America’s National Parks: An Opportunity For CSR

On Labor Day weekend, millions of people will soak in the last few days of summer in the confines of one of America’s 418 national park sites.

The national parks represent everything from a single house on Vermont Avenue in Washington D.C. to 5.5 million acres in Alaska. They represent some of the most well-visited attractions in the world—never mind the U.S. For many people, they represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a place to bond with family and friends, and so much more.

And for businesses, they represent an incredible opportunity.

While the parks are thought of as a tourist attraction, not much is ever made about the financial impact they have on communities. According to the 2018 National Park Service Visitor Spending Effects, the National Park Service produced $40.1 billion in economic output in the national economy.

“Last year, we had 318 million visits to the Parks. That’s more than all major professional sports [events] combined with Disney,” says Will Shafroth, President and CEO of the National Park Foundation, the nonprofit partner of the National Park Service.

Shafroth said he grew up with an appreciation for the outdoors and spent summers at Voyageurs National Park in Northern Minnesota. He served under Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in 2009 and eventually joined the National Park Service in 2015.

“There’s a gigantic economic engine fueled by our national parks. It’s not just within the parks…it’s spending money on airlines to get there, gasoline to get there. Hotels, rental cars. Bus tours. And the thing about it is it’s renewable. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s a repeated thing that happens year in and year out.”

Corporate Responsibility

More than just the economic development, the national parks represent a unique opportunity at corporate philanthropy. Companies who work with the National Park Foundation are given the opportunity to not only invest into corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives that empower the national parks, but initiatives that touch upon their own values and priorities.

For example, Subaru is one of the National Park Foundation’s most charitable partners—investing more than $20 million in support since 2013. Subaru used this corporate responsibility initiative to connect with its customers and strengthen its position as a sustainability leader in the automotive world.

“Our customers led us to the national parks,” says Thomas Doll, CEO of Subaru North America. “We asked our customers what they did in their free time and where they went on vacations, and many of them, particularly those out West, told us that they go to our nation’s national parks.”

Doll says that considering the sheer number (not to mention, the size) of national parks, the infrastructure challenges are enormous—just to maintain the natural beauty of these parks is a herculean task. Subaru, which has made a point to emphasize renewable initiatives including the operation of a zero-landfill plant in Indiana, used part of its donation to help remove 6 million pounds of waste from the parks and share its best practices.

“They’re helping the National Park Service understand how they can become more sustainable and reduce the waste that they have to deal with. Think about people showing up to parks and they’ve got coolers and lunches and everything else they’re leaving behind. CEOs like Tom are walking the talk,” says Shafroth.

Not crossing the line

The authentic nature of these parks is what gets people coming back, so naturally there would be a significant backlash if there was a sign saying, for instance, “Coca Cola Presents Yosemite National Park.” No one knows this more than Shafroth and he says that sort of thing is very clear from the outset when they partner with corporations.

“That’s not on the table. If you want to work with us, it really needs to be finding alignment around an important purpose,” he says. “And the corporations, they get it. They don’t to receive [any backlash]. This is not around them buying the parks.”

The amount of money the NPF has raised in the last five years is $550 million—a staggering amount considering the original goal was $250 million. In a lot of ways, the challenges Shafroth faces as head of this nonprofit mirrors the CEO of a global enterprise faces.

Will Shafroth

How do they take those funds and effectively maximize the impact across the country? NPF is working with partner organizations who help maintain and operate their specific parks. How do they scale up some of the work they’ve already accomplished? Creating long-term strategies with feasible goals. How does he ensure that the product stays authentic as the operation leverages outside partners? That one is easy—leveraging people’s passion for the parks.

“Corporations are run by people and people have their own connections to these places. People like Tom Doll…they are connected and they’re able to see the alignment between their work and our work. We’re a pretty safe space in the world…parks a lot like apple pie in a lot ways. It’s a common ground, I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat or Independent or whatever.”

Read more: Sonnenfeld: For Larry Fink, Guns Are Time To Back Up Tough Talk On CSR