I am so honored to have Debbie Trueblood, Executive Director of the Illinois Park and Recreation Association join us today.
Personally, I can tell you in the 10 years that I have been a member of IPRA, this organization has helped me grow leaps and bounds. This episode is a great opportunity to not only learn what the benefits are of being an association member, but how Illinois has been so successful at it.
I have attended NRPA in St. Louis and I make a point to attend the Illinois state conference every January. I can tell you that Illinois has done an outstanding job offering a conference of the same standard as NRPA. They also offer a mentoring program; ProConnect, Professional Development School, Supervisor Symposium, a web series, and during the pandemic we had an excellent series by Jamie Sabbach, “Call to Action,” provided by IPRA as well. Debbie has such a vast background, that she can truly look at this field from so many angles. So we’ll dive right in and find out more about what Debbie is up to!
Debbie Trueblood, MSW, IOM, CAE is the Executive Director of the Illinois Park and Recreation Association (IPRA). She has formerly served as Executive Director for several state and international associations. She has been a lobbyist for homecare, hospice, and osteopathic physicians. She is a board member for the National Association of Park Foundations. She is a Certified Association Executive (CAE). She received the Distinguished Service award in 2019 from the Southern Illinois University Park and Recreation Department. She was 2018-2019 Chair of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) Ethics Committee. She presents nationally on ethics, glass ceiling issues, nonprofit turnaround, job hunting, public speaking, trends in recreation, designing mentoring programs, etc.
What is it that Illinois Park and Recreation Association (IPRA) does for our field? What is the difference between IPRA and Illinois Association of Park Districts (IAPD)?
Debbie Trueblood: In our state we have two state associations for parks and recreation. I am lucky enough to be the Executive Director for one them- IPRA. Our sister organization, the Illinois Association of Park Districts (IAPD) is located near the state capital. They focus on lobbying for our industry and they primarily serve the agencies as a whole, the elected officials and the Executive Directors. My organization, the Illinois Park and Recreation Association (IPRA) serves the individuals who work in this career from the time they are a college student through their retirement. Our focus is on their individual education to help them advance as a professional. Together, IPRA and IAPD have a joint conference and a joint magazine, but most of the time we each serve the members in separate ways.
In terms of what we do, IPRA hosts a variety of educational topics for professionals like yourself. We offer opportunities where professionals can connect with other people who have similar jobs at similar agencies to get ideas. To me, that’s one of the best parts about parks and recreation- we’re not a competitive environment. Everyone wants to share ideas with each other so each agency can do more or their community.
Does every state have a park and recreation state association? How do they differ from Illinois?
Debbie: No, but most states do. I believe it is around 34 states that have park and recreation associations like ours. Illinois is unique in a lot of different ways when it comes to parks and recreation. For example, most states have park and recreation departments and in our state we have a lot of park districts. But, it is a myth I’ve heard that people out of state think ALL our agencies in Illinois are park districts. Actually, it is about fifty-fifty park districts vs. park and rec departments in our state. It depends on where in the state you live.
Illinois is also the only state that has special recreation associations as we know them in Illinois. These “SRAs” are like a park district but for people with disabilities, typically serving a wide range of ages and people with different types of disabilities. They are often a partnership between a few park districts.
Illinois also is the only state to have forest preserves and conservation districts as we know them here. In other states they have similar agencies, but they call them different things. For us, forest preserve districts are often county wide and are in addition to local park and recreation agencies.
For IPRA, we serve park districts, park and rec departments, SRAs, forest preserves, and conservation districts. However, when I meet with other states, they often serve local parks and well as state agencies, like the Department of Natural Resources professionals- the DNRs. In Illinois the state associations focus on local parks.
But there are other differences too. Each state association has its own niche that we’re known for or where we excel. For us, Illinois has the largest park and rec state conference. We have about 4,000 attendees each year.
You had a birds-eye-view of agencies and professionals during the pandemic. How was IPRA able to assist its members during this time?
Debbie: My gosh, 2020 has been so difficult for our country, right! But, park and rec professionals are adaptive and creative, so I think our industry has done a great job of coming up with new ways to serve our communities during these tough times. I can tell you in Illinois, COVID-19 hit us hard. We have well over 135,000 cases of COVID here and for weeks it seemed we were seeing an average of 2,500 new cases every day. So, as a result, I believe we’re likely the slowest state to reopen.
We have a five phase plan, and for example, we won’t reach phase 5- where groups of 50 or more are legally allowed to gather- until there is a vaccine or an elimination of new cases. So, we anticipate living with heightened restrictions for many months to come. So, the impact to our agencies from the pandemic and the state shut down is extensive and we’ve heard that some agencies in our state are facing budget cuts of up to 50%. I know of one agency considering furloughing 40% of their full time staff. I heard of another municipal department that went from a staff of 7 full time people down to 1. So we know that the impact on our members has been drastic and will continue challenging them for a long time yet.
So, during this time, I relied on my experience before I came to IPRA when I was with other associations and my career was focused on serving and leading organizations in crisis or turning them around financially. While none of us have been through COVID-19 before, we all rely on any experience we have that is like it to help guide our actions.
The first week of the state shut down I notified staff and the board that from here on out, we would focus specifically on “what we can we do to serve our members, when they need us the most, when they can’t afford to pay for our services.” Internally, the board chair and I agreed to pause our existing strategic plan and to form a new short term plan focused on just the next 9 months.
We hired a strategic planning consultant to do a virtual retreat to help us get it done. We began getting as much free education out to our members as fast as we could. We formed partnerships quickly with other states and other Illinois associations to share resources and to provide education for all. We started gathering and sharing all the resources we could find on COVID related guidelines and best practices so our members wouldn’t have to comb the internet looking for all the data.
We offered open forum sessions weekly for our members to share ideas as well as free educational speakers and open forum sessions on more niche topics like fitness managers and aquatics who were dealing with more specific information. I also began working with our foundation board to make a plan for how they could leverage their resources to help our members who were going through personal hardship. Every day, we ask, what can we do to serve our members, when they need us the most, when they can’t afford to pay for our services. We are going to do all we can to support our members through these challenging times.
Past the Pandemic: What’s Next For Parks & Recreation
What do you think is going to happen to the park and recreation industry as a result of the pandemic and the state shut downs? How can professionals prepare for what is coming?
Debbie: As I mentioned, I came from outside the park and rec industry, serving associations like IPRA through major challenges and turning them around. Based on what I’ve seen other industries go through I suspect that where we’re headed with parks and rec right now is a nation-wide re-sizing of our agencies, our facilities, our services. I can’t speak to all states, but in my state of Illinois, our agency budgets have been hit HARD. Depending on how long the economic recovery lasts, we may see agencies permanently reduce their budget size. It is uncomfortable to think about, but when we talk about the Great Depression or the Great Recession now, we don’t think of them as a “really bad summer” we think of them as chapters in our history that lasted for a few years. I believe that is what we’re up against.
The result will likely include reductions in professional positions, reductions in salary and benefits. We will surely see reductions in programming and events. There are many tough decisions ahead for us.
But my experience tells me that in any crisis, there will be “winners”. There will be leaders and agencies who figure out early, how to make it work. You can choose now to be one of the “winners” later. The way you do that is to make tough choices as early as possible. You face the fact that you will have to make these tough choices, quickly, and with limited information. You take risks to try new things. You let go of programs and services that were holding you back- you let go of those sacred cows that don’t serve your new plans. You look for partners in the community- the exact same groups you were competing with last year- and you partner with them on programs and share revenue and expenses so that neither of you has to carry the full weight of it on your own. Crisis breeds technology innovations. So, you look for places where an investment in technology can improve your customer service or expand your offerings. The most important thing to remember when you’re leading an organization through change is that you cannot cut your way to success. You have to balance the budget on both sides of the equation- you have to look for new revenue potential.
A crisis escalates agency culture. If you were an agency filled with chaos and conflict, a crisis makes it worse. But, if you were an agency with talented staff working together towards success, a crisis can actually push you to reach your goals faster because you know how much is riding on each moment and you work hard together to get it done right.
Again, there will be winners in this crisis. There will be agencies who see this time as an opportunity to push themselves to do more and to seek out innovations to make them better than they’ve ever been. The time is now and as leaders in our profession, you have the choice to decide now to be a winner later.
What should listeners take action on today?
- I encourage you to participate in your park and recreation state association or NRPA.
- Just like we’re doing at IPRA, I encourage you to lead your community through this change with the motto of “how can we help people now, when they need us the most, when they can’t pay for our services like they used to.” The ideas you come up with will push you to innovate.
- There will be winners as a result of this crisis. Plan now to be a winner later (and always remember that you cannot cut your way to success).
Marissa: Thank you so much for sharing your story with the Let’s Talk Parks audience!