Wharton and other experts discuss the merits of expanding corporate sponsorships of America's national parks

The National Park Service is grappling with a budget that hasn’t increased in years, resulting in $12 billion in deferred maintenance and a push to find more sources of funding. While the Park Service has had corporate sponsors for decades, there are plans to expand these alliances in a tasteful manner. But is more marketing the answer to budget shortfalls of national landmarks? Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed joins Dan Puskar, who is executive director of the Public Lands Alliance, and Reggie Chapple, division chief of the Office of Partnerships and Philanthropic Stewardship for the National Park Service, to talk about the policy on the Knowledge at Wharton show, which is part of the Wharton Business Radio network that airs on SiriusXM Channel 111.

Knowledge at Wharton: When did this idea get started for the National Park Service?

Reggie Chapple: This idea is nothing new. This particular policy, Director’s Order No. 21 on Philanthropic Partnerships, was developed in 1998 with an update in 2008. The notion of having corporations involved with the Park Service actually predates even the policy. Railroads were one of the first corporations that were significantly involved in getting folks out to parks and building some of our first concessionaire stands, like restaurants or hotels. This kind of relationship with corporate America, or having the idea of corporations represented in parks, goes back at least 100 years. Now, the policy is being updated to get us more in alignment with the way in which the American public experiences maybe donor recognition in parks, or the way in which philanthropy is played out in institutions like universities. All of it is guided not only by policy but laws designated by Congress as well.

Knowledge at Wharton: Part of what’s drawing attention is this concept of naming rights. When a lot of people think naming rights, they think of the massive stadiums that we’ve got across the United States, the 20-year partnerships, companies spending $5 million, $10 million to put their name on the side of a building. That isn’t necessarily what this is, correct?

Chapple: That is correct. It is not the same as their baseball stadium or football stadium. Once again, there are laws designated by Congress that prevent that from happening in a national park. When we say naming rights within the National Park Service, we’re talking about naming rights within a particular facility, probably our visitor’s center. It is for an interior space, for a specified amount, for a specified amount of time. Very different. You’ll never see a big building or a park actually named after a corporation or an individual.

Knowledge at Wharton: If somebody’s going to Redwoods National Park in California, they’re not going to be driving down the road and seeing signs on the trees?

Chapple: Absolutely not. That will never happen.

Knowledge at Wharton: There is a funding gap for the Park Service right now. How significant is the need for additional revenue?

Chapple: Well, it is significant. We have $12 billion in deferred maintenance. There are no new appropriations coming from Congress, at least in the past three years, so we have a flat $3 billion budget. Within that, we need assistance to make sure that these places and spaces are available to the American public at a very high level.

In the past, about $200 million has come in per year in terms of philanthropy. It’s not a significant drop in the bucket, but it [isn’t small either]. The policy itself, Director’s Order No. 21, has been designed to make it more flexible and easier for corporations and individuals to partner with the National Park Service in terms of philanthropy.

“You’ll never see a big building or a park actually named after a corporation or an individual.” –Reggie Chapple

Knowledge at Wharton: How much can the Park Service potentially benefit from opening up these opportunities?

Chapple: These opportunities have been available for the past 10, 15 years. The policy is just making it clear how to go about this.

I think you can see this in our current centennial campaign, which is where we’ve tried out a lot of these ideas where we have interior spaces available for naming rights for a $5 million donation. We’ve also tried out the idea of having logos in parks, where our corporate sponsors are featured on our thank-you banner in parks. Where the banner might be 6 feet, they’re named in a section that is probably about 6 inches long. This is the kind of affiliation that we’re talking about, with corporate logos in parks or having corporate America play a role in parks, in terms of donor recognition.

Knowledge at Wharton: Since this change has been made, have you started to hear from new entities that have an interest in being involved in this?

Chapple: Yes, we have. We’ve had a significant ramp-up in the interest of corporate America and individuals in the National Park Service. On the corporate side, we’ve had several groups come in that have an alignment with our mission in terms of sustainability. We’ve got Subaru, Coca-Cola. We’ve got our old partner, American Express, which has been with us for at least 20 years, having actually started out the idea of cause marketing with the Statue of Liberty pennies campaign, which raised $1.7 million in 1983. These are ongoing relationships that we’ve had but that are carefully vetted to make sure there’s mission alignment with the particular donor or corporation that’s looking to partner with the Park Service.

Knowledge at Wharton: Americus, what is your overall reaction to this?

Americus Reed: What I loved about Reggie’s comments were that they were very guarded. They were very, very well-framed to not come across as, “Hey, you know, this is marketing.” I think he’s very careful about saying, “Listen, we need money and it’s got to come from somewhere. If corporate sponsorships step up, we’re going to carefully take a look at them.” This notion he mentioned, mission alignment, … I’m not sure how you get to what that means, when you’re thinking about allowing Coca-Cola to come in and put their name on something. But it’s a very interesting issue.

Knowledge at Wharton: Dan, what do you think?

Dan Puskar: What Reggie said resonates a lot with me. First, there has been this long history, 100 years of history of public-private support, of their parks. This is a continuation of that. [On] the question of how you think about mission alignment — Americus is right. It’s amazing to see just in the past 15 years how corporate America has embraced corporate social responsibility and really thinking through how they’re going to engage with the environment or national heritage ideas. To be able to create a space for them to partner with the parks, and to be able to do great things for their visitors and the preservation of these spaces, I think is a wonderful thing.

Knowledge at Wharton: This may be a situation where the Park Service has tried a lot of different things, and they haven’t worked. I don’t want to say it’s a last-ditch effort, but it feels a little bit like that. Do you agree?

Puskar: I wouldn’t say it’s a last-ditch effort. As Reggie pointed out, there have been some long-term relationships with the parks, not just with corporations but with individuals and foundations. I think what we are finding is that the entire philanthropic world is getting more sophisticated. To have opportunities in parks that get closer to what you might experience at a university or a museum is simply in keeping with letting those corporations know, “Hey, we actually do value what you’re giving to us.”

One of the great things about how they’re framing the idea of logos is that it’s simply that: a logo. We’re not going to do advertising. You don’t get to do tag lines. Nobody’s going to get to use whatever their marketing hook is. Instead, you may see a symbol that you recognize but without any call to action to buy a product.

“You’ve got to give the guys in corporate America some credit. They know if they did that, the blowback would be so severe.” –Dan Puskar

Reed: I think it’s interesting because part of what we think about in marketing is the idea of what does a logo do? It may not necessarily be an outward, explicit call to action. But certainly there is a message. Whenever you see Nike, whenever you see the swoosh, it’s a message that’s there — to some extent, right?

Knowledge at Wharton: I think you’ll see a lot of cases where Nike or Coca-Cola or whatever company wants to show that supporting national parks is an important part of their overall message to consumers. As a byproduct, they gain a more positive view from the consumers who are walking around the park and saying, “Oh, Nike, loves the national parks. Coca-Cola loves the national parks.

Puskar: I think that’s absolutely right, and they’re going to benefit from that as long as it’s done tastefully.

Knowledge at Wharton: You mean we’re not gonna see the swoosh on the Liberty Bell?

Puskar: We are not. You’ve got to give the guys in corporate America some credit. They know if they did that, the blowback would be so severe. It’s not just the federal government putting up a barricade. The smart companies aren’t going to ask for that in the first place.

Knowledge at Wharton: What was changed on this initiative?

Puskar: I think it strikes a really good balance. The major changes that you see are really at this question of being able to name something, and the idea that there are a couple of other kinds of park furnishings, say benches, where you can give credit to someone who’s helping them out. In all of those cases, it’s about aligning with the current philanthropic practice, but they’re not breaking new ground in that regard. The idea that you might see a bench contributed in memory of a certain individual is something we see everywhere. The parks just weren’t taking advantage of that.

In many ways, that piece of donor recognition is the biggest change. You’ve been able to see some logos tastefully done in small ways in parks before. I think that’s going to continue. They have one or two more avenues in which to do that. But fortunately, it’s not those benches, it’s not the paving stones, it’s not the buildings themselves. They don’t get the right to do that. But they might get the auditorium inside a visitor’s center where you’re showing the park intro film. And they might get it for a short period of time.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our parks were 100% funded by tax dollars and you never even had to think of these things?” –Dan Puskar

Reed:  So Dan, what’s the area of concern? It sounds like you are not buying the slippery slope argument, which says that once you open up the floodgates to this kind of thing, you may be going in the direction of NASCAR where every single inch of space is covered with a logo. Are you concerned that some purists will say this is not the place for marketing? This is not the place for selling things?

Puskar: Philosophically, I don’t disagree with that. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our parks were 100% funded by tax dollars and you never even had to think of these things? But there are three things I think that respond to that. One, Congress has made some pretty clear lines about how the worst things that some advocacy groups are drumming up for are just not going to happen. There is no Viagra at Old Faithful that’s going to happen. The policy forbids it, law forbids it. But I’m sure somebody’s making money by bringing up that specter.

Second, I think it’s worth thinking about that it’s a great thing for the public to engage with their parks. While we focus a lot on the corporate side of things, what this policy does is make it easier for and clarify the rules for individuals to be able to give. For charitable foundations.

Yes, corporations often have a corporate responsibility message because their employees or their customers care about something. We should celebrate the fact that people are engaging with their parks, with their time, talent, and yes, their treasure. We want volunteers. We want advocates going out and requesting more park funding from Congress, for sure. But it’s OK that they want to give, too.

The third response is, if we don’t live in this fantasy world that never existed, where parks were solely brought to you by the American taxpayer, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to make that history clear. Illuminate what’s really going on by recognizing those that have gone above and beyond and contributed more than their tax dollars, more than their fair share, to make sure that these places are beautiful.

Knowledge at Wharton: What about the idea of either putting in place more fees or increasing amounts for pieces that already do incur a fee? That had to be a consideration along the way for the Park Service.

Puskar: All of those things need to be on the table for the future success of sustainably funding our parks. I think you’ll see that this administration, past administrations, future administrations will look at the question of recreation fees or other things as the cost of living goes up. At the same time, it still is amazing that a family could buy an $80 annual pass and be able to take their whole carload into every single federal land out there without having to pay other entrance fees. That’s just not national parks, but it’s refuges and forests. You can’t get into Disney World like that. Even for whatever fees they charge, parks are one of the best deals you can find.

Knowledge at Wharton: Is there an opportunity for technology sponsorship inside national parks? I can think of some major brands in the Wi-Fi space that would be interested in pursuing engagement at the Park Service.

“Don’t just put the logo up there. Actually allow them to express this mission alignment and to have a narrative around why they are doing this.” –Americus Reed

Puskar: There absolutely have been instances of that working at the local level, and I would not be surprised if there were some national opportunities. It’s not just about giving Wi-Fi access, and now everybody’s going to look at their phones instead of looking at the beautiful grandeur of Yosemite Valley. But it’s amazing to see how technology can be used for citizen scientists. You’re out there in the middle of a national park. You see a piece of flora or fauna. Being able to take a picture of that, geo-locate that, can become invaluable information from a citizen science perspective.

It’s also quite clear that we know people stay engaged with technology in a different way these days. People expect to be able to Snapchat and post to Instagram. That’s one of the ways now, instead of big marketing dollars, that we’re probably going to create a new generation of park stewards. We need to allow for our visitors to be able to say, “Look at this cool place I’m in,” and share that with their friends, who then may be inspired to go visit later that summer or the following year.

Reed: But Dan, how do you manage this idea of bringing in new audiences that are very well-versed with these technologies and constantly tethered to their devices? But you have this other group that’s not in that space. You’re inviting both of these groups in and trying to give them an experience that they want and enjoy. Is that a bit of a challenge?

Puskar: It’s one of the biggest challenges that any natural space has these days. On the other hand, you go to Independence Hall, a national park in downtown Philadelphia, and you’ve got all the interconnectivity you need. It’s one of those things where I think the focus for the National Park Service has been on trying to think through, “How do we make sure the greatest number of visitors get the greatest experience they can?” Reconciling some of those big outdoor spaces with technology does take a lot of thought. It may take some experimentation. It might not work out for everyone every time. But I think it’s great to see government try to be responsive to contemporary changes.

Knowledge at Wharton: From everything we’ve discussed here, it doesn’t appear like there are a ton of negatives with this policy.

Reed: I think it’s super-interesting. What I would offer as a friendly revision is, don’t just put the logo up there. Actually allow them to express this mission alignment and to have a narrative around why they are doing this. I think if you just put the logos out there, that might be worse than allowing them to say something that can make that connection, to communicate the mission alignment that then makes the thing seem really authentic.

Puskar: That’s a fascinating idea. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I think there is always a concern the more you try to explain, the more it could start verging on advertising because you’re allowing certain kinds of expressions. But certainly I support, and our organization supports, finding channels for companies to say exactly that. Whether it’s in the release that’s sent out about the partnership, the websites created to demonstrate how this ties into their corporate social responsibility campaigns, the use of marketing dollars — not just the philanthropic dollars that may go directly to the park. To enable them to talk about and recognize this, that’s fabulous.