Programming for Success in Parks and Recreation

Written By: 

Becky Dunlap, CPRP
Parks and Recreation programs are one of the key ways of delivering service to thousands of community members every year.  From special events, to team sports, to cultural programs, the responsibility to provide quality programs and services to all members of the community is incredibly essential.  But how does one learn the art and science of creating these programs?  How does one measure the effectiveness of programs, and what does it look like for programs to thrive?  Most importantly, how do we ensure these community programs are acccessible and inclusive for our community? In this conversation, Becky sits down with Chris Bass (Parks & Recreation Director, City of Douglasville) to discuss the in’s and out’s of programming for success.

Transcription

Note: Some of the conversation has been edited for clarity, but has not been fully edited fully for grammar or spelling.

Becky: Welcome to the podcast. 

Chris: Hey, thanks for having me. 

Becky: Of course. Well, I want to reach out to you because it seems like only a couple of months ago Douglasville hosted the GRPA workshop. I so enjoyed it and it was just a great time. I just want to thank you for having me out there, and I’m glad I got to meet you there. I actually got to listen to your presentation about programming. So I was excited when we reconnected and got to talk about some programming ideas here. For those who aren’t familiar with you or don’t know who you are, can you tell listeners a little bit about yourself and what position you are you’re in right now? 

Chris: Yeah. So my name is Chris Bass, and I am the parks manager here with the city of Douglasville Parks and Recreation Department. And for those of you who are not familiar with Douglasville, we are a Metro Atlanta community. We’re about 15 minutes from downtown Atlanta. So we’re one of those neighboring communities. But like I said, I serve as Department manager here, and that title is a little misleading. But we’re making different hats in our Department with programming being one of the main components of my job. 

Becky: That sounds very familiar, wearing many different hats and having to do many things not listed in the job description. It sounds like an all- encompassing role. So I want to ask how you found your way into parks and recreation as a career and kind of the different steps that you took to get you into the parks manager role. 

Chris: Yeah. So I started back in 2008 working part time as an activity leader in one of our after school programs. And I had some trouble finding a part time job. So this one was open and I applied and got it. And that’s when I found my way in parks and Recreation. It wasn’t until the last day of school working after school program when I knew this was the field that I wanted to be in because of the impact that we had on those kids throughout the year. So that’s where it started for me. And from there, I went on and was able to serve in some full time capacity to include recreation facility manager and program coordinator. So, yes, that’s definitely where I got started with parts recreation and after school programs. 

Becky: Nice. Well, what’s your day to day look like? I know it changes all the time because you have different things to do as they come up. I know you guys just ended summer camp, but what’s the typical day in the life of a parks manager? 

Chris: One of our main focuses right now is our CAPRA accreditation. I do spend a good part of my day focusing on that. But outside of our accreditation, our programming evaluation is a big component, making sure that we’re actually giving our constituents what they need. And I know we’ll talk about that a little bit later, but making sure that we’re following what our program mission says, making sure that our facilities are up to par and making sure that our staff are trained on how to implement our program offerings and just keeping up the day to day operations of our parks facilities and recreation centers. 

Becky: Well, good deal. And you guys have a beautiful park. Is that the one that I’ve visited? Is that the one that you work at? 

Chris: Yes. That’s our main Parks recreation office. So our admin office house here, along with other recreation programs as well. It was beautiful. And then you got the park right outside of it, which with a nice Lake and walking track. 

Becky: It’s interesting because you say that you have was it the YMCA where the Boys and Girls Club pretty close by? 

Chris: Yes. So this is the first time I’ve ever seen this before in our park. We have our recreation center and we have a Boys and Girls Club all within the same park. So unique to see that because usually Boys and Girls Club have their own piece of property. But that just shows the partnerships that we have here in the county with our Boys and Girls clubs and other YMCA here in Douglas County. 

Becky: That’s so cool. So during this discussion, I want to talk about programming. And I know that Parks & Recreation Month just ended, and Summer Camps is a huge program that many parks and recreation departments have. But now we’re going into the Fall which is a big season for programming.

I wanted to ask you and get your thoughts on how to develop ideas for your programs and how to test those out. And how do you know when to pursue an idea for a program? 

Chris: So we talked about this before during my presentation about how I got the idea of offering programs based on community needs and  community input. Well, if you’re hearing your citizens say, “this is what we want…. This is what we’re interested in”, then it’s time to really pay close attention to that and figure out what ways you can offer those things that they’re asking. 

I give an example of when I took on my first job as a facility manager. I came in with the mindset that I had all these great ideas. We’re going to start a book club and our art club and all these different types of clubs in this community, but it wasn’t until I had some program failures that I realized that this wasn’t the right types of programs for this community.

So once I finally started talking to some of those citizens and talking to the kids that came into the area, I found that, hey, look, they’re not interested in what I’m interested in. I’m not from this community. So first, getting that input from those that you see every day, even if it’s as simple as having a conversation at the front desk with someone when they’re signing in, getting that input.  

You mentioned fall is getting ready to come up on us, and we’re trying to decide now as we develop our program for our fall season, what new program offerings we want. And just coming in this facility that you visited, citizens say, look, once it starts getting colder outside, I don’t walk as much. So what are some types of programs that you can offer from a health and wellness standpoint where I don’t have to go outside, but I can still get a good workout inside this facility. Looking at all the different obstacles (weather, time of season, trends) are big. So definitely one way to determine what way you want to offer those programs. 

Becky: Sometimes I think so much emphasis is put on surveys and getting the data behind it, which is always important. But oftentimes the best ideas just come from a conversation and then being able to say, okay, I hear you, let’s kind of test this out. And then you mentioned it again to a larger group of people, and then they get excited about it. And then next thing you know, it’s like, okay, well, now I have 20 people excited about this class. Then that would be enough to run it. 

Once you start to develop that program and you try it out, how do you know if it’s a success – how do you measure the success of a program?

Chris: Well, again, to measure that success, you want to get your community feedback and find out for those individuals that have taken advantage of the program. What did you like about it? What did you dislike about it? But I measure the success of that program by going through and determining first what our outcomes are, whatever our objectives of this program. And then at the end of the program, we’re able to sit down and decide, okay, if our goal or our objective was to up kids serving techniques for volleyball program. And then you go back and you look and see at the end if their serving techniques have gotten better. If they’ve learned what you’ve expected them to learn, then that program was successful. And sometimes people tend to determine the number of participants by the success of a program, but that’s not always the case. Even if we’re just reaching one, we’ve done our job. So tying into program development of establishing those objectives and those outcomes will help determine if your program is successful or not. 

Becky: Yes, exactly. I feel like the numbers are what people always go by, because if you don’t reach a certain minimum threshold, then the program is canceled. So, you know it’s not a success if the program is canceled. But you’re right. If you set an objective upfront, then you actually have something to measure it by. Just out of curiosity, when you’re developing your programs, do you actually go through, like a formal program development or like a program summary sheet that says, hey, here’s my idea, here’s how much it will cost, here are the resources I’ll need and here are the outcomes, or is it more kind of informal, just and more flexible to say you kind of like having them in your head or you might write them down on paper. 

Chris: So when I first started programming, I did utilize the more informal approach, and that was mainly because working in that smaller facility, I was the one that developed those programs and actually was the one who offered the programs and who implemented the programs. I was the instructor or facilitator for that program. So everything was in my head, which it was okay because I knew myself. But as I grew in my career and I started working with other staff and my team got bigger, I realized that it’s good to put that information on paper so that if I leave, someone can pick that up and say, okay, well, here’s the plan. And when developing quality programs, I think you have to take into consideration one what the objectives are, but what’s your budget for it? What are we going to need? I often tell people, develop a SWOT analysis for your program you’re trying to start, what are our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? And by doing that, putting all that on paper, you’re able to say, okay, look, we’ve done our due diligence, we’ve crossed our T’s and dot our I’s, and we have a successful plan in place. So definitely putting something on paper, having a formal process is beneficial when implementing programs. 

Becky: Yes, I agree with that. I think it can be tempting just to have it in your head or on a simple word Doc, but then when you actually put it in place and you can keep referring back to it, and then the other thing is passing it on to the next parks manager because no one could come in and be like, “what’s been going on for the last six months?” How have you guys been operating? So it kind of sets up the rest of your team for success, too, when it comes to some of your most successful programs. What have those been? Have any of those surprised you? 

Chris: That’s a good question. I think back when I worked in Columbus Parks and Recreation, I started a program that was this might sound selfish, but it wasn’t intended to benefit the citizens. It was a program for the benefit of my division. So in Columbus, we had a zero marketing budget. We had no funds for marketing advertising. We couldn’t put a commercial on TV. The only thing we had was simply printing Flyers or Facebook. So during our summer account planning meeting, our staff were saying that, okay, we’re losing our older kids, our eleven and twelve year olds. We need to find something for them to do. And technology was our fight. How can we incorporate technology in our summer camp so that the kids are able to have fun and do what they want to do, but they’re still able to be engaged in our program? So one of the programs that we developed was a digital media account. And in this digital media account, we expose kids to the world of digital media by creating short commercials and Flyers and all types of different designs for us. But in return, we wanted to be able to use the commercials that they put together for Advertisement to post on our local stations and our YouTube channels and Facebook just to kind of show, okay, look, we want to do something outside of just normal Flyers. So it was a win win for both of us. The Department, we got some marketing materials free of charge. And the kids were able to utilize their technology. And if I’m not mistaken, I remember sitting in one of your sessions or was a session similar to it? And you talked about an app called InShot.  After that was around the time when I developed this program. And the kids, they love their cell phones. So we allowed an opportunity to make these videos, these commercials and ads through their cell phone by using shots. So it was great win win for both. So I would have to say that’s one of the most successful programs. 

Becky: Oh, yeah, I would say that’s super successful. I mean, what a creative idea. It’s like you have this needs marketing. You have to get your programs out, and yet you also have kids who are interested in digital technology, and it’s like of the best combination of those two worlds. So I love that story. Cool. So, Chris, are there any other tips or tricks for programmers who may be just starting out in their career or in this role? And they kind of feel like they’ve got so many things going on, from marketing their programs to actually developing those ideas, getting community support and feedback, doing program evaluations, managing a team, maybe. I mean, it’s a lot that you have to do from your experience. What kind of advice would you give them? 

Chris: Yeah. So to a new programmer trying to find their way, I would definitely say outside of getting that community input, stay abreast of trends in the field. I mean, there’s so much happening in the world of recreation. You just got to be able to figure out how to connect the dots. And I tell people all the time. Any time I visit a neighboring recreation Department, I grab a program guide and I get my best ideas from there. The NRPA magazine or a local state GRPA magazine has tons of different trends going on. I follow different parts of recreation Department Facebook page just to get ideas, visit their websites to see what are they offering, especially if there’s a community that’s similar to the makeup of my community. So like I said, definitely keeping up with trends and reaching out to other recreation professionals. There are a lot of different Facebook pages to do that. But yeah, those are just some tips outside of the community involvement component to develop great programs. 

Becky: Yeah, that’s great. And I think reaching out to other professionals, like you said, it’s always surprising and so refreshing to me how open and welcome other recreation professionals are and giving away their ideas and telling about some of their successes and failures. And it’s a great form of networking, but it doesn’t have to only occur at conferences or at official networking events. That can just be as simple as going to coffee and some of the best relationships that you can make just come from a simple email or LinkedIn connection or just a follow up. So I think that’s great advice. So when you are thinking about the next steps in your career or maybe you just want to stay here for a while, but where do you see yourself in the future when it comes to parks and recreation? 

Chris: So long term, I definitely could see myself being a parks and recreation director. So here my transition from Columbus to Douglasville was more so to gain the opportunity to work with different in different parks, recreation departments or divisions that I hadn’t before, learning more operations, more strategic planning operations and budget operations. So definitely I’m trying to align myself so that I can be a parks recreation director somewhere down the road. And who knows after that? 

Becky: Yeah, for sure. Well, good. Well, you’ve given a lot of advice and great stories about programming and about marketing and networking. So I just want to thank you for your time before I get to my last question. But if someone wants to reach out to you, what is the best way for them to find you? 

Chris: So email is always the best way to get in contact with me. My email is bassc@Douglasville.ga.gov or you can call my office here at Hunter Park in Douglasville so either way I’m here. 

Becky: Well, good. All right. So the final question of the interview is what do you think it means to raise the bar in parks and recreation? 

Chris: To raise the bar in parks and recreation I think we have to show that we are essential to our communities. I think us as recreational professionals have to go out and tell our stories and we have to show that we make an impact. We love our public safety Department. We love our other municipality departments but parks recreation is key to the community because we save lives, whether it be through health and wellness or conservation or social equity. We saved save lives so we have to be able to tell our story. 

Becky: I love that. Well, Chris, thanks so much for your time today and I’m excited to share this episode with listeners so thank you. Thanks.

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Becky Dunlap, CPRP
Becky Dunlap, CPRP

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