News that the National Park Service could start publicly recognizing donors by name on some items in the parks has riled many park lovers. But according to officials with the NPS, this won’t bring about the corporatization that some people fear.
Jeff Reinbold, assistant director for partnerships and civic engagement at the NPS, says the policies relating to donors outlined in a proposed director’s order—which is still under review, and won’t be finalized and signed until later this year—allow parks to recognize donors by labeling things like staff positions, programs, benches, and some interior spaces with donor names for five years at a time. Logos and ad language won’t appear. Park names like Yellowstone, and park features like Old Faithful, will be off-limits.
“It’s something that we have debated for years, and it is something that the donor community came to us interested in, wanting to know what possibilities there might be,” Reinbold says, adding that the changes were inspired by the ways universities and museums handle donor recognition.
Some have compared the NPS proposal to the kind of naming rights that ballparks and stadiums offer. “You could use Old Faithful to pitch Viagra,” executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Jeff Ruch, suggested to the Washington Post (NPS says the directives do not allow anything like that). Asked whether the NPS proposal is just “naming rights” by another name, Bill Chipps, a senior editor for the marketing news and insight website IEG Sponsorship Report, sided with the Park Service’s interpretation.
“It’s not naming rights, no way,” he says. “I see it as donor recognition and that’s it.”
Chipps says corporations might not be that interested in the new donor recognition options. To most companies, just putting a name on something without any branding material (unlike the branding that comes with naming a stadium) “has pretty limited value,” he says. “So I certainly do not see this opening up the floodgates to any kind of rampant corporate signage in national parks.”
Reinbold was quick to note that not all donors are corporations. Many are individual philanthropists, and these are the people who have been most interested in this donor recognition at NPS. In fact, he says that some corporations think that spreading their brand name around national parks would be bad for their image.
“It’s not something that a lot of corporate donors have come seeking,” Reinbold says. “The interest has been much more on the individual level.” That means you’re more likely to see national park endowments or libraries named after a Daddy Warbucks than a corporation.
Chipps also thinks the NPS is “too smart to allow this signage all over the place because it would just—stating the obvious—turn off the vast majority of people who go to national parks,” he says. And from a corporate perspective, “the last thing that a marketer wants to do is turn anyone off.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t some valid concerns about the proposal.
It’s no secret why NPS is considering this—they need money. As reported in the Washington Post, the organization has “an $11 billion backlog in maintenance projects.” Though it receives most of its funding from Congress, Reinbold says Congress has pushed NPS to “diversify” its funds in order to meet its needs.
John Garder, the director of budget and appropriations for the independent National Parks Conservation Association, says that while the NPCA has always encouraged NPS to seek donor funds, the association does have some concerns about these new donor recognitions.
Although most recognitions won’t include advertising slogans or logos, Garder notes that the order allows logos and wraps on vehicles that donors have funded. Corporate logos, Garder says, “can detract from the experience of visitors who go to parks because they are places of refuge to get away from commercialization.”
Garder is also concerned about what the order says about NPS superintendents. According to Reinbold, it allows superintendents to receive larger gifts without having to get approval through Washington, D.C., thus localizing and expediting the process. It also gives superintendents a larger role in fundraising, but Garder worries that the wording of the order makes superintendents’ participation in fundraising seem mandatory.
“There is inarguably language that says superintendents ‘will’ engage in certain activities,” he says, referring to Section 3.1.11, which, among other things, says that “Superintendents will … Coordinate philanthropic partnerships for their respective areas.”
“It’s important to ask if there is a threat of those duties competing with the fundamental responsibility of park staff to meet the mission of parks—to protect and restore resources, and to serve visitors,” he says.
The NPCA will be making their own suggestions about the order to the NPS on Monday.
“We will be weighing in with support for a number of these efforts to create greater flexibility that can be beneficial to Friends Groups and other donors,” Garder says.
“But we will also be emphasizing the importance of ensuring that park service staff can focus on their fundamental duties,” he says. “And that parks aren’t overly commercialized. And, very importantly, that this order does not give Congress or future presidents the sense that they can abdicate their responsibility to find ways to prioritize federal funding for the parks.”
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