15 Answers to Making Your Trail Irresistible to Private Funders

Have questions about funding your trail? Check out these answers from presenters that have successfully courted private foundations to give you a holistic view of how projects can be pushed to the next level by engaging the private sector.

by American Trails Staff

As public funding becomes less reliable, the success of your project may depend on developing creative funding solutions with the private sector. Ever wonder how trail projects get access to hundreds of thousands, or in some cases, millions of dollars in private money? This webinar included presenters that have successfully courted private foundations to give you a holistic view of how projects can be pushed to the next level by engaging the private sector. To demonstrate these best practices, panelists shared their success stories in Akron, OH and Philadelphia, PA.

Below are 15 of the questions posed by webinar attendees and answered by the presenters. They offer excellent insight into the challenges trail professionals face in seeking funding opportunities from private funders.

Investment Opportunity: How to Make Your Trail Irresistible to Private Funders

Presented by:

January 17, 2019

Jade asks: What changed after you launched the Circuit Trails?

Patrick answers: The way we collaborated mostly. We worked together in ways we never had before. We strategized, we contacted and met with the region’s county officials and MPO as a group. We began to celebrate and mark our achievements together. We became much more visible and forceful.

Dyllon asks: What surprised you most?

Patrick answers: One idea we invested modestly in was a private media relations firm to help promote every success we could .. a ground breaking, a ribbon-cutting and it was amazingly successful. Our first year garnered more than $300,000 in “earned” media coverage after having spent about $20,000 for the firm.

Karen asks: Are you just funded by one BIG foundation?

Patrick answers: Well it really really helps to have the support of the William Penn Foundation, but NO we have many other funders. We each do our own fundraising but I know that the Barra Foundation, the Knight Foundation and of course, our PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources all support Circuit Trail initiatives.

Joseph asks: What is the governance of the Circuit Trails?

Patrick answers: So we have a loose governance document. We are not a separate 501c(3), rather we elect a steering committee nominated from amongst the Circuit Trails Coalition member NGOs. The Steering Committee elects a Chair, and a state Vice-Chair for NJ and PA. I’m the PA Vice-Chair.

photo credit: jikun-li-Jhnillg, unsplash

Marilynn asks: What’s exciting and new at the Circuit Trails?

Patrick answers: We’re really focused on building 500miles of trail by 2025 which means accelerating our pace of construction fairly dramatically. PEC (my organization) has created a GIS-based tool that is being used by more than 20 agencies and organizations to keep track of trail project status and to help focus us on getting miles delivered!

Warren asks: What are your top 3 challenges associated with Akron Civic Commons?

Dan answers: One of the biggest challenges that we encountered was addressing the gulf of mistrust with our neighborhood residents. Also, our funders expected us to move quickly, however, that is in direct tension with developing trusting relationships. Finally, one of our values is testing ideas “light, quick and inexpensive,” and this conflicts with expectations of partners who have it all figured out and want to move to permanent immediately.

Carol asks: How did you decide on what partners were going to be involved with Akron Civic Commons?

Dan answers: In order to achieve buy-in and investment from our neighborhood residents and partners, we extended an invitation to all of our partners along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail to become involved in the project. One of our core values is transparency and working open book and we encouraged our partners to come along with us on this new way of doing business.

Sarah asks: How do you bridge the gulf of mistrust with neighborhood residents?

Dan answers: There is no easy answer for this other than, take the time to listen to neighborhood residents and understand their perspective. There is a great Lakota saying that says, “Before the healing begins, you first must feel the pain.” Building relationships is based on trust and we learned that while people will listen to what we say, they watched what we did. Following through on our commitments and adhering to our principles of “doing with, and not to,” enabled us to earn the trust of our neighborhood residents. Keeping in mind that this is a daily exercise, since projects move at the speed of trust.

Jack asks: Have you addressed the issue of sustainability and scaling the work?

Dan answers: This is a work in progress. In all of our projects, we incorporate an element of sustainability and scaling as we work to make our work permanent. Part of the key is building investment and ownership in the project with our neighborhood residents and partners so there is a shared vision and ownership since we are not doing anything “for residents, rather we are doing this with residents.

David Bartoo states: Delaware NGO has a William P grant to look at expanding trails in northern DE and linking to PA/Circuit.

Tim Zelek asks Patrick: Describe the Ambassador Affiliation. What does it mean to be an Ambassador?

Patrick answers: An Ambassador is excited about Circuit Trails and provides us with a written statement of support. They promise to promote Circuit Trails in the event of a public meeting and they distribute information about Circuit Trails to their customers/constituents.

You mentioned that trail sections must meet the criteria established by The Circuit Trails. What criteria do they need to meet?

Patrick answers: The trails are to be 10 feet wide minimum, and of a relatively hard surface, not necessarily paved but hard pack fines will do. All Circuit Trails are multi-use and should be separated from traffic, though in certain dense urban situations can be a protected bike lane. Circuit Trails should be destination trails meaning they are longer distance and connect to points of interest, work sites, and to other Circuit Trails.

With hundreds of miles of proposed trails how do you prioritize between the individual trail organizations as to what will be built first?

Patrick answers: As a Coalition we don’t. The funders of Circuit Trails whether that be the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, or the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources make those decisions. It’s still competitive and each trail sponsor has to make the best case for why their project should be funded now. As a Coalition, our stated policy is, if you’re a designated Circuit Trail, we support your project. End of story!

Sue Ellen Bordwell asks Dan: Any suggestions for more rural states without large multinational or national corporations?

Dan answers: Yes, we work in both rural and urban communities, and we have been successful in raising the necessary funding to complete our projects. While urban areas often have the advantage of more foundations and corporate funding, rural communities have the advantage of lower costs and the ability to leverage in-kind support and government funding. For instance, one of our rural communities has been very successful raising funds through Steak Fry events, working with the Appalachia Regional Commission for grant funding and in-kind support from energy companies. In over 26 years of fundraising, I have never seen a project fail due to lack of funding. If there is a shared vision and a visionary plan to present to funders, the funding will come. I am happy to discuss our experiences further if that would be helpful.

Susan Drumheller asks Patrick: I'm curious what the structure is of the Circuit Trails Coalition; is it a non-profit and was that an issue for the federal & state agencies involved?

Do you have staff that helps facilitate, administrate the coalition? And if so, who pays for that?

Dan answers: Yes, we have a staff of 8 and an operating budget of approximately $900,000. We provide a variety of technical assistance and support, including planning, volunteer coordination, fundraising, government relations, project management and maintenance to over 150 public-private partners along the 101-mile Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail.

Ella Belling asks Patrick: How do you engage the corporations & businesses and get them supporting the trails?

What is involved with the Ambassador Affiliation? what do businesses get, how is it promoted, what do the businesses provide to get that status

Dan answers: We created an Adopt-A-Trail program with our Corporate partners to assist with maintenance and landscaping along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail with company volunteers. Some of our Adopt-A-Trail partners include GPD, EDG, Lockheed Martin, Cleveland Clinic Akron General, msConsultants, HR Gray and Burgess and Niple. All of our Adopt-A-Trail companies are recognized on our signage, on our website and in our e-newsletter.

Corey DeVier asks: When attempting to connect trails to fill in the gaps and create a continuous network, do you have any tips on how to work with uncooperative private landowners?

Paul asks: I am interested in any documentation/studies that support the $3.6M invested and $199M in savings quoted for the SRT.

Patrick answers: Yes the numbers I presented are backed up in two totally separate documents.

  1. For the Schuylkill River Trail Economic Analysis conducted by the RTC follow the link to the “resources” section of our Circuit Trails website. You may find other useful information there! RTC has a standard protocol they apply to such analyses across the nation. Let me note that SRT use has increased DRAMATICALLY since this analysis was performed due to significantly enhanced trail connectivity. https://circuittrails.org/sites/default/files/SRT2009UserSurvey.pdf
  2. The medical benefits were projected as part of the Economic Value of Open Space report generated by the now defunct Green Space Alliance of southeastern PA. The person most responsible for that analysis who could best address questions of methodology is Patty Elkis who works with our Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, the MPO I referred to several times. https://www.dvrpc.org/openspace/value/

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