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Before Pursuing a Partnership, Analyze Your Ability to Reposition Your Organization

Whether you manage a public, private or nonprofit recreation facility, it is important to understand its position in the marketplace. From your mission down to your marketing tactics, you must know how the people you serve define your organization. Once this is clear, you can determine whether repositioning your organization is necessary to take advantage of partnership opportunities in your community.

Market conditions increasingly suggest the prudence of teaming up with other public, private and nonprofit agencies to run recreational programs. At one time, organizations operated within the boundaries of their respective sectors, with little interaction between groups that had different financial philosophies or mandates. However, it is becoming much more common for private entities to reposition themselves by working more closely with organizations in the public and nonprofit sectors.

In the case of public recreation agencies, the most common circumstance that identifies the need for repositioning is money - usually the lack of it. Because funding is often the missing link in providing the level of service that the recreational consumer now expects, these organizations are reevaluating themselves and becoming more innovative in their search for scarce resources.

Public-private ventures assume different forms under the umbrella of partnerships and are differentiated by the amount of decision-making authority given to each of the partners. In an active partnership, both sides take active roles in the relationship and often must develop symbiotic organizational cultures in order for the relationship to be successful. This form of partnership can be initiated to assist in the development, financing and construction of a recreation facility, as well as to manage and maintain its operations and programming. Passive partnerships offer semi-limited and limited decision-making authority. Examples of semi-limited relationships would be sponsorships and grant programs. In public-private sponsorships, the government or nonprofit agency desires most of the control, whereas givers of grants handle most of the direction. In limited partnerships, one party manages all of the resources and provides the other partner with benefits, but little or no control over operational decision-making. Examples of this type of passive partnership are donor or volunteer programs. Ideally, a combination of any or all of these types of partnerships contributes to the maximization of efficiency and the ability of each party to concentrate on its areas of expertise.

The ideal recreational partner is as varied as the number of organizations working in the recreation industry. Community groups such as sports associations are eager to provide recreation opportunities to youth and adult audiences, but often lack the facilities to deliver them. These groups can look toward municipal parks and recreation departments that may be able to provide land or a facility, but are not interested themselves in managing or programming. Government agencies such as school districts and recreation departments can formally band together to enhance available opportunities for both. Of course, myriad opportunities exist for private businesses and nonprofit agencies to work together. Both sectors can bring their respective skills and resources to bear to create new revenue streams for financially strapped public organizations, while also providing a new market opportunity for for-profit businesses. Private entities' primary interest might be in opening up an entirely new market to which to sell their services - or simply the marketing benefits of associating with a worthy cause.

With a thorough understanding of the types of public-private partnerships and partners available, you can reposition your organization so that it can maximize the benefits of these strategic alliances. In Financing and Acquiring Park and Recreation Resources (Human Kinetics, 1999), John Crompton, professor of recreation, parks and tourism at Texas A&M University, identified three repositioning strategies that organizations need to analyze before they begin to pursue partnerships: real positioning, psychological repositioning and competitive repositioning.

• Real Positioning. An organization, regardless of whether it is public, private or nonprofit, cannot be all things to all people. A private, state-of-the-art health club does not generally subsidize memberships to those who cannot afford the cost. Conversely, a tax-supported public recreation agency will not usually charge as much in dues as its private-sector counterpart. Both are viable and successful entities, but each organization has a different mission and serves a different clientele.

The ever-increasing demand for recreational opportunities presents a challenge to recreation providers. As a provider, are you positioned to provide these new (and expensive) opportunities, or should you reposition your organization to allow for suitable partnerships with public, private or nonprofit entities to address these issues?

• Psychological Repositioning. Your organization may also need to consider repositioning its overall philosophy. For some agencies, considering partnerships requires a considerable shift in mind-set and may alter stakeholders' beliefs about its purpose. Scarce financial resources are often the primary motivation behind seeking multi-organization collaborations, especially between sectors that have not traditionally worked together. Parks and recreation professionals may need to reposition their beliefs to conform with an "ends are justified by the means" philosophy.

Additionally, public, private or nonprofit agencies will need to reposition their beliefs so that the standards they must meet in a partnership complement their own. This is especially important in active partnerships, where each organization plays a role in developing the overall reputation of the recreational experience. The levels of service that recreation organizations provide can vary greatly, so both partners must have nearly identical definitions of high-quality service, or the relationship will founder.

• Competitive Repositioning. A third repositioning strategy is competitive repositioning, or changing your stakeholders' views about potential partners. For instance, a community may have a teen facility in an area where youth crime is on the rise. The community agency has no funds to provide the facility, but it has land. An active partnership can be initiated to assist in the development, financing and construction of teen-oriented facilities. Nonprofit organizations such as Boys & Girls Club of America (with whom the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association last year forged a large-scale partnership) could be approached and an active partnership formed so that in exchange for land and teen programming opportunities, the nonprofit groups can build and manage the facility in accordance to their expertise. The components of this type of agreement allow each party to concentrate on what it does best.

The same is true in passive partnerships. Using the teen center example, the community may build and operate a skate park and sell sponsorship rights as a way of reducing development or operating costs. For private or nonprofit agencies, repositioning the municipality's beliefs about its competition by promoting how the partnership benefits the public good will assist in convincing the stakeholders that the partnership represents a means by which important social concerns can be addressed.

For all partners, repositioning entails a unique set of risks. It is imperative that all agencies involved understand the obstacles that may lie in the path to success. A change in leadership, the dissolution of a private or nonprofit agency, or budgetary constraints within a municipality can alter an already developed repositioning strategy. Any of these circumstances can leave one or more parties with a lot of time and money invested and nothing to show for it. Furthermore, since dealings with public agencies require due public process, a for-profit entity seeking to enter into a partnership with a public agency must have extensive knowledge of how such agencies operate.

To reduce risks, be proactive. The entire repositioning process should be designed to maximize opportunities and minimize risks. After the strategies have been developed, determine the tasks that must be undertaken to ensure a successful partnership. First, a partnership plan should be prepared. This plan should include the feasibility, legality and priority of potential partnerships. Next, performance standards should be developed, and a system of monitoring the standards implemented. Also, an evaluation process must be developed to contact and screen prospective partners to determine if they are aligned with your strategies. This proactive stance will identify the potential partner's management skills, financial resources, relevant experiences, methodologies and the likelihood that the desired partnership results will be achieved.

Recreation partnership opportunities are numerous and may lead to some suitable arrangements for those who choose to venture into them. Determining the viability of repositioning your operating philosophy is the first step in determining whether partnerships are a logical path for your organization.


John Barnholt and Mick Jackowski (info@greenplayllc.com) are strategists with GreenPlay LLC, a Broomfield, Colo.based parks, recreation and open-space consulting firm.

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