Working for a Nonprofit Park Association

Most people who visit national parks never realize that the anyone other than National Park Service employees might be serving them. The truth is, while the NPS man the entrance booths, staff the ranger desks, and hold interpretive programs and talks, most other services inside the park are not provided directly by the government.

Just about every restaurant, gift shop, gas station, and hotel you find inside a national park is being run by a concessionaire company that has a contract with the government that allows them to operate inside the park. There are conditions placed on both sides by these contracts and they can switch hands from time to time. Xanterra and Delaware North are the two big ones here inside of Yellowstone.

If you’re a work-camper looking for a paying summer job inside a national park, it’s a lot easier to get one working for a concessionaire than working for the NPS itself. To find out more, you can follow those links to previous articles I’ve written about my past experiences with both.

But as it turns out, those aren’t the only two options. This summer I’m working for the Yellowstone Association, which is not the NPS, nor a concessionaire.

The Old Faithful Visitor Education Center - my workpace!

The Old Faithful Visitor Education Center – my workpace for the summer 2015 season!

What it is

The Yellowstone Association (YA), is a nonprofit organization that has a partnership with the park, instead of a contract like the for-profit concessionaires.

YA brings in money through various channels (like the bookstore I’m working at inside the Old Faithful visitor center), and then 89 cents of every dollar raised goes back to the park to fulfill the association’s mission of promoting education and research within Yellowstone.

Some of this money goes back to the park in the form of a lump sum (hard cash), and some goes back in the form of in kind aid. For example, YA: foots the printing cost of the Yellowstone newspaper, pays the wages for the two librarians who staff the historical documents center in Gardner, provides research funding for biologists studying wolves and bison in Yellowstone, and invested over 2 million dollars last year for the educational displays located inside the new Albright visitor center in Mammoth.

Many (but not all) of the bigger national parks have organizations like this, but they are all their own separate entities with slightly different mission statements and goals. Instead of being called an Association, they might be called a Conservancy, or possibly something else, but you can usually find them inside visitor centers.

What the job entails

My job title is Sales Associate, and the base job duties aren’t much different from a retail job with a concessionaire. I man a cash register, help keep the store stocked and clean, and answer visitor’s questions about the park. There are limits to how YA is allowed to raise money, so you won’t find any hospitality or food related jobs here, it’s just sales.

The big difference is that you’re expected to sell memberships.

Park visitors can sign up for a membership with the association starting at $35 a year, and besides just helping the park (89 cents of every dollar…), they receive benefits such as discounts on store purchases and on lodging inside the park during the slow seasons, and a subscription to a quarterly magazine to keep in touch with the park.

As an employee, I have a quota I’m expected to meet in membership sales. I have not so far found this quota hard to meet, and it doesn’t feel, how can I say this, skeevy, like how some sales jobs expect you to hard sell things. Here I know it’s for a good cause, and I never feel like I have to push anybody to buy – you just explain what the membership entails and enough people are happy to contribute.

Inside the visitor center is the park store. We're only allowed to sell educational things, there's a lot of books!

Inside the visitor center is the park store. YA is only allowed to sell things that are educational in nature, so there are a lot of books.

Wage and benefits

I had job offers from both Delaware North and YA this summer. DN was going to pay me $8.25 an hour, YA is $9.00 an hour. My RV site with YA is $122 a month, with DN it would have been $240 a month. It would have been a seven mile drive from my site to my job with DN, and it’s a one mile walk from my site to my job with YA. Plus, there was the possibility of split shifts with Delaware North (erk), and no such possibility with YA.

That’s not entirely the whole story though. Some Delaware North RV sites don’t cost as much and are within walking distance (those ones are nabbed very early, you’d want to apply in November to snag one), and YA is only 30 hours a week compared to DN’s 40 hours a week (which can be a plus or a minus depending on your view). I have a friend who works with Delaware North and enjoys it (she’s a floor supervisor at a store up in Canyon Village and gets more than $8.25 an hour), and so far I’ve found the YA people to be a fun group to work with.

Besides that there are other perks. YA, Xanterra, and Delaware North all have store discounts for their employees, this year it seems like employees at all three get 30% off of store (and grocery where applicable) purchases at their own and other companies stores (so I get 30% off at YA stores, Xanterra stores, and DN stores… and vice versa.)

Plus other businesses in the area offer special deals and discounts. Most notably, there’s a white water rafting place somewhere around here that will give me a free half-day raft before the height of the season starts in July, heck yeah.

Oh, and lets not forget the benefit of getting to live in the park for a summer. Because really, that’s pretty awesome.

The application process

Finding seasonal jobs at these places isn’t so different than for a concessionaire. I use coolworks.com (free) or Workamper News (subscription) to find my national park jobs, and YA was advertising in both (the Grand Canyon Association also frequently advertises on both).

Because YA and it’s counterparts in other parks are smaller operations than most concessionaires, there aren’t as many openings and openings fill more quickly. I applied at the beginning of February and almost missed the window, I was among the last couple people interviewed and chosen.

The application was all online, and slightly more in depth than other applications I’ve done for concessionaires – there were a few boxes with questions where you had to write in answers (why do you want to work for us, how will your love for Yellowstone help you to sell memberships to our visitors, etc.).

The interview call came within a day of submitting the application, and the interview process was like the application: a bit more substantial than for other seasonal jobs I’ve held. Because the pay is higher and the hours are fewer, I think YA gets a higher applications-submitted to jobs-available ratio than the Yellowstone concessionaires do, and therefor the folks who hire can be more selective. Do yourself a favor and do some research on the association and park ahead of time to be better prepared for the interview.

My office view of Old Faithful, it's pretty grand!

My office view of Old Faithful, it’s pretty grand!

In conclusion

Over all, I’m very happy with my experience working for the YA so far. The training here has been far more comprehensive than what I’ve received at any other seasonal retail job, my coworkers (and boss) all really seem to enjoy being here, and it feels good to be working for a place that is more focused on helping the park than in lining it’s bank account. I stand by the initial assessment I made over a week ago when I arrived in Yellowstone: It’s going to be a good summer.

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