budget year approaching and the upheaval brought on by COVID-19, it is more important than ever to be able to state your case for the present and build future support. 

Short Term Advocacy

As an employee of an organization, you must be able to advocate for your position, your department, your programs, your facilities, and your services.  All these areas are folded into your budget.  Therefore, your most efficient form of advocacy is promoting and defending your budget, and this coming year will be critical.  What are some things you can do to advocate for your next budget? 

Have a Plan

First, it is crucial to have a plan.  The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) strongly recommends having a comprehensive management plan to guide you and the department.  These documents are valuable as they incorporate public input, local realities, agency strengths and needs, and plans for the future.  However, this past year was probably not anticipated in that plan.  It is time to pull out the plan and review its recommendations in a new light to identify your wants and your needs.  Every public agency will likely feel the economic sting of the COVID crises. Now is the time to determine what is most central for your organization and focus your efforts on preserving and protecting your needs, whether they are employees, programs, projects, or facilities.  Having a plan for the coming year that remains consistent with the master plan yet incorporates some anticipated realities will prepare you to advocate for the things that matter most. When assessing a need versus a want, I believe that good people are the hard to replace or rehire and having staff on hand can lead to a faster recovery when funding opens up again.

Build your Case. 

It is unlikely that those who control your budget are as knowledgeable as you about the value of parks and healthy recreation.  Your job is to educate them.  Providing usage data will appeal to those who want to justify community expenditures.  Make the data easily understandable and accessible.  Include relevant data in an introduction to your budget requests.  Accumulate testimonials for your agency and parks and share them on your website.  Use regular social media posts to create and maintain TOMA (Top of Mind Awareness).  Steer decision-makers to your website and social media sites before the start of the budget session as a way for them to get to know you, or invite them to a function (or zoom session/activities).  If parks, facilities, or programs are having problems, don’t shy away from them, be honest, and offer a solution on how they would be corrected with the requested funds.  Be solution-oriented and prepared to explain how the funding will fix problems or provide needed services.

Be Professional

During your budget meeting, you must present yourself and your organization in a professional manner.  Decision-makers care about their community and can be open to persuasion if they are convinced that the good created is worth the cost.  Because you are dealing with people, it is a good idea to include some human interest stories to support the facts that you present.  Personalizing the data can help them to make the value connection of recreation.  Is there a local lifeguard who did something special after his time at the pool?  How did the kids and families in your community benefit from your summer camp program?  Or how were the parks used creatively this year due to the COVID crises?  Have these stories ready to help emphasize a point or add a bit of color to the data. 

Be Friendly

Getting to know your decision-makers is and will continue to be a vital aspect of successful advocacy.  While I am not recommending stalking, Knowing about their work, family, hobbies, and interests will help you strike a chord and tailor your presentations.  Meet and talk with them whenever you get the chance.  Highlight areas and activities that will benefit their neighborhood. 

Also, Treat everyone with respect and expect the same.  This was my mistake during my first budget meeting.  I let myself be intimidated, and I should have done a better job of advocating for my department. There are ways to be assertive and direct without offending, and there are numerous resources available to help you, both written and personal.  After my first budget meeting, the borough engineer took me aside and offered me the following advice.  “Next time, just imagine that no one was wearing pants under the dais and try not to laugh.”  This little tip improved my budget meeting performance for the next several years.

Nice Ending

Try to end on a good note.  Remember that sometimes you will not get everything you want, and you must be able to deal with the outcome.  Budgets are annual, and there is always next year.  Even with a disappointing budget number, you may still have some leeway on how the dollars are appropriated among the line items.  No harm will ever come from offering each decision-maker a thank you message for taking the time and effort to review and evaluate your budget.  Build for the long term.

Part 2 will continue next week to discuss Long Term Advocacy.

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