Advocacy for Parks and Recreation – Part 2

by Dan Hendey, CPRP, CPSI, Education Manager

Long Term Advocacy

Advocacy in the moment is important. However, long-term advocacy efforts will reap the largest rewards for your organization.  While immediate concerns and annual budgets can often take priority, all leaders recognize the importance of investing time in long-term planning, strategy, and professional development.

The goals of long-term advocacy are to develop and cultivate continuing relationships with decision-makers, build credibility for yourself and the department, become a trusted resource, and be recognized as an essential community service. 

Develop relationships

As mentioned earlier, there is no substitution for developing relationships with decision-makers.  Relationships built on trust and mutual respect promote honest dialogue, are open to persuasion, and often result in a team approach to problem-solving.  There are many ways to build relationships, but they all start with the concept of inclusion.  Ask decision-makers to volunteer, attend, or even speak at your events.  Find opportunities to pop-in, talk, or ask for their assistance or advice—volunteer to assist them on some project or action.  Be creative; how you do this will vary, but reaching out to each decision-maker is important. 

Developing strong relationships in the community is also critical.  Often it is the advisory boards, non-profit organizations, and community activists who can assist you the most.  Unlike elected officials, many of these voices do not change office every several years and are freer to engage in supportive activities for your agency.  When I started at my department, I volunteered to provide sportsmanship and first aid training for all the PAL baseball coaches. When it came time to request new playground equipment, the PAL championed my efforts.  In addition to the advocacy, community members and groups can also be enlisted to write Op-eds to support your agency, offer input on programs and plans, and provide valuable volunteer assistance.  Decision-makers, especially elected public officials, listen when citizens talk, especially on the local level.  You need to educate these individuals and groups by holding information and feedback meetings, reaching out to community leaders, business owners, health professionals, and other department heads to hear their ideas and to educate them on the importance of recreation.  This is also an ideal time to listen and identify opportunities for mutual benefit either through partnerships, dual promotion, or complimentary services. 

Seek Input

Also, it is important to reach out to the whole community when planning.  This can be done through surveys, focus groups, community meetings, and interviews.  Each method has positive and negative aspects, and some thought is needed when deciding on your most effective tool.  Seeking input from the community comes with an unspoken commitment for action on your part.  Your integrity and community trust will be affected by what you do with the gathered information. 

Be a Resource

Another path for long term advocacy is to become a resource for the community and decision-makers.  Your words matter, and so does your ability to provide correct and timely information on issues involving Recreation and Parks.  You and your agency should be the information source that the community and decision-makers depend on for recreation and park issues. 

Become Essential

As a recreation professional, what you do is important and can be essential but is usually not urgent.  During times of crises (fires, floods, riots, COVID, and other calamities), the important often takes a back seat to the urgent.  Developing skills in emergency services such as first aid, policing, local distribution, food preparation, and social services or incorporating your facilities into the response can add to your department’s value when dealing with a community crisis.  Where I worked, several neighborhoods within were located on a riverside and flooded periodically.  I became quite skilled at setting up the community room as a shelter and working with the health, fire, and police department in housing and feeding those who were uprooted for the duration of the flood.  I planned for these events and soon became part of the emergency management team.  Several recreation departments in Pennsylvania have also participated in helping their communities during COVID by warehousing and distributing food to those in need, serving student lunches, and helping health service workers to screen visitors and patients.  Being able to help and participate in a crisis will make you more essential to a community.

Seek Professional Development

My last suggestion to build long term advocacy is to seek professional development.  There are many great books, excellent teachers, and fantastic courses and presentations out there that can help you to go where you want to go. As a greenhorn, I learned early on that there was much to be gained by being prepared, knowledgeable, and open.  Long term advocacy means that you must continue to meet, educate, and convince those around you of your professionalism, your department’s competency, and the necessity of your services, programs, and facilities.  Community needs, like people, can change over time. Your job is to assess those needs, plan for them, and meet them effectively and efficiently. Professional development can expand your knowledge and provide you with the tools to accomplish your goals.  Five to 10 percent of your time (2-4 hours) each week should be committed to professional development. 

Don’t be afraid to ask and ask again

As someone who runs an agency, department, or supervises others, you will be in a position to advocate.  My father once told me, “You don’t get what you don’t ask for,” and it stuck.  I remember this whenever I need to make a difficult ask. If your request is denied, find out why.  Use the experience to examine your idea and make appropriate changes or find a better way to sell it.  Don’t let a single rejection stop you.  Often folks need time and multiple requests before they are convinced to support a project or program.  Having the nerve to ask is half the battle; successfully advocating is what will get you over the line. 

In summary, advocacy takes time and effort.  However, taking steps in the short and long term can yield significant benefits for you and your organization.  While everyone’s situation is unique, common strategies such as education, fostering personal connections, addressing needs, and developing persistence can reap the rewards for anyone in a position to advocate.  Your mandate lies in the constitution and your firm belief in the value of recreation.  I cannot think of better reasons.

Sources/links for article

PA State Consititution

Greener Parks for Health – NRPA Communication Toolkit

What is Advocacy? Definitions and Examples; Bolder Advocacy, Alliance for Justice

Becoming a Recreation and Parks Champion

Re-Positioning to Be Essential; Senator Joe Simitians’s Tips for Successful Advocacy. Presented at the 2011 PRPS annual conference

Investing in Equitable Urban Park Systems Elridge, Burrowes, Spauster; Urban Institute July 2019

Green Infrastructure and Health– A Literature Review; NRPA and the Williamette Partnership.

Community Engagement Resource Guide: Creating Equitable Access to High-Performing Parks, NRPA 2019

Awareness and the Use of Parks, NRPA, 2019

Why Parks Matter, Paul Levy City Center Digest, Aug, 2019


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.

Parks and Rec in the Time of Corona

Love in the Time of Cholera, written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1985, has become a modern literary classic. It follows a young couple in love, torn apart multiple times by fathers, communities, circumstances, infidelity, who in the end somehow see all those scars as beautiful experiences and grow old together. The book’s title is completely misleading, cholera only plays a minor part in the story. The coronavirus is not playing a minor role in our story right now.

The coronavirus has come in like a thief in the night, virtually by day break changing they way Americans see and interact with the world around them. So much of what we do as park and recreation professionals relies on people wanting and needing to be near each other, and that is just not an option right now.

I wish I had answers for every question swirling in my head, because I know the PRPS membership has the very same questions. We are still vital. We are still essential. One only has to look at the crazy spike in trail use across Pennsylvania to see that our residents still need our parks in their lives. Programming is the hurdle, day to day, that’s what we do. One could argue that our programming efforts are MORE important now than ever. With families stuck inside 24/7, we can play an integral role in making that a beautiful experience rather than a destructive one. Convert as much as you can to online platforms and get active in new ways, host a food drive or maybe create a COVID mask sewing group.

But it can’t stop there. I ask you to do two more things.

One, tell your Township Managers and elected officials about your programming and have residents email them that what you are doing is vitally important. Literally, email residents and say “please email the Township Supervisors” that this Teddy Bear Hunt was important to your six year old. How many of us have been to a Supervisors meeting and seen decisions flipped or postponed based on one resident’s opinion in the crowd? I certainly have. Plant that resident.

And two, share your programming and communication ideas, successes and failures with your fellow PRPS members. Whether that is simply through your neighboring municipalities, a PRPS District or through the Facebook “What’s Up P & R” page we are collectively Stronger Together.

I am an eternally positive person, and I know we will come out better for this “Parks and Rec in the Time of Corona” experience. But we do have a dogfight ahead of us. Our residents need us right now. Our families need us right now, and we need each other right now. Let’s roll up our sleeves and be Stronger Together.

Take care!


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