Park Service:

Agency Needs to Better Manage the Increasing Role of Nonprofit Partners

GAO-03-585: Published: Jul 18, 2003. Publicly Released: Jul 18, 2003.

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Two types of nonprofit organizations, cooperating associations and friends groups, provide substantial support to the national parks. GAO was asked to report on (1) the number of park units supported by nonprofits and the amount of their contributions, (2) the revenue-generating activities of nonprofits and how they compete with park concessioners, (3) factors that contribute to competition between nonprofits and for-profit concessioners, and (4) how park managers are held accountable for meeting goals for nonprofit financial support.

Cooperating associations and friends groups help support 347 (90 percent) of our national parks. Their contributions totaled over $200 million from 1997-2001 and were an important supplement to federal appropriations. These organizations also have additional assets totaling about $200 million, which could become available for future donation to the parks. The primary revenue-generating activities of cooperating associations are selling educational materials in park bookstores and providing educational services to park visitors. In contrast, friends groups generally rely on donations and membership dues to generate revenue. Accordingly, only cooperating associations directly compete with concessioners or other local for-profit businesses. In some parks, the sales and services provided by cooperating associations have caused conflicts between park management, the associations, and concessioners. There are three major factors that contribute to conflicts between associations and concessioners: (1) Park Service policies encourage an expanding reliance on nonprofit organizations; (2) the broad discretion local park managers have in deciding the role and scope of association activities has permitted expanded sales and service activities by cooperating associations; and (3) the agency has a financial incentive to use cooperating associations because they provide a higher return on sales revenue. To minimize conflicts and better ensure that park managers consistently apply agency policies in making decisions about whether and how to use cooperating associations and concessioners, Park Service guidelines call for individual park managers to develop "Commercial Services Plans." However, these plans are rarely developed or used. In addition, even though one of the agency's key goals is to increase its reliance on partnerships with nonprofit organizations, the Park Service does not have a process for holding local park managers accountable for meeting contribution goals.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since our report was issued, NPS has developed a friends group directory on the NPS Partnerships web page. The directory is updated annually by NPS's Washington Partnerships Office and can provide information on a park-by-park basis.

    Recommendation: To establish meaningful contribution goals and to improve the accountability of park managers in meeting agency goals, the Secretary of the Interior should require the Director of the National Park Service to develop and maintain an accurate and up-to-date list of friends groups on a park-by-park basis.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Park Service has implemented this recommendation. In May 2005, it issued a memo to park superintendents reminding them of NPS policy to conduct commercial services planning to support their commercial services program and committing the agency to having a commercial service plan in all applicable parks. In addition, NPS revised its management policies to require that a park commercial services startegy be in place to ensure that concession facilities are necessary and appropriate, financially viable, and addressed in an approved management plan.

    Recommendation: In order to (1) minimize conflicts among the Park Service, cooperating associations, and concessioners, (2) better ensure that decisions about providing commercial sales and services are made more consistently and that logical criteria are followed, (3) provide a predictable commercial environment in the parks, and (4) enhance public accountability for its decisions, the Secretary of the Interior should require the Director of the National Park Service to ensure that Commercial Services Plans include (1) an explanation of the roles and responsibilities of both concessioners and cooperating associations in providing visitor sales and services in a park unit and (2) rationale for decisions that specify associations or other nonprofits will provide new visitor sales or services and that do not afford concessioners and other local, for-profit businesses an opportunity to compete.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Park Service (NPS) has implemented this recommendation. In May 2005, it issued a memo to park superintendents committing the agency to having a commercial service plan in all applicable parks. A primary objective of the plans is to provide a comprehensive analysis of all commercial operations in a park and the relationships between them, specifically concessions, cooperating associations, and friend groups. The plans also are to establish necessary and appropriate criteria; ensure that resource and visitor experience goals are achieved; ensure compliance with other plans; and determine economic feasibility of all commercial proposals. NPS also revised its management policies accordingly in 2006.

    Recommendation: In order to (1) minimize conflicts among the Park Service, cooperating associations, and concessioners, (2) better ensure that decisions about providing commercial sales and services are made more consistently and that logical criteria are followed, (3) provide a predictable commercial environment in the parks, and (4) enhance public accountability for its decisions, the Secretary of the Interior should require the Director of the National Park Service to revise its policy regarding Commercial Services Plans so that all parks offering visitor sales and services are required to develop these plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Park Service has completed action on this recommendation. The agency designed a new reporting form to collect key financial information from nonprofit organizations, such as cooperating associations and friends groups, making contributions to national park units. The form is based on information that nonprofit organizations report to the Internal Revenue Service. As a result, the agency is annually collecting and reporting key financial information from friends groups on a park-by-park basis and in the aggregate for cooperating associations. While cooperating associations report only aggregate information for all parks served, individual associations and park units are to maintain such information on a park-by-park basis.

    Recommendation: To establish meaningful contribution goals and to improve the accountability of park managers in meeting agency goals, the Secretary of the Interior should require the Director of the National Park Service to require cooperating associations and friends groups to report key financial information on a park-by-park basis.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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