Making a Profit in Nonprofit
A survey by Burnidge Cassell and Associates finds "bigger is not
always better" for financially successful community centers
BY DANIEL R. ATILANO, AIA
Non-profit recreation centers are
facing many challenges today to
remain successful and profitable
beyond the initial period that the
facility opens or after the "newness"
wears off. These challenges include
growing and maintaining membership along with fulfilling their
patrons' needs for quality programming and facilities.
We all know that everyone wants to
receive the best value and service and
that includes membership and
programs at a recreation center. So
what are the factors that contribute to
delivering what the customer wants
while operating a profitable recreation
center? What are the spaces and
programs that have sustained revenue
exceeding expenditures to produce a
Most people involved in park and recreation have
varying thoughts and data on what contributes to
making their facility successful and profitable, so we
asked them. Burnidge Cassell and Associates, Inc.'s
recent survey on "Profitable Community/Wellness
Centers" gathered information from Illinois park and
recreation directors and administrators to reveal factors
that affect their success.
from this survey
show that you
don't have to
be a mega
facility in size
tendency is to
bigger is better.
Think 30 to 85
Almost two-thirds of the survey participants (63%)
have facilities that are between
30,000 to 85,000 square feet. One-quarter (25%) have facilities less
than 30,000 square feet, while the
remaining 12% reported facilities
above 85,000 square feet. Almost
two-thirds (62%) of these facilities
were constructed since 1990. Half
(50%) report having between six to
ten full-time staff, while (38%)
operate their facilities with one to
five full-time staff. More than 43%
of the facilities have received an
addition and or remodeling since
Can you be profitable with a
100,000-square-foot recreation center? Yes, according to Mark
McKinnon club manager of the
110,000-square-foot Homewood-Flossmoor Racquet and Fitness Club.
This facility is an enterprise fund or a profit center for
the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District, which means
it doesn't use any tax money and is revenue-generating to
the extent the surplus pays for the debt retirement and
facility operating costs.
One of the key ingredients is the park district's partnership with a local hospital.
Says McKinnon: "The health care provider not only
pays rent, they also paid for the related construction of
the addition to provide this space including a fitness center expansion."
January/February 2001 / 33
Therapeutic programs—which was identified by the
park district as the number three reason patrons use the
facility—include a wellness center, home health care, offices, a dietitian, acupuncture, cardiac rehab and aquatic
Of the survey participants, a large majority (63%)
have conducted a program interest membership survey
within the last five years. An overwhelming majority
(75%) have conducted at least one program interest
survey. Approximately one-third (31%) of the participants conduct a membership survey every two to three
years, while 13% noted that surveys were distributed
once every four to five years. The average response rate
to these surveys range from 15% to 49%. Improvements are needed on the frequency of conducting
surveys to ask the community and members what their
interests and needs are to aid recreation professional.
Staying ahead of the curve is one key to success.
Approximately one-third of the survey participants
(39%) noted that their membership was less than
1,000, with 23% reporting membership between 1,001
and 2,000. A smaller percentage (16%) report having
memberships between 2,000 to 4,000, while one-quarter (22%) report membership above 4,000.
Men comprise the largest membership group, closely
followed by female memberships at second. Family
memberships were identified as the number three
membership category. Corporate, junior, and youth
memberships reported the lowest of all the membership
categories. Although men represent the highest
membership group today, our aging population may
change this trend and affect the programs we know
today. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2025
the elderly population will grow to 50% more than
Exercise, instruction and recreation / leisure
More than half of the survey participants (56%)
reported the number one reason patrons use their
recreation center is for exercise. Slightly under two-thirds (63%) noted that instructional classes are the
number two reason patrons use their recreation center,
with recreation / leisure programs (25%) rounding out
the number three spot.
Fitness, dance and gym
Half of the participants (50%) agree that fitness
centers are the number one revenue-producing program
space in their facility. More than one-third (38%) noted
that aerobics/dance programs are the second most
profitable, with gymnasiums (25%) noted as the third
most revenue-producing space. Tom Mammoser,
director of the Dundee Township Park District, says
that gymnasiums can be very profitable, especially when
used by pre-school children during the school day for
active classes. And, as we know, if the children are
happy so are the parents which equals a satisfied patron.
What about daycare?
The Dundee Township Park District recreation
center was originally designed to include a daycare
program to offset the operating costs of the facility. As
it turned out, it took several years before realizing what
was initially though to be an automatic revenue
"The amount of labor makes it very challenging and
it needs to be fully investigated before an agency enters
into providing daycare," says Mammoser.
Speaking with experience, the park district's recreation center has a capacity of 70 children with four
dedicated classrooms. The children's age group ranges
from two to six and the daycare facility is operated
Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Approximately 14 staff—of which eight are full-time—operate the daycare facility alone with as many as 12
staff on-site during midday with two staff per room as
mandated by the state along with a full-time manager.
When asked for an opinion if a daycare facility
should be included at a new facility, the answer was no.
The reason: not enough return on the investment for
the people and required facility space along with
factoring in the demands of new programs faced by all
What to increase?
An overwhelmingly majority (69%) agree that fitness
centers are the number one space they would increase
at their facility. Since fitness centers are the number one
revenue program, this comes as no surprise. The second
space survey participants noted that they would increase
are gymnasiums/field houses (31%), with multipurpose
rooms and pre-school program space (19%) coming in
equal at number three.
Indoor vs. outdoor
Of the survey participants, half (50%) have indoor
pool/aquatic facilities. Of those that reported having
indoor pools, only one-quarter (25%) have revenues
that exceed expenditures to produce a revenue surplus.
A majority (63%) reported facilities that support a
bather load of 200 people with the largest bather load
accommodating 400 people. Most pool/aquatic facilities
are relatively new with three-quarters (75%) being built
since 1990. Less than one-third (29%) reported
operating an indoor pool at a profit.
More than one-third (38%) reported having an
outdoor pool/aquatic facility. In contrast to the indoor
facilities, outdoor facilities reported that the majority
34 / Illinois Parks and Recreation
MAKING A PROFIT IN NONPROFIT RECREATION CENTERS
(80%) report revenues that exceed expenditures to
produce a revenue surplus. Unlike the indoor facilities,
the bather loads are significantly higher. No one
reported a bather load less than 200, while 17%
reported 201 to 400 bathers, half (50%) can accommodate 400 to 1,000 bathers, and the remaining 33%
reported bather loads above 1000. The majority (86%)
of these pool/aquatic facilities were built since 1980.
The survey participants with bather loads larger than
1,000 reported their facilities were built since 1989.
Over three-quarters (80%) reported operating an
outdoor pool/aquatic facility at a profit.
Now that you have read all of the statistics from our
survey, we want to step back from the numbers to see
the big picture. Our survey findings and analysis of the
survey participants reveal the following trends:
• The total square footage of the facilities ranged from
900 to 120,000 with an average of 53,725.
• The average full-time staff working at a recreation
facility is 9 to 10 people.
• Recreation center memberships ranged from 76 to
4,100 with the average being 1,577.
• Half (50%) of recreation centers have an indoor
pool/aquatic facility with only 29% reporting
revenues exceeding expenditures to produce a
revenue surplus or profit.
• The average indoor bather load ranges from 200 to
• More than one-third (38%) of the recreation centers
have an outdoor pool/aquatic facility and more than
three-quarters (80%) reporting revenues exceeding
expenditures to produce a revenue surplus or profit.
• The majority (83%) of outdoor pool/aquatic
facilities have bather ranging from 401 to more
Lessons learned from this survey show that you don't
have to be a mega facility in size to be successful,
although today's tendency is to think that bigger is
better. Remember to tailor your facility size to meet the
needs of your service population, conduct program
interest surveys every one to two years, investigate
partnerships to maximize programs and benchmark
your facility against others to help put you on the road
to being more successful and profitable. •
Daniel R. Alilano, AIA
is principal and recreation team leader at Burnidge Cassell and Associates, Inc.
Founded in 1968, Burnidge Cassell and Associates, Inc is a full-service architectural
firm specializing in park and recreation design services from planning through
construction. Located in Elgin, Illinois, the firm's services include planning studies,
architectural design, interior design, landscape architecture and land planning services.
For further information, contact Atilano 847.695.5840 or email@example.com.
January/February 2001 / 35