Corporate Branding of National Parks: The Disturbing Link between Philanthropy and Privatization

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May 9, 2016, Washington Post

For the first time in its 100-year history, the National Park Service is quietly preparing to make fundraising a central activity by aggressively soliciting corporate sponsorships using agency personnel as fundraisers.

Joining widespread criticism by watchdog groups and park advocates, Joe Davidson at the Washington Post decries this effort to commercialize the national parks, broaden who can raise money, liberalize the use of sponsorship money, and expand what the government will promise in return.

Private philanthropy has always supported national parks, with occasional flare-ups such as the time the Bush administration attempted to privatize parts of the park service in 2003, and in 2011 when Coca-Cola objected to a plan to prohibit the sale of disposable plastic water bottles in the parks. (The plan was never implemented.) In April 2015, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis waived agency policies to sign a multimillion-dollar deal with Anheuser-Busch that gave Budweiser unprecedented branding placements during the “quiet phase” of its $350 million Centennial Campaign for America’s National Parks. In February 2016, having raised more than $200 million, the public phase of the campaign commenced with an updated fundraising plan called “Director’s Order #21: Philanthropic Partnerships” (the document is here) that exalts corporate branding. The Centennial Campaign concludes in 2018.

Concerns range from corporate donors exerting influence on park policies to licensing park images for commercial purposes. The argument holds that the National Park Service should be devoted to protecting and stewarding national resources and leave fundraising to the private “friends” groups and the National Park Foundation.

The National Park Service is a frequent subject of analysis at NPQ, most recently the issue of diversity. Probably no article addressed the subject of “how philanthropy props up public services” at the national parks more than in this article from the Nonprofit Quarterly’s spring 2015 edition. Here is an excerpt from Beth Gazley’s analysis:

At the national level, the National Park Service, custodian of four hundred national monuments, historic sites and battlefields, parks, trails, rivers, preserves, and recreation areas situated across 84 million acres, has a budget of $3 billion and 22,000 staff. But it also has a deferred maintenance backlog estimated at more than $11 billion. So, nearly four hundred nonprofit “Friends of the Parks” and “cooperating associations” pick up some of the slack through fundraising, trail and infrastructure maintenance, advocacy, programming, visitor support, and volunteer engagement. In fact, one of the newest national park sites, the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County Pennsylvania, would not exist without the $40 million that the National Parks Foundation raised in private support for the memorial.

A related question should be how private philanthropy alters the power dynamics of public-service decisions. Back in Chicago’s Millennium Park, it wasn’t an independent, objective panel of citizens or a group of elected officials who selected the final architectural design for the Pritzker Pavilion concert space, but the donor herself. Another story out of Chicago describes a day when the park was closed to the public for a donor event—just a single day, yet noteworthy, because it was the first time the park had ever been closed to its own citizens since 1836, when public officials designated the waterfront a space that should be “forever open, clear and free.”

—James Schaffer