USC logo

Collaboration and Civic Engagement in National Parks

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on


Assistant Professor David Suárez has been working on a project entitled “Collaboration and Civic Engagement in National Parks.” The project eventually will become a book project, focusing primarily on the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). We have asked Professor Suárez some questions about his research on the issue. This week we’ll look at the background of his project and next week, we’ll take a look at some of the findings and possible impacts.

How did this research project come about? What made you want to write on the topic?

I have been studying collaboration and civic engagement for several years, but in the past I have focused on a relatively large sample of nonprofit organizations. For instance, several colleagues and I developed a research project on management in nonprofit organizations, and we interviewed 200 executive directors in the San Francisco Bay Area.

We asked leaders if they collaborated or formed partnerships with other organizations, and then we encouraged leaders to discuss their most important collaborative project. In addition to that open-ended question, we probed specifically about collaboration across and within the nonprofit sector. Based on that data we were able to develop useful but general indicators on nonprofit collaboration with other nonprofits, with businesses, and with public agencies. Some of my published work from that project demonstrates that nonprofits that collaborate are more likely to receive government grants and contracts. Moreover, my work shows that nonprofits that adopt common business practices, nonprofits led by individuals with management degrees, and nonprofits that generate greater amounts of earned income are more likely to collaborate with businesses.

As revealing and useful as those findings are for understanding nonprofits, I wanted to develop a better understanding of collaborative processes in relation to public agencies. What can partnerships between nonprofits and public agencies achieve? Is it just improvements in efficiency and effectiveness, or can public-private partnerships contribute to novel outcomes and unique benefits for citizens? My research on nonprofits demonstrates how collaboration matters and what explains collaboration, but that left a lot of questions unanswered about the processes of collaboration and the outcomes of collaboration. As for why I decided to study the GGNRA specifically, I spent several years in San Francisco as a graduate student so I was familiar with the area. I also read a variety of studies that mentioned the success of the GGNRA in leveraging collaboration and civic engagement for the benefit of the park and citizens, and I became excited about developing a qualitative, intensive project dealing with collaboration in the park. So the bottom line is that the GGNRA had been identified in prior research as being an effective public agency in promoting collaboration and civic engagement. Because I was familiar with the area and interested in the topic, I decided that I had a very exciting opportunity to develop a project.

Why is this an important subject?

Parks at the local, state, and national level face a variety of financial constraints. While challenges of this nature have ebbed and flowed throughout U.S. history, in the last few decades the problem has become particularly acute. To deal with current circumstances, many parks are introducing or increasing general user fees, some parks are adding new concessions, and many parks are creating specialized programs or opportunities to bring more people to parks. Nonprofits often have unique skills in programmatic areas that can complement the expertise of public agencies in charge of managing the parks, suggesting that a synergy between public agencies and nonprofits could produce many positive benefits, including complementing conservation and preservation efforts. Having said this, nonprofits are no panacea for the problems parks face. By developing a detailed, longitudinal study I hope to document the costs and benefits of working with nonprofits. With respect to national parks in particular, the GGNRA is an extreme case. It is a national park in an urban area, and the vast philanthropic resources offer advantages that many other units of the national park system do not have. Nevertheless, by emphasizing the limits of the possible, I am hopeful that my study will draw attention to the conditions under which nonprofits can add value to national parks.

At the moment, the National Park Service (NPS) has a bifurcated system for nonprofits. In most instances, units of national park system have an official cooperating association, a designation for a nonprofit that has the right to sell materials within the boundaries of the park (some cooperating associations serve multiple parks). For the most part these cooperating associations are bookstores that sell guides and other materials relevant to the given park. The sales of materials of this nature provide earned income that then gets turned over to the national park for use on projects that the national park wants to undertake. Because the mandate for these cooperating associations tends to be quite narrow, in most national parks the cooperating association has a relatively minor role. Many national parks also have “friends groups” that engage in fundraising and volunteer recruitment for the park. Unlike the cooperating associations, these nonprofits generally have little earned income, deriving most of their revenues through memberships and donations. My study of the GGNRA is provocative because the GGNRA encouraged the development of a powerful nonprofit partner that combined the functions of a cooperating association and a friends group. As a result, I hope to show what collaboration can accomplish in national parks when nonprofits have every tool they need to be successful.


Bedrosian Center