Positive Reinforcement // Nonprofit Parks Foundation Girds Public Works

By Connie Bye

A simple passion for parks and trails drives the Bainbridge Island Parks Foundation.

If you have a great idea for parks or trails——big or small——Barb Trafton, BIPF’s executive director, is eager to talk. “We can move the process along in ways that individuals can’t.” Which is a key strength of the foundation, added board president Adin Dunning. “The foundation can advocate for things; we can listen to the community in a different way.”

The foundation—which focuses on three areas: parks, trails and community grants—is supported by private donations, grants and contributions to One Call for All. Although BIPF is an independent entity, the nonprofit works hand-in-hand with Bainbridge Island Metro Park & Recreation District, “providing amenities that otherwise would not be funded,” said Trafton.

The alliance, said park district executive director Terry Lande, means more people are working toward the same result. “The foundation also has created public interest, making more [people in the community] aware of what we’re doing.”

Lande said some people are wary of dealing directly with the park district, because it is a government agency. But as a representative of a nonprofit, Trafton can take a low-key approach to finding solutions, talking one-on-one with neighbors, answering questions, researching easements or even helping with funding if needed, he said.

Foundation and park district officials have an easy, collegial relationship, both Trafton and Lande said. They meet regularly to discuss projects and sit down annually to talk about what the community wants and needs in the year ahead. “We talk about which projects we can fund and what [BIPF] can help fund,” Lande said. “We don’t want to duplicate efforts.”

In addition to working with the park district, BIPF works with the city to expand and maintain the island’s growing public trail system. It also provides $14,000 a year to help cover the costs of a park district trail-maintenance team.

For 17 years, BIPF quietly awarded small grants for projects—for instance, renovation of the Yeomalt cabin and the Transmitter Building before several donors challenged the nonprofit to up its game, agreeing to cover operating expenses for three years. That led to hiring Trafton and two other part-time staffers, who can focus in ways the board cannot, Dunning said.

“Our board is still volunteer, and we take on a lot,” he said. But the staff “has added credibility and rigor to everything we do. We’re smarter about what activities we take on and how we can deliver support.”

The foundation distributes $17,000 a year in community grants for park and trail related projects. Grants have paid for items such as drinking fountains at the aquatics center, gymnastics equipment for the park district’s program and furniture at the teen center.

The foundation also can provide support through fundraising. It recently raised $20,000 in three weeks for a new Hawley Cove boardwalk; the park district tentatively has scheduled that work to begin this summer. The new boardwalk will improve access, especially for anyone with limited mobility, Trafton noted. “We work with community members to fundraise for changes.”

In addition, the foundation, the park district and other area agencies support the Student Conservation Corps, which offers paid jobs to high school students over spring break and during two summer sessions. In turn, the students agree to participate in a volunteer fall planting program.

“They’ve been hugely successful in the removal of noxious and invasive species,” Lande said. “They have freed trees from the stranglehold of ivy.”

The foundation is looking ahead in other ways, too. With Trafton and the other staff in place, the board was able to devote time in recent years to examining what the foundation had accomplished and how, “peeling back the layers, doing a lot of looking inward,” Dunning said. “Over the last year, we’ve started looking outward and ahead.”

As a result, the board will continue making grants while expanding its advocacy role, Dunning said. There’s a commitment to ensuring that the board includes a range of perspectives on uses and needs for trails and parks. The board also better understands the foundation’s strengths and the role it can play in the community, he said.

“We can help feed connections,” Dunning said. “We’re an independent voice in the room.”