A Real Balancing Act

By Don L. Jones, John Rainey, and John Drew

More and more parks and recreation departments need to deal with “program cost-recovery” initiatives to make up the difference between what they are being allotted in their budgets and the actual cost of providing services to community participants. Hence, financial accountability (sustainability) is the norm for most parks and recreation departments these days. “What does our bottom line look like this month?” may not be the first question asked at a board meeting or by a supervisor. However, it’s not far behind.

While all organizations are under pressure to meet their budgets, not-for-profit parks and recreation departments are, by definition, not subject to making a profit. Having said that, we are seeing a shift in accountability for the public sector with more communities wanting to know exactly what they are getting for their tax dollars.

What we don’t want to happen is for departments, boards, and the community in general to lose sight of all of the other key areas that make for a well-rounded department and, hence, a happy and healthy community. Elements such as participant satisfaction, safety, employee satisfaction, and operational efficiency all contribute to a high-functioning department that will help ensure the support of the community.

How then do we go about ensuring that our community and the board don’t lose sight of the “big picture”? Well, with a Balanced Scorecard as a natural extension of a strategic plan, we would be set up quite nicely for success  because, with this type of report, our designated “pillars of success” are weighted equally. It isn’t all about “making budget.”

Not Just The Bottom Line
Please do not misunderstand. We all have to live within a budget, both personally and professionally. However, as many who have studied the Baldrige Excellence Framework know, if the focus is entirely on the “bottom line,” many other important areas can get missed, not the least of which could be participant and employee satisfaction.

“The purpose of the Baldrige framework is simply to help an organization answer three questions:

  • Is the organization doing as well as it should?
  • How does one know?
  • What and how should the organization improve or change?” [1]

As a recent example shows, if an airline merely focuses on its “bottom line” and ignores customer satisfaction (seat width anyone?), the bottom line will shrink as fast as the seats have. In this case, one has to wonder how “customer-service satisfaction” metrics were left out of the equation. A balanced scorecard could quickly help correct this problem.

And, continuing with the airline example, Robert S. Kaplan, Ph.D., and David P. Norton, cofounder of the Balanced Scorecard Collaborative, state that one should “think of the balanced scorecard as the dials and indicators in an airplane cockpit … reliance on one instrument can be fatal … managers must be able to view performance in several areas at once.” [2]

Think of it this way. We all want our flights to arrive on time. Having said that, knowing that increased speed uses more fuel, our preference would be for the pilot to watch both dials (speed and fuel level) so we arrive safely on time.

Incorporating A Scorecard
Like other businesses, parks and recreation agencies have begun using a balanced scorecard in recent years because they have seen the advantages of balancing priorities and moving away from weighing one area more heavily than another.

Figure 1 is an example of a balanced scorecard (report card) that was used at The Fitness Centre & Day Spa at Celebration Health Hospital when I served as the Executive Director. It was based on five key elements (or performance measures), which coincided with the organization’s parent hospital:

  • Team
  • Service
  • Clinical
  • Market
  • Finance.

Figure 1. The Fitness Centre & Day Spa – Florida Hospital Celebration Health


For each of these elements, specific goals and measures were identified and used to score our organization (see the report card). Each element is linked to the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program Criteria, to which many government agencies and NGOs adhere (particularly Criteria #4: measurement, analysis, and knowledge management). A dashboard was incoporated (like a traffic signal or meter) to give everyone a clear indication of areas that were doing well and meeting expectations (green light), and areas that needed more attention (red light).

This type of performance scorecard could be adapted for parks and recreation agencies to measure team, service, health, market, and finance, for example. Many agencies are adopting health and livability initiatives into their strategic objectives, and a balanced scorecard with this element is a perspective worthy of focus.

Matt Suedmeyer, Director of the Orange County Florida Parks and Recreation Department, had this to say about the scorecard: “We have been interested in the balanced scorecard for a while. Once completed, we think this scorecard can help demonstrate to our employees and our community stakeholders that we are being attentive to our employees’ needs, our program participants’ interests, as well as being good stewards of the community’s tax dollars.”

John Drew, M.S., is working with the Florida Department of Health in Collier County to design a performance scorecard based on the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program Criteria. The key elements include products/services, customers/stakeholders, workforce, leadership, and financial/market. Choosing a few key measures within each of these elements aligns the department’s strategic goals with its mission, vision, and values while creating a snapshot of overall performance that is monitored monthly.

Some organizations use the balanced scorecard method on a quarterly or annual basis. Others use it as a monthly gauge to monitor progress and make mid-course corrections when necessary. It is important that the whole organization understands the purpose behind the system, and that supervisors and elected officials not only understand it, but participate in its creation as well. A balanced scorecard with buy-in from all organizational levels can set the stage for identifying areas where improvement efforts are needed and foster a culture of pride and excellence within the organization.

A Strategic Evaluation
An excellent example of how the scorecard can be aligned with the strategic plan comes from the Portland Parks and Recreation and Parks Department. Its Strategic Plan 2012 - 2015 is “organized into two mission-focused Key Result Areas (KRA) and the four perspectives of a balanced score card. Four perspectives make up the balanced scorecard of this plan, seen as the horizontal rows (left side of the figure) on the Strategy Map (figure 2)” [3]:

  • Community
  • Process
  • Financial
  • Organizational capacity.

Figure 2. Reprinted with permission from Portland, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department


The Portland Parks and Recreation Department has aligned its two mission-focused KRAs and the four perspectives of a balanced scorecard. The two key themes of the KRAs are listed as “manage and protect assets” and “improve service delivery.” These two themes are listed at the top of Figure 1 with three sub-themes for each of the two KRAs. The four key “perspectives” of the balanced scorecard (community perspective, process perspective, financial perspective, and organizational capacity perspective) are listed on the left side of Figure 2 with two to three sub-themes for each perspective listed.

Of course, the process could be shortened if one is not envisioning revising the strategic plan for the near future and simply developing a balanced scorecard that reflects and aligns with the current plan.

How Is Your Organization Doing?
Is your organization doing as well as it could? How do you know? What changes might be made to make it better? The answer to these and other key performance issues usually comes from strategic planning and analysis of the entire organization.

Professional consultants use a systems approach that employs evidence-based methodologies to help parks and recreation agencies measure, analyze, and expand their knowledge. Consultants utilize a proven set of tools to develop strategic and comprehensive plans, master plans, feasibility studies, funding and cost-recovery analysis, partnering and sponsorship opportunities, programs evaluation, pricing studies, community outreach, management consulting, and staffing evaluations. The balanced scorecard can be an important element of an agency’s overall strategic plan. If your agency doesn’t have one, or if you need to update an existing plan that doesn’t include a balanced scorecard, you may want to consider one in the next strategic plan.

Don L. Jones, Ph.D., is a Project Consultant for GreenPlayLLC and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Recreation, Health, and Tourism at George Mason University. Reach him at donj@greenplay.com.

John Rainey is an experienced graphic/web design professional. Before joining GreenPlay, John served as Vice President and Associate Creative Director at Griff/SMC Marketing Communications. Reach him at johnr@greenplayllc.com.

John Drew’s 15 years of experience working in management positions in the private sector complement a master’s degree in Recreation and Parks Administration from Indiana University, and nearly 10 years of managing parks and recreation planning projects. Reach him at johnd@greenplayllc.com.

[1] 2017 – 2018 Baldrige Excellence Framework
[2] Kaplan, R.S. and Norton, D.P. The Balanced Scorecard:  Measures That Drive Performance.  Harvard Business Review:  83(7): 172-180, 2005
[3] Portland, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department