NPS Fundamentals Essentials: Partnerships


Whether you are a new employee or interested in employment with the National Park Service, understanding how the organization functions is vital to your success. Are all parks the same?  How is the work divided?  How are the sites managed?  What do the different divisions do?

Known as “Essentials,” these topics provide insight into how the National Park Service manages the entire system of parks and programs to accomplish its mission.  Reading through each topic gives an overview at the most basic level with opportunities to link to more in-depth, specific information.


The term “partnership” may mean many things in general conversations. You might think of business partners, domestic partners, or anyone at your workplace.

In the National Park Service, “partnership” means something far more specific. It is a working relationship between the NPS and a nonprofit organization or government agency. While the NPS establishes its own priorities, we often discover that these align with the priorities of others. We have a long tradition of collaboration with partners to accomplish projects and programs throughout parks, regions, the Service, and internationally. These partnerships leverage federal dollars, contribute expertise and connect parks and communities.

Following federal regulations and policies, partners and the NPS outline priorities, goals and objectives in a formal agreement. We plan together and work together. We share equipment, tools and facilities. Items, land, and funding can all be donated to the NPS.

The regulations, policies, and administration of our formal agreements between the NPS and partners are dynamic. Working together, everyone ensures the accomplishment of the NPS mission.

Three young adult wear hardhats while rebuilding rock wall
Student Conservation Association crew at Mount Rainer National Park

Who Are Our Partners

Partners bring indispensable innovation, excitement and a fresh perspective to all their endeavors. The National Park Service taps into a wide variety of groups to harness this energy. The number, types, and ways partners help us continues to expand. We partner with the National Park Foundation, a variety of Friends Groups, Cooperating Associations, among many others.

The National Park Foundation

The National Park Foundation is the only partner chartered by Congress. Established to strengthen the connection between the American people and their National Parks, it raises private funds, making strategic grants, creating innovative partnerships, and increasing public awareness.

The National Park Foundation raises money from individuals, businesses, corporations, foundations and more. It uses this capital to fund projects across the service. Since chartered in 1967, the National Park Foundation has sustained a legacy of private philanthropy by contributing more than $200 million to the National Park Service.

Friends Groups

While the focus of the National Park Foundation is on the national level, most Friends Groups raise funds at the regional or local level. They may focus on a specific park or set of parks. They may even focus on a specific area within a park. In 1985, Congress encouraged the establishment of such partnerships to help the National Park Service meet its growing needs.

In all, over 200 Friends Groups partner with the NPS to work as advocacy groups, generate volunteers, raise funds or help with any variety of other objectives.

The support of Friends Groups makes it possible for the NPS to accomplish its mission. The office of Partnerships and Philanthropic Stewardship, part of the Washington Support Office (WASO), helps Friends Groups get started.

Speaker at podium
Grand Canyon Association

Cooperating Associations

Also known as Interpretive Associations, Cooperating Associations are private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations that sign a standard agreement with the National Park Service. They sell educational items within parks, and may accept and manage donations. CAs must focus their support on interpretation, education, and science. This may include: educational programs, supplies, materials, equipment, support of volunteers and interns, monitoring, research, training and conferences, construction and rehabilitation projects.

People sometimes confuse Cooperating Associations with concessionaires, which often sell non-educational items, such as lodging, souvenirs, and food. These commercial services operate under a contract rather than a formal agreement and exist to generate profit. Both are needed to ensure that park visitors’ needs are met.

Several people in a bookstore
Bookstore operated by the Harpers Ferry Historical Association

Other Partners

Partnerships with the National Park Service are not limited to the types of organizations listed above. The NPS collaborates with educational institutions, societies and clubs. We partner with other government entities both inside and outside the Department of the Interior, from the federal to the local level. We even create international partnerships.

With the large, diverse number of partnerships maintained with the National Park Service, it would be impossible to name them all. The list below comprises just some of the common types of partners found working with the NPS. Each and every partner provides critical help in accomplishing the NPS mission.

Colleges and universities, including those who collaborate as Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Units
Minority serving institutions
Public schools
George Wright Society
Zoological Society of America
Geological Society of America
Rotary Clubs
Lions Clubs
Local law enforcement and emergency services
Volunteer fire departments
State historic preservation offices

Partnership Authorities

While many people may network to create a relationship, each park or office designates a National Park Service employee to lead partnerships. This lead works with others to meet administrative requirements such as oversight of a proper agreement that includes identification of the federal authority that allows such collaboration.

Partnership Ethics

Public service is a public trust. Working with partners, this ethical obligation holds great importance. Ethics prohibits employees in three major ways. Employees cannot solicit donations, act as a board member of a friends group, or endorse (directly or implicitly) any business’ products or services.

Allowed and encouraged activities include participation in partners’ fund raising events, providing access to partner organizational materials (visitor centers), attend or act as a non-voting liaison at partner board meetings, and appropriately explain collaborative projects.

National Park Service employees must act impartially and cannot give preferential treatment to any individual or private organization. They must remain vigilant to avoid the appearance of ethical violations. As such, they cannot solicit or except any gift from a ‘prohibited source’ as identified by the government.

NPS partnership leads frequently work with National Partnership Office staff, ethics leads, and others. They work together for mutual understanding, such as ensuring adherence to ethical and dynamic legal boundaries, determining whether to accept a donation, or examining whether it is necessary and appropriate to allow the transfer of funds to meet an NPS need. Nonprofit institutions bring their own regulations and set of ethics. For success, we must have mutual respect to maintain the public trust.

A Tradition of Partnerships

Partnerships are not a modern phenomenon of the National Park Service. In many respects, the NPS would not exist without them. Throughout our history, organizations with determined individuals influenced the creation of many parks. Beginning in the early years, they established a tradition which continues today. In fact, partnerships influenced the creation of the National Park Service itself. Partners established themselves as an essential component to the NPS early on, and today, partnership cooperation proves more vital than ever.

One of the earliest examples of a partnership was in 1906: the donation of 611 acres of land near San Francisco, California by William and Elizabeth Kent. This pristine area of old growth redwoods became Muir Woods National Monument. This type of philanthropic donation continues as a theme throughout NPS history.

In the early twentieth century, many philanthropic families from the Industrial Age partnered with the NPS to expand the system. For example, Acadia, Grand Teton, Great Smokies, Virgin Islands and Antietam were all created due to direct partnerships with the Rockefeller family and its associated foundations. Organizations associated with the Rockefellers remain essential partners with the NPS to this day.

As first director of the National Park Service, Stephen Tyng Mather faced many challenges. He knew that public support would be critical to the future. With few government resources, Mather reached out to create partnerships to help fulfill the mission. Partnering with western railroads to publish the National Park Portfolio not only helped entice visitation, it influenced Congress in the National Park Service’s creation in 1916.

As the National Park Service grew, so did the variety of partnerships and the scope of their involvement. Canyon de Chelly National Monument presents one of many unique stories of partnership. The Navajo Nation holds ownership of the lands, while the NPS administers park matters. They divide and share various responsibilities in the park’s interests. Since its creation in 1931, the monument has been managed jointly by the Navajo Nation and the National Park Service.

Many NPS sites exist in partnership with others. In addition to its architectural significance, Touro Synagogue National Historic Site stands as a symbol of religious tolerance in the United States. Completed in 1762, the building served the growing Jewish population of Newport which originated in 1658 as the second Jewish congregation in the United States. Established in 1946, Touro Synagogue National Historic Site is owned by Congregation Shearith Israel of New York, who leases the grounds and building to the current congregation. The Touro Synagogue Foundation was established in 1948 to aid in the maintenance and upkeep of the buildings and grounds as well as to raise funds for and to publicize the synagogue’s history.

Laws and policies enacted throughout NPS history exemplify how partnerships formalized. The Historic Sites Act of 1935 contained specific language directing cooperative agreements.

Contract and make cooperative agreements with States, municipal subdivisions, corporations, associations, or individuals, with proper bond where deemed advisable, to protect, preserve, maintain, or operate any historic or archaeologic building, site, object, or property used in connection therewith for public use, regardless as to whether the title thereto is in the United States: Provided, That no contract of cooperative agreement shall be made or entered into which will obligate the general fund of the Treasury unless or until Congress has appropriated money for such purpose  –16 U.S.C. sec. 462 section (e), Historic Sites Act of 1935

By the mid-twentieth century, partnerships were as intrinsic to the National Park Service as the parks themselves.

In 1967, with support Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady of the United States, and an initial $1 million contribution from Laurence Rockefeller, the National Park Foundation was established.

Entering the modern era of the National Park Service, the tradition of partnerships continued to expand. San Antonio Missions National Historic Site, established in 1983 through the tireless work of the community, preserves Spanish colonial and mission history, but also exemplifies the modern idea of ‘a park of partners’. The enabling legislation details how the NPS will work with partners to manage the site, including the Archdiocese of San Antonio, the city of San Antonio, Bexar County and the state of Texas.

Responsibilities are divided, for example: the Archdiocese maintains and repairs church related facilities while the National Park Service manages the various properties and oversees interpretation of the site’s significance. At the same time, the NPS must cooperate with the various partners who actually own the land. Today, in addition to the partners listed in the enabling legislation, the NPS maintains formal partnerships with the Texas River Authority, the San Antonio Conservation Society and the very active friends group, Los Compadres de San Antonio Missions. These partnerships benefit everyone, by sharing responsibilities and costs while revealing a site of national significance to all. The NPS gains a voice and presence in the community. The NPS does not exist as a separate island; in fact, through partnerships, the historic site is made from the community and thus the community becomes an integral part of the site.

Today you can look at almost any NPS unit or office and find partners essential to helping the NPS meet its mission. Involvement from partners existed before the NPS was established; their involvement helped create the Service itself, and their influence will continue. In order to create an efficient and cost effective NPS, working with others ensures the preservation of our natural and cultural heritage. Partnerships are playing a growing role, and help engage our public. It is difficult to imagine the future without them.

Issues and Challenges

Even with the many benefits that partnerships bring, the assurance of success does not always come easily. Brian O’Neill’s 21 Partnership Success Factors is a handy NPS reference for any partnership. Partnerships develop and do work in a variety of ways, in a variety of locations, with a variety of parks. They continue to meet these challenges resulting in a wide range of accomplishments.

Service wide, challenges remain. As we celebrate our democracy, we understand the dynamic nature of the laws, regulations and policies which govern the National Park Service, nonprofits, and how we work may work together. Fluctuations in local, regional, and national economies can impact partnerships. When dramatic shifts happen, this can cause the re-evaluation of priorities. It can stop a project. It may also spur partners to raise and provide funds to the NPS to address specific needs.

The breadth of partnerships is continually morphing to meet the breadth and diversity of needs. Partnerships will continue to develop as we continue to align mutual needs. Working across organizational cultures, builds our collaborative skills. The diversity of groups strengthens the National Park Service and establishes relevancy, inspires stewardship, and creates lasting relationships. Facing these issues together moves us forward.

Additional Resources

National Park Service Partnerships Website

National Park Foundation

National Park Service Friends Groups

Brian O’Neill 21 Partnership Success Factors

National Park Service Partnership Case Studies

National Park Service Friends Group Directory, 2011

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  2. I just remembered I need to renew my National Parks Foundation membership:)
    Impressive that the NP Foundation has raise $200 Million since 1967.
    Here at Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park we partnered with Delta – I guess it was partnership – through Delta’s donations the park stayed open , even during the shutdown.
    We have a very long history of working with the privates sector as Philanthropists,
    from Mather and the Rail Road tycoons brochures, the Rockefellers lengthy legacy to MALU’s partnership with Delta.

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