National Park Foundation Spends More on Itself Than on Parks
One in Three Dollars Reaches Parks; Rest Goes to Overhead and Corporate Support
Washington, DC — Most individual gifts to the official fundraising arm for the National Park Service never reach the parks themselves, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Personal contributions to the National Park Foundation are far more likely to be absorbed by overhead, fundraising expenses or the care and feeding of corporate donors.
The National Park Foundation (NPF) is a congressionally-chartered tax-exempt corporation designated to accept and administer gifts for the benefit of the National Park Service so as “to further the conservation or natural, scenic, historic, scientific, educational, inspirational, or recreational resources for future generations of Americans,” in the words of its enabling statute (16 U.S.C. § 19e). That status also excuses it from detailed reporting requirements imposed on other charities.
In Fiscal Year 2011, the latest reported year, less than one-third of NPF expenditures are grants to parks ($4.5 million). A greater amount ($4.7 million) went for fundraising and administrative expenses. Another $.5 million was spent on “program support” – a nebulous category that ranges from promotional materials for corporate donors to the hotel bar bill following the National Christmas Tree Lighting.
The FY 11 numbers were a sharp drop-off from FY 10 park grants but resemble the lopsided overhead pattern in FY 09. Even these figures are inflated, however, as many of the grant dollars listed in its Annual Report come from “accept and administer” projects where NPF only acts as the fiscal agent. It also counts the sizeable Flight 93 Memorial Campaign, which has its own governing board and does its own fundraising.
“Giving to the National Park Foundation is like trying to support a university by endowing its fraternity,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the rule-of-thumb for responsible charities is that 75% of every dollar raised should go directly to the program, not overhead. “People who want to support national parks should look first to local park-specific ‘friends’ groups.”
NPF raises the bulk of its funds by concentrating on a handful of large corporate donors, many of whose gifts are restricted to activities tied to corporate marketing and campaigns. NPF works to assure that corporate donors get a return on their investments by delivering marketing support and promotional perks such as “special visitation opportunities” for executives and key customers or “in-park activities including tours, events and interpretation” (quoting from Coca Cola “Proud Partner Sponsorship Agreement” with NPF and the Park Service).
A major plank of the National Park Service strategic plan for its 2016 centennial calls for creation of a billion dollar corporate-financed endowment through NPF to be administered outside the federal appropriation process. The plan makes no provision for guarding against corporate contributors using big donations to leverage access or influence over park policy, such as the recent role of Coca Cola in blocking bans on sales of plastic water bottles inside national parks.
“There is no real accountability or transparency in the National Park Foundation,” Ruch added, pointing out that NPF does not believe it is subject to the Freedom of Information Act but surrendered documents PEER requested to settle a FOIA lawsuit PEER filed against it. “Part of the problem is that the National Park Foundation sees itself as a private corporation without obligation to the public.”