LARNet; The Cyber Journal of Applied Leisure and Recreation Research

Status of the Park and Recreation Profession in Washington State
(July 2007)

Dorothy M. Chase, Ph.D.

Barbara A. Masberg, Ph.D.

Contact information:
Dorothy M. Chase, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Recreation and Tourism Program
Department of Family and Consumer Science
Central Washington University
400 University Way
Ellensburg WA   98926 - 7565
509 – 963 – 1968

The purpose of this research was to the challenges faced by managers in park and recreation agencies. Based on a broad-based and open-ended survey, this study felt the pulse of managers at a point in time, revealing their challenges and providing recommendations for addressing these challenges. The top five challenges identified were: human resources; funding; supply and demand; image, credibility, and advocacy; leadership and management. Qualitative responses illustrated a sense of frustration, anxiety, and even crisis based on a perceived downgrade of parks and recreation as an essential service vis-à-vis police and fire services. Respondents indicated human resource challenges focused on recruitment, retention, and motivation. Funding issues arose from all areas including internal, external, and the macro environment. Supply seemed to be increasing seen by a high forecast of new facilities, but budget problems continued. Managers believed that collectively and individually, their greatest need was in strengthening their advocacy abilities to build the case for recreation benefits with funding sources and the public. Finally, leadership and management were a concern as managers felt they lacked general, supervisory, and time management skills. The Discussion provides a number of recommendations drawn from the literature, the data, and elaborated by the authors.

Keywords: advocacy, challenges, human resources, management, motivation, park and recreation, retention

(The authors wish to thank the Washington Recreation and Parks Association for assistance in accessing their membership, and Central Washington University Academic Computing department for serving the questionnaire.)


What lies ahead for the park and recreation profession? This study took the pulse of park and recreation managers in Washington state in order to reveal the challenges they see in their organizations. Challenges arise from economic, political, demographic, and other environmental shifts, causing changes in the structure, operations, and priorities of organizations. Washington state has a population of over six million people with education and income levels higher than the U.S. averages ( Late 2004 was a period of economic pressures and funding shortages in the state. At the time, one commonly heard statements such as, “the final budget package amounted to about a $4 million overall reduction” (; or, a “freeze” has been placed on hiring. Panza and Cipriano (2004) claim that, “Little argument remains in the recreation and park profession about the health, fitness, social and recreational benefits of parks and play” (p. 22). Taxpayers, too, see value.

Even with funding problems, research has shown that when taxpayers are asked whether parks contribute positively to their quality of life, they have responded positively and are willing to support modest tax increases to maintain that quality of life (Panza & Cipriano, 2004). Park and recreation agencies bolster community prosperity by generating revenue or producing cost savings (Crompton, 1999). Despite the validity attributed to the parks and recreation industry by its professionals, taxpayers, and communities, challenges were being faced constantly by park and recreation agencies. Headlines have shown that challenges existed; however, the degree and impact from the organizational view had not been investigated.

The purpose of this research was to determine the challenges that agencies faced by managers in parks and recreation agencies both internally and externally during the 2004 time frame. When challenges arise, managers need to identify options and decide upon strategies to address the challenges. Strategies or solutions to address various challenges have been studied. Kaczinski and Crompton (2004) embrace a strategic approach to communicating the profession’s benefits. Searle (1990) posits that empowering citizenry may be more effective. Foundations (Crompton, 1999) and partnerships (Uhlik, 2005) have been recommended to generate funding. Coping strategies include the use of competency models (CPRS, 1999; Chase & Masberg, 2007; Hurd, 2004: Hurd & McLean, 2004; Masberg, Chase, & Madlem, 2003; NRPA, 1993), effective performance appraisals (Bowles & Coates, 1993), or management by objective (Daley, 1991). There is also the recognition process espoused by Knapp & McLean (2003)
. Again, these are strategies to address challenges; but what are the challenges facing professionals in park and recreation agencies? This question is the focus of the research. Once the answers have been revealed and analyzed, solutions or strategies will be offered, with references to relevant literature that enhances the authors’ recommendations.

Study Methodology

The primary purpose of this study, conducted in the latter part of 2004, was to determine
the challenges faced by managers in park and recreation agencies. A survey instrument was constructed based upon the purpose, and also consideration for flow and ease of completion. The instrument was then reviewed for content validity by academics, recreation professionals, and associations. The final survey contained 31 topics arranged in five sections: (a) You and your recreation and park organization; (b) Your recreation and park work unit; (c) Education and training; (d) Staff evaluation; and (e) Employment changes and forecast. In total there were 102 questions, with 55 of these (54%) calling for open-ended responses.

Members affiliated with the administrators section of the Washington Recreation and Park Association (WRPA) were invited to participate. As administrators of people and programs, this group (n=216) was expected to provide a more global perspective of their organization and profession. The administrators were e-mailed an invitation to respond to the online survey. Follow-up e-mails were sent as needed. Data was also collected at a mid-year meeting of WRPA. Participants self selected, and duplication of responses was avoided as potential participants were first asked if they had participated online. Participants clearly recalled the instrument, due to its length (it took approximately 12 minutes to complete) and their commitment to their professional organization.

Surveys completed on-line were received through a server on a university campus and respondents remained anonymous to researchers. Responses from the hard copy questionnaires were melded into the on-line responses to form one database. A few participants encountered technological limitations online, and were unable to complete the survey. Incomplete questionnaires were excluded, leaving 98 usable questionnaires, for a 45.4% response rate.

The responses to the open-ended questions were coded and categorized using the constant comparative method (Miles & Huberman, 1994).
These open-ended responses were initially coded by two researchers who consulted regularly to ensure inter-rater reliability. Two additional researchers reviewed the initial coding to further address reliability. The response codes were input into the numeric database with responses from closed ended questions. SPSS analysis software was used to complete data analysis.


The results from this research are divided into the following two sections: Profile of Respondents, Organizations, and Work Units; and, Management Challenges.

Profile of Respondents, Organizations and Work Units

Most respondents self-identified their working titles as Director (29.8%), Manager (23.4%), or Supervisor (17%), which reflects the initial invitation to individuals in supervisory and managerial positions. .Other titles supplied included coordinator or leader, specialist, superintendent, assistant director, therapist, and board member. Their mean length of service in the recreation field was 18.08 years (n=95) with the mean number of years in their current departments at 10.78 years (n=93). The mean number of years in current positions was close at 9.03 years (n=94). Most respondents had 16 years of education or a bachelor’s degree (69.5%, n = 96). Further education (i.e., a total of 17 or 18 years of schooling) had been pursued by 25.3% of the respondents. The age range of 69.8% of respondents was between 40 and 59 years of age, with no respondents aged 60 or over, and 3.1% under 26 years of age. Nearly half (45.8%) were in the 40’s age group. Respondents were asked “What do you call your work unit?” Responses were categorized as shown in Table 1 where a combined total of 65.2% (n=58) worked in a recreation division or park and recreation department.

The size of the work unit was defined by its budget, number of staff, and also number of staff reporting to respondent. The overall operating budgets for the recreation and park departments were distributed across the response categories (Table 2). Most departments (68.5%, n=63) used a calendar year for the organization’s budget period, with biennium as the second most prevalent (23.9%, n=22). The mean number of professional staff reporting to the respondents was 9.88 (excluding respondents reporting >100). However, many more additional paid and voluntary staff in five temporary categories ultimately reported to the respondent, making for a large span of control at some times (total mean of 16.56 individuals). The total personnel reporting to the respondent was reported as between 1 and 560. Many agencies utilize over 100 people in temporary positions, especially as seasonal staff (n=11), adult volunteers (n=16), and youth volunteers (n=6) on an annual basis (see Tables 3 and 4).

Table 2

Table 3

            Table 4

Management Challenges

Respondents were asked what they saw as the top three challenges for managers and supervisors of recreation and park full-time professional staff. Table 5 contains a quantitative outline of the results after coding. Tables 6 – 12 present qualitative remarks and other data detailing the scope of the five most common challenges: (a) Human Resource Issues, (b) Funding or Maintaining Funding, (c) Supply and Demand, (d) Image, Credibility, and Advocacy, (e) Leadership and Management.

            Table 5

Human Resources  

The most cited challenge fell into the area of human resources. Table 6 reports human resource challenges in three categories: recruitment, development and retention, and motivation of staff.

            Table 6

Human resource issues were further explored with questions specific to increase or decrease of staff in different categories, and evaluation processes. Further, respondents were asked if full-time permanent positions within their unit had increased, decreased, or stayed the same between 2001 and 2004 (see Table 7). Of 59 respondents to this question, 44.1% reported that positions within their respective work units had stayed the same. Respondents indicated that the reasons for the positions staying the same were: (a) they had flat operating budgets; (b) that budget decreases were on the horizon; and (c) they had cut program and seasonal staff to preserve full-time staff. The primary reason given for a decrease in the number of positions was budget cuts, expressed as “initiatives led to budget reductions.” There was a 2.88 mean decrease in the number of full-time positions. Positions increased in 22% of the work units, with a mean increase of 3.46 per unit.

Looking ahead to the late 2004 to 2006 period, most respondents (51.7%) expected the number of positions to remain the same. Projected changes were moderate with a mean increase of 2.22 or a mean decrease of 2.25 positions. Responses to a forecast of openings in the next two years due to retirements and turnover resulted in a mean of 1.39 positions.

            Table 7

Respondents were asked about the frequency of written and face-to-face evaluation for permanent staff, and frequency of evaluations for part-time or seasonal staff. Respondents were asked whether they evaluated on a quarterly, semi-annually, annually, bi-annually, or other time period. The most prevalent response was “at least an annual evaluation,” whether written or face to face, for both permanent and seasonal staff categories.

Respondents were asked directly if they believed that staff retention was a problem. The majority (79%) said, “No,” for the following reasons: (a) good salaries and benefits; (b) staff gained some aspect of intrinsic satisfaction; (c) “Once folks get hooked on p & r, they rarely leave. We have very little staff turnover;” and (d) “working with those with disabilities can be very rewarding for staff. The pay is not why people work or stay.” Other managers indicated a conscious effort at retention; for example, “We keep staff because we empower and work well together, and jobs in field are scarce.”

There were respondents (21%, n=63), however, who said retention was a problem and one individual explained the issue resulted from a lack of full-time year-round positions. Another manager explained, “It can be a challenge [to retain staff]. We try very hard to work on verbal evaluations/feedback and positive motivation [to maintain staff].” Finally, recruiting is part of the staffing problem, according to some respondents: “In Washington, we do not have enough universities offering P & R degrees. When employees leave, eventually we will not have qualified applicants to take their place.” There is, therefore, a need to retain good employees.

Funding or Maintaining Funding

The second greatest challenge was funding or maintaining funding. Table 8 outlines the range of responses falling into three categories of internal, general, and macro. These challenges were at all levels – the internal organization, the immediate external environment, and systemic economic issues.

            Table 8

Supply and Demand

The third greatest challenge for managers was in the area of supply and demand. The supply and demand category was defined as situations dealing with allocations such as time, resources, and staff, versus strictly budgets. Respondents were dealing with demand that was increasing or staying the same, but the supply of programs, facilities, and staff numbers were decreasing. The respondents stated these challenges as “Maintain[ing] a minimum standard of care while adding new parks and expanding the use of parks;” “Trying to provide too many programs and services without enough human resources;” and, “Maintaining services in an urban area while receiving reduced general funding support/requiring more reliance on revenues (user fees, advertising, grants, etc).”

The following two open-ended questions were asked:

(1) What program or facilities changes have taken place in your unit, recently?

(2)  What program or facilities changes do you anticipate in your unit?

Their coded responses further support the managers’ dilemma (see Table 9). The scope of recently developed new facilities and programs mentioned by the respondents was wide, from walking trails to maintenance shops; open space to ice arenas; and youth risk prevention to senior programs. New facilities (32.2%) included community centers, neighborhood parks, senior centers, skate parks, walking trails sports fields, maintenance shops, open space, ice arenas, and teen centers. New programs (17.4%) where specified, included risk-prevention programs for youth, ranger programs, after school activities, arts education, kids’ camps, and senior programs. However, changes due to budget cuts, budget reductions, reorganization, and refocus of programs follow. When envisioning the future, participants forecasted the strongest area of future development as new facilities (39.5%); however, it is interesting that the second most frequent forecast was for “no changes” (10.5%).

            Table 9

Image, Credibility, Advocacy

The need to advocate for both the profession and the benefits of recreation were a challenge for 11.2% of the respondents. Poor image and credibility concerns were demonstrated by the quotations displayed in Table 10.

            Table 10

Leadership and Management

As the managers and supervisors dealt with budget cuts, increased demands, and finding enough personnel, they were also challenged by deficits in their own general, supervisory, and time skills and abilities. Leadership and management challenges (see Table 11) were identified by 10.6% of the respondents.

            Table 11

Discussion and Recommendations

The purpose of this research was to determine the challenges, internal and external, faced by managers of park and recreation agencies. In the analysis and discussion that follows, many recommendations for action are offered. Recommendations are suggested by the data, elaborated by the authors, and drawn from the literature, as well.

What is a Challenge?

It is interesting to speculate on what the term “challenge” evoked in manager respondents. Is a challenge a skill or competency? Or, is it the content of an issue, subject to change with environmental pressures? Does a challenge excite one with the promise of personal achievement because the individual knows s/he is good at that kind of thing? Or, are challenges equated with problems that an individual lacks the self-efficacy to deal with, because of poor past experiences, lack of skills or training, or personality traits? Using as an example the category of “Image, Credibility, Advocacy,” two individuals may each call this category a challenge, but for opposite reasons. A combative personality with acumen in the political system may relish the opportunity to lobby politicians on the case for recreation as an essential service. Another personality, however, might call advocacy a challenge for precisely opposite reasons, because s/he sees lobbying as difficult, time-consuming, or even repugnant. It is also interesting to speculate on the impact these challenges have on various stakeholders such as users, future staff, the community, funding sources, the profession, educators, and others. Challenges, whether they are threats or opportunities, need to be addressed. The following discussion examines the top five challenges determined by the park and recreation professional and explores the potential for solutions and strategies. The top five challenges facing the respondents were: (a) Human Resource Issues such as Motivation, Professional Development, Recruitment; (b) Funding or Maintaining Funding; (c) Supply and Demand; (d) Image, Credibility, Advocacy; (e) Leadership and Management.

Human Resource Challenges

The role of management is one of providing the enabling conditions through which work is performed. The ability of specific park and recreation departments to recruit, develop, and retain staff becomes paramount when headlines broadcast dire news of funding cuts and layoffs.

of staff is an all-important skill for the manager of personnel. Motivating others is complex and varies according to the environment and the individual. Most motivation research utilized in the leisure management field has been conducted in the public and nonprofit sectors using Herzberg’s (1959) two-factor theory
. Intrinsic motivators may be especially appealing to public sector managers whose access to financial motivators is limited. Public service employees are thought of as having an intrinsic motivation toward their work; they care more about the public. If this is so, an intrinsic motivator for park and recreation professionals may be a common belief system that their agency’s work matters to people and makes a difference in their community. Other important intrinsic motivators are teamwork, opportunities for growth, and open communication. The respondents noted that all these motivators may be compromised with the challenges they face. If the value of the agency is determined by its ability to maintain or increase funding levels, extrinsic factors may become paramount and necessitate extrinsic motivators for staff.

As motivation is individual, managers need to review the needs of their staff on an individual basis and then seek to provide what it is they can contribute to each employee’s motivation and performance. A viewpoint from the common-sense school of management holds that if you want to know what motivates people, ask them! The work of motivating is ongoing. Motivating others was called, in this study, “a manager’s most important function.” Managers, despite their frustration over personnel matters, made scant reference to style of appraisal. Perhaps they underestimate the relationship between good evaluative procedures and motivation.

Evaluation and development
of employees’ skills can be a source of motivation, satisfaction, and retention. This may be because one’s motivation is increased by specific career goal setting, and/or because of the increased individualized attention. Does the style of appraisal affect motivation? A good model of evaluation needs to specify outcomes correctly, account for intervening variables, and indicate causal relationships (Holton, 1996). If evaluation itself adds value, then offering that evaluation frequently may improve employee satisfaction. Higher motivation resulting from frequent measurement of performance rather than from specific strategies has been demonstrated numerous times, beginning with the Hawthorne experiments in the 1920’s (Gillespie, 1991; Hawk, 1987). Frequent reviews mean increased attention. Employees are aware of management control, and are often unable to resolve the two mismatched concepts of performance appraisal as a training tool, and as conscious manipulation by management. For a performance appraisal to be legitimate, it needs to reconcile its commitment to employee needs with its own need to prescribe the image that employees must hold of themselves and of the organization. The public image of parks and recreation needs improvement. But, a dilemma arises for staff to maintain a favorable self-image when they work long hours to formulate programs, only to find these programs cut by management because of funding decisions. To be effective, managers must be trusted. A climate of trust is built over time, and can quickly evaporate as directives from funding entities cause managers to make tough decisions when budget cuts are needed. Employee trust is based on three factors: characteristics of the organization (layoffs, managerial turnover), characteristics of the trustee (gender, ethnicity, years worked under the manager), and characteristics of the manager (technical expertise and credibility) (Perry & Mankin, 2004). Managers may note that they are in control of the third factor. In this study, respondents indicated Leadership and Management skills were a challenge, ranked as fifth overall. It seems
that managers are in a “no win” situation as they are forced to make tough decisions, but in the process, may be sacrificing trust and therefore a motivated staff. An employee’s performance rating will depend on that employee’s motivation, trainability, job attitudes, personal characteristics, and ability to transfer training conditions (Holton, 1996). Through being rated and creating new goals and objectives, employee performance is influenced. The respondents indicated there is a lack of professional development and training opportunities for staff; therefore, subsequent to evaluation, employees are not being given this support in working toward professional goals.

is enhanced by forms of employee recognition other than evaluation. Saunderson (2004) found that most public sector human resource managers know the importance of employee recognition but lack the leadership and organizational support to make it happen in their organizations. Effective recognition occurs in organizations with a strong, supportive culture. While senior management’s bestowing of recognition is seen as significant, it is not seen as a reality in many organizations (Saunderson, 2004). Despite their responsibilities to their staff, many respondents showed more interest in having recognition showered upon themselves than with recognizing their subordinates! This behavior does not build trust and therefore does not build motivated staff. Knapp and McLean (2003) suggest that managers give recognition frequently, provide interesting work, invite citizen advisory boards and program participants to share in employee celebrations, offer employee-focused perks like flextime, share users’ compliments in regular performance reviews, collaborate on goal setting, establish a mentor program, and encourage training that highlights the importance of public service. Additionally, involving boards and other policymakers in the recognition process may counter the feeling that recreation is not valued externally.


Expectations of this research were that challenges would be around budget cuts; indeed, funding and maintaining funding was the second category of most frequently cited challenges. Economic pressures and shortages of public money threaten departments. For individuals and businesses, tax incentives can encourage the donation of land to be used for open space or new facilities (Crompton, 1996). External foundations can support park and recreation agencies in at least six ways in addition to grant giving (Crompton, 1999). Anchorage, like many other cities, repeatedly defeated bonds that would pay for park improvements. As a result, the City created a specific park foundation to provide a vehicle for those organizations and individuals who wish to donate (“Donors,” 2005). The difficulty posed by a public agency’s fundraising can be solved by the formation of a foundation, an arm that can fundraise for the agency on an ongoing basis or for specific projects. Agencies can also fundraise via grants, boosting their resources of time and expertise by collaborating with expert citizen advocates, or with engaged university faculty.

An external strategy for park and recreation agencies is collaboration. Partnerships link an agency with other entities that have funds, goods or services of their own to offer, or that can be a fundraising arm such as a foundation. The partnership concept has been well regarded for the past two decades at least, but concept may be more popular than reality. Other entities can be enticed to partner through tax incentives and a current business philosophy of appearing to “do the right thing.”

Agencies can also partner with schools through internships, whereby college or university students have a defined period of reflective work experience at agencies. Internships are structured as three-way partnerships among the academic institution, the student, and the workplace. Most students view internships as the apex of their academic programs and a jump-start to their careers. Hosting student interns, too, can increase agencies’ productivity, while conserving resources. As well, an engaged university faculty with expertise in research and evaluation and a mandate for community service can provide valuable expertise to agencies under pressure to show more accountability (Bocarro & Barcelona, 2003).

While agencies compete for funding on the external front, internal aspects, too, threaten the effective operation of agencies. In times of extreme cost controls and near crisis, managers may examine whether the needed skills exist within their organization. Respondents indicated this examination by noting the challenges of leadership and management and advocacy skills. The respondents recognize a gap in skills needed to campaign regularly for funding and also question their skills as managers and leaders. A coping strategy may be the use of competency models, whereby all levels of the organization operate within a system of agreed upon skills, standards, and competencies (CPRS, 1999; Chase & Masberg, 2007; Hurd, 2004: Hurd & McLean, 2004; Masberg, Chase, & Madlem, 2003; NRPA, 1993).

Supply and Demand

It is interesting that facilities and programs were increasing, while at the same time, budgets were being cut. With budget cuts, there is a reduction in staffing as well as a limit to the hours facilities can remain open. Adults and youth volunteers, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, are used to maintain a certain level of service. These volunteers ultimately come from the users. One respondent pointed out, “there is a lack of volunteers,” and with demographic trends as they are, it is difficult to predict otherwise unless volunteers come from the ranks of retirees. Respondents are being creative in their resolution to “do more with less.”

“Doing more with less!” is an ongoing theme. As mentioned, managers are reorganizing, refocusing, seeking sponsors or grants, charging fees, and using other creative methods in order to survive. The identification of this dilemma calls upon the solutions and strategies linked to all five challenges discussed here. A manager must focus on many challenges simultaneously. There is a need for managers to take a global view and to be proactive to minimize damage to the organization, its programs, and facilities.


Image Credibility Advocacy

Managers’ fourth greatest area of concern developed around image, credibility, and advocacy. While the benefits approach to leisure has been alive for nearly two decades (Allen & McGovern, 1997; Driver, Brown, & Peterson, 1991), perhaps the message has not been sufficiently delivered. To lobby successfully for public resources, Kaczynski and Crompton (2004) say that park and recreation agencies ought to adopt a strategic approach to communicating these benefits to stakeholders through aligning with prevailing concerns of elected officials and residents. However, the park and recreation field lags behind others in recognizing the centrality of positioning to its strategic effectiveness. Indeed, literature from the 1980’s (Sessoms 1986; Searle 1986; 1990) to the present indicates that public policy advocacy by professionals is sporadic at best. Searle (1986) found that most park and recreation professionals participated in only one advocacy activity outside work in a three year period, and predicted that the lack of interest would “in the long term, have a serious and likely debilitating effect on the park and recreation movement” (p. 11). Searle (1990) posited that apart from direct professional advocacy, empowering citizenry may be most effective. Panza and Cipriano (2004) questioned whether recreation directors are capable of mobilizing citizen groups.

Crompton (1999a; 1999b; 2000; 2001) cites contributions that recreation makes to a community’s economic prosperity: attracting and retaining businesses and retirees; attracting tourists; enhancing real-estate values; environmental stewardship; stimulating urban rejuvenation; preventing youth crime; improving community health; and addressing needs of the underemployed. These contributions, along with the well-known relationships between social issues and park and recreation services, have been substantiated through research, and are doubtless obvious to the reader. However, the relationship has not been made clear enough to many elected officials and taxpayers. This indicates that the recreation profession needs to increase its efforts in delivering its message. Lobbying is inherent in the mission of most professional organizations. But do association executives see themselves as fulfilling that role on behalf of their membership, or as trainers of lobbyists amongst their member professionals? Currently, agency managers may not know how to bring the message home to their communities.
Washington state recreation and park members have told their professional association that they want legislators to “establish and officially recognize parks and recreation as an essential and/or valued community service and a necessary dynamic to a healthy, vibrant social structure” (WRPA, 2003). They asked their professional association to engage in “really teaching others how to sell P & R benefits” to politicians, the public, and other professionals, and “assisting communities in saving their rec departments, i.e. providing justification for boards, alternatives to cuts, etc.” because “we are looking at a real crisis.” Some believe the professional association should teach all members to lobby and do so on “a more business-oriented model – less emotional, more empirical approaches” (WRPA, 2003). Who should advocate? Is advocacy the role of users, or professional associations, or agency managers, or advisory boards, or every one in the profession?

Panza and Cipriano (2004) also ask some pointed questions about advocacy: (a) Are recreation directors comfortable enough to mobilize citizen groups? (b) Do they know how to conduct cost effective surveys that can address thorny issues without feeling threatened by the results? (c) Do they have the job security to take on what may be politically challenging issues? Or, (d) "Is there a working relationship with university faculty who are trained in evaluation research and community recreation practitioners that can be used to ‘make their case’" (p.24)? Faculty may be individuals who know the specifics of recreation benefits across a broad base, and be relatively objective. Searle’s (1990) strategy for advocacy was to empower the citizenry through information and trust. He urged professionals to reduce the cost of information to the public and not rely on them to get it. Though Searle’s (1990) point was made over a decade and a half ago, it may be even truer in today’s Internet information age: “People tend to make decisions with information on hand and do not usually go out of their way to get more information” (p. 37). The NRPA strategic planning process in recent years has identified that many professionals join for advocacy, though it is not clear whether the individual expects active individual advocacy, or who will practice it. While professionals have asked for training and mentoring to develop advocacy skills individually, it appears this is not being done on a national or state level. NRPA does offer a membership category for “citizen advocates.” It is noteworthy that the potential lobby is ubiquitous, as a parks and recreation department exists in virtually every community, large or small.

The challenge of advocating for a field like recreation where results are intangible and difficult to quantify has been known for at least two decades (Searle, 1986; Sessoms, 1986). Positions of agencies are determined by their stakeholders’ perceptions of the agency’s image in relation to that of their competitors; and positioning or repositioning requires consistency and tight focusing of a selected message over a long time, often many years (Kaczynski & Crompton, 2004). It needs to be remembered that most taxpayers are not frequent users of park and recreation services; thus it is vital that the agency address the perceptions of both user and non-user groups. Respondents who complained of ceding ground to fire and police need to appreciate that the vitality of any organization’s mission is always in competition with others’ missions. Because environments are not static, communicating one’s mission is a never-ending endeavor. Furthermore, the documentation of park and recreation’s impacts to communities is time-consuming. With staff reductions and tight budgets, activities such as documentation are often put aside for more pressing issues. A recommendation is to use the National Recreation and Park Association Legislative Forum as a model, and initiate a Community Forum or Park and Recreation Forum day on which a contingent of supporters “blitz” the community using documented benefits specific to their own communities.

Leadership and Management

The fifth challenge category identified by study respondents is leadership and management. Managers question whether the needed leadership skills exist in their organizations to deal with issues, especially i
n times of extreme cost controls and near-crisis. One coping strategy may be the use of competency models. Competencies become job criteria and part of an organization. Hurd (2004) claims that, “Competencies have been used for such things as (a) establishing employee evaluation criteria, (b) setting performance benchmarks and assessing readiness for a position, (c) determining hiring criteria, (d) mentoring employees and (e) creating a professional development plan.” Hurd and McLean (2004) developed a framework of six general competency categories for CEO’s in public park and recreation agencies in the U.S. The general competency categories are business acumen, communications and marketing, community relations, leadership and management, planning and evaluation, and professional practice. A whole organization’s competency, or effectiveness, will in good measure depend on the competencies of its personnel, especially management.    

Respondents were concerned about the lack of professional development, or lack of access due to tight budgets. There was a fear that a simple lack of action on the part of managers to advance their own skills results in a “chain-reaction effect,” so entry-level staff are not receiving the training they need. One wonders what professional development requirements an agency may have, and if the national/state certification movement is strong enough to motivate managers to “keep up.” Also, one wonders if there is a mandate to seek continuing education credits offered by various professional associations or educational institutions.

Managers show concern about the skills of those they supervise, as well. Some are challenged by dealing with the interrelationships of initial professional training (“we do not have enough universities offering P & R degrees”), recruitment, professional development, and advocacy of the field (“attracting quality individuals into the field – legitimizing the field”). Some see a solution to human resource development in creating closer ties with universities who do the initial professional training (“working more with colleges to get to students in the learning phases”). Many university programs hold accreditations requiring standard outcomes. In a recent search of the 2004 Standards and Criteria for Baccalaureate Programs in Recreation, Park Resources, and Leisure Services (NRPA,
2004) the terms, “advocacy,” “image,” or “credibility,” are not present. In a well-used management text (Kraus & Curtis, 2001), advocacy and image building seem to focus on “the public,” without specifying policy makers and funding organizations. Much of the attention is on marketing programs or advocating to (potential) community users about the benefits of recreation. To reiterate, research has shown that when taxpayers are asked whether parks contribute positively to their quality of life, they will approve modest tax increases to maintain that quality of life (Panza & Cipriano, 2004).

A business approach or marketing philosophy is needed in order to mold attitudes, bring about change, and effect policy. Park and recreation staffs regularly promote the calendar of programs and activities offered through their organizations. Taxpayers see ads in the local newspapers, receive agency brochures at home, view participants in the parks, and maybe use facilities themselves. Thus, their attitudes result primarily from this limited flow of information or marketing targeted to them. It is generally known that consumers require exposure to marketing on an ongoing basis if they are to purchase or maintain use. Funding sources, including taxpayers and community members, may require marketing or public relations with messages specifically targeted to them as the budget managers.

Summary of Recommendations

Recommendations, in summary, begin with encouraging managers and professional associations to raise advocacy and advocacy training. Advocacy may be foundational to ameliorating other issues. Human resource management and retention will benefit from strategies such as the use of competency models, development opportunities, and frequent evaluation and recognition of employees. Funding challenges to the organization can be eased externally through partnerships, tax incentives, foundations, grant writing, and ongoing advocacy; and internally through competency models, and increased use of interns and volunteers. Utilizing volunteers and fully developing staff skills help bridge the gap between supply and demand. Still, managers need a global view and to be proactive to minimize damage to the organization, its programs, and facilities. Managers must be leaders; they must secure the best professional development for themselves and their staff, and rise to the challenge of competition with other funds-seekers through a more business-like approach to management, marketing, and advocacy.


Concluding Comments

This broad-based and open-ended survey found that park and recreation managers believe strongly in their mission. Changes are needed in their external and internal management and marketing approaches. There is also need for multi-level professional development if their agencies are to have the resources to move forward.

Permeating the responses was a sense of frustration, anxiety, and even crisis based on a perceived downgraded status of parks and recreation as an essential service vis-à-vis police and fire services. To continue programs in a time of fiscal constraints, park and recreation managers rely heavily on paid temporary help, on youth and adult volunteers, and on college interns. Since bachelor’s degree holders are sought to fill entry-level professional positions, recent closings of university recreation programs could leave agencies without qualified replacements.

In a time of stressors in the macro environment, it is interesting that the most frequently cited challenges for park and recreation managers were micro issues such as human resource management, over which they have a great deal of control. Professionals see advocacy of the profession with legislators and other stakeholders as desirable or even essential, but many perceive advocating as a personal challenge. The outlook of park and recreation managers is essentially positive and focused on what they individually and collectively can accomplish on behalf of their agencies and profession. Further research could replicate this survey to provide a longitudinal view of managerial priorities, and would include a working definition of the term challenge. While this study focused on the profession in Washington state, the results and subsequent analysis provide a robust view of potential strategies to park and recreation managers anywhere to remain effective at any time, or in any economic condition.


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