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No Rest for the Central Park Conservancy

New York is a competitive place. From getting a seat on the subway to finding an apartment to landing a table at a popular restaurant, competition is everywhere.

So how does the Central Park Conservancy, a private nonprofit organization, continue to win over donors? It has raised $325 million over 26 years, with 85 percent of funds coming from private donations.

“Both individuals and businesses around the park have an incentive to take care of their back yard,” said Terry Coppersmith, vice president of development and external affairs at the Central Park Conservancy, New York. “Central Park is the fabric of New York City.”

Under a contract with the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation, the conservancy’s mission is to restore, manage and preserve Central Park. Since its founding in 1980, the conservancy has prescribed a management and restoration plan for the park and created programs for volunteers and visitors.

Central Park receives 25 million visitors yearly. Spanning 843 acres — compared with Monaco’s 485 or so — it is the most frequently visited urban park in the United States.

The conservancy provides 85 percent of the park’s annual $25 million operating budget. It is responsible for the basic care of the green space hemmed by Fifth Avenue, Central Park West, Central Park South and Central Park North.

“We have more than 30,000 volunteer hours, and there is never a shortage of people wanting to help,” Ms. Coppersmith said.

Green Mail

The conservancy cites direct mail and marketing as its key communication vehicle. It uses the marketing for acquisitions, member renewals and appeals.

“Our direct mail goal [for 2006] was reached at 1.7 million [mailers sent], and 12 percent of our funds comes from direct mail response,” said Diane Schoenthal, vice president of development for Central Park Conservancy.

The conservancy handles its direct mail internally. It uses a No. 10 mailer but has begun experimenting with different sizes. Including appeals, acquisitions and renewals, the conservancy sends 14 mailers yearly, mailed seasonally.

The group has a complementary e-mail strategy. It includes using nonprofit database Pledgemaker and other house file e-mail and rented lists to send messages for donations. The bulk of the e-mail marketing for new membership is done in the fall.

The organization is in the process of hiring an outside company to provide new software and more frequent updates for its Web site at www.centralparknyc.com.

“We don’t do any [brand] advertising because we do not need to drive any traffic to the park,” Ms. Coppersmith said.

Maybe the park doesn’t need it, but the conservancy sure wants more awareness.

“Our biggest concern is communicating, because if you ask most people what the conservancy is, they will not know,” Ms. Schoenthal said. “Each piece we mail reinforces our mission.”

Expanse Expense

Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1857, Central Park is known for attractions like the Great Lawn, Sheep Meadow, Bethesda Fountain, Belvedere Castle, Wollman Rink, Rumsey Playfield, Harlem Meer and the reservoir around which the famous jog.

Movies are shot in the park, weddings performed, classical concerts held and Shakespeare in the Park enacted in the relevant seasons. Sunbathers abound, and in-line skaters fly. The fall foliage is an attraction for tourists and residents alike.

The conservancy has restored most of the major park landscapes and has built an endowment of about $90 million. Each year it provides programs in environmental science, adult education and recreation as well as volunteer opportunities in horticulture and park information services.

“Being in New York City, we face the challenge of competing with all of the other nonprofit organizations that are based here,” Ms. Schoenthal said. “Most of them do advertising, so we constantly have to keep people loyal.”

Though it doesn’t run branding ads, the conservancy has its branding image — a maple leaf outline — embedded throughout the park at entrances, visitor centers and stores, and on park vehicles and employee uniforms.

The minimum membership fee is upward of $35. But donations can range into the thousands or millions via membership in the Chairman’s Circle and bequests. Each donation amount offers different membership benefits.

As an incentive for membership, the organization created the “Parks Perks Program,” offering discounts from more than 100 businesses surrounding the park.

So what is next for the conservancy as the fall season approaches?

“We are evaluating our media, upgrading our direct mail and developing new signage to hone in with our overall message to get it across as best as possible,” Ms. Coppersmith said.

“The same message doesn’t work for everyone, and it varies with different age groups,” Ms. Schoenthal said. “We want to be able to segment it to everyone and continue to make the park the beautiful place that it is.”

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