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C&O Canal Trust Adopts New Three-Year Strategic Plan

A new, three-year strategic plan was adopted at the September 12, 2014 Board Meeting, the result of six months of work by the Trust Board, staff, National Park Service, and other affiliated constituents to determine what priorities should lead us into the future. Our new strategic plan appears in its entirety below.

C&O Canal Trust
Strategic Plan FY15-FY17

Mission Statement

The C&O Canal Trust, as the official non-profit partner of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, works in partnership with the National Park Service and local communities to raise funds to preserve the Park for future generations and to broaden support through programs that highlight the Park’s historical, natural and cultural heritage and recreational opportunities.

Overview of the Trust

The C&O Canal Trust (Trust) was founded in 2007 and in December 2008 became the official non-profit partner of the C & O Canal National Historical Park (Park) with the execution of a “Friends Group Agreement” between both entities. Since its inception, the Trust has focused on three important pillars: 1) working collaboratively with the Park to identify areas needing external support along with ways the Trust can address those needs; 2) working with the Park to establish Partner Programs that enable the Trust to broaden its outreach in support of the Park and to enhance the visitor experience; and 3) building its organizational capacity to effectively fulfill its mission.

The Trust is committed to raising funds and resources to provide a margin of excellence for the C&O Canal NHP and its visitors’ experiences.  This includes the Partner Programs that have been jointly developed by the Park and the Trust, and are managed by the Trust on an ongoing basis in continued close partnership with the Park. The Trust has the lead responsibility for their continued expansion and growth.

FY17 will represent the 10th anniversary of the forming of the Trust, a cause for celebration of the value and impact the Trust brings to this important Park partnership.

What Our Park Partner Needs

The C&O Canal NHP is the ninth most visited unit within the system, higher than many of the signature parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Federal appropriations provide for the Park’s basic day-to-day operations.  However, these funds do not adequately cover Park needs, which include addressing the deteriorating condition of the  towpath and other valuable historic structures along its 184.5-mile length and expanding its highly successful Canal Classrooms program to bring more local school children into the Park. Years of inadequately funded maintenance and the increase in seasonal flooding exacerbate these needs, putting visitor safety at greater risk.

The Park offers visitors many diverse recreational opportunities resulting in a wealth of loyal repeat users. It has successfully leveraged the dedication of these users through its many volunteer programs, supporting some of the Park’s needs, but it recognizes that volunteer support is not sufficient to meet its most critical needs.

The Park and the Trust leadership have jointly undertaken a visioning exercise to help define the highest priority opportunities for external support. These early discussions have provided valuable input to the development of this Strategic Plan.


Towpath Forever is a stewardship program that engages the public in philanthropic, volunteer and advocacy support to ensure the park and its resources are here forever.

The C&O Canal Towpath is the binding element of the Park. Every person who visits the Park experiences the Towpath. More importantly, the Towpath knits together the entire 184.5-mile long Park and is one of the most heavily used recreational trails in the country. Accordingly, the Park and the Trust have jointly developed a vision whose major focus is to build support to preserve and enhance the full length of the Park for the enjoyment of current users and future generations.  

  • Preservation of Towpath and Related Structures – The towpath, trails and access points, watered portions of the canal, and supporting structures  (e.g. aqueducts, culverts) will be restored and well maintained.
  • Youth and Education – The Park will be an education innovator, using traditional and emerging technologies to support in-park and virtual experiences, reaching people of all ages to create lifelong stewards.
  • Visitor Experience – The Park will develop and deploy innovative programs to engage visitors in the multitude of ways to experience the Park and its neighboring communities; the Park’s primary historic buildings (e.g. lock houses) will be rehabilitated and adaptively reused. 
  • Science and Natural Resources The Park will protect and enhance the diversity of natural resources, preserve wildlife habitat, fight invasive species, respond to climate change, and serve as a corridor connecting other protected areas. 

The 50th Anniversary of the Park

While this Strategic Plan covers only the next three fiscal years, the Park and the Trust have focused their visioning discussion on the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Park on January 8, 2021. Accordingly, this Strategic Plan identifies the foundational phase of a longer-term effort to expand Trust support for the Park.

In addition, the Park and the Trust will be participating in many upcoming activities associated with the 2016 Centennial of the establishment of the National Park Service. These activities will focus on preparing the parks for the second century.

Core Strategies 

Core Strategy One:  Increase C&O Canal Trust visibility
The Trust will work to elevate awareness among Park users of Park needs and the many opportunities to support the Park. It will raise the profile of the Trust both within the Park, throughout its neighboring communities and with target user populations as a first step in engaging with the public. This will significantly increase fundraising and the securing of resources for Park projects and Partner Programs.

Core Strategy Two:  With direction from the Park Superintendent and the Board, raise funds to meet specific Park needs in the four Priority Areas underpinning the Towpath Forever Vision
The Trust will work closely with Park leadership to define high priority, fundable projects and programs in support of the Towpath Forever Vision. The Trust and Park leadership recognize that there will always be more need than can be funded within any one year campaign. Individual projects that build towards the overall vision are deemed most attractive.

In addition to undertaking the fundraising, the Trust will ensure that appropriate goals are established and met for each project, that feedback is provided to donors and other funders, and that donor recognition is provided in appreciation for this support for the Park.

Core Strategy Three:  Align and grow the Partner Programs to advance support for the Park
The Trust’s four Partner Programs are strategically positioned to build awareness for the Trust and its mission, foster engagement and advance support for the Park.

  • Canal Quarters – This award-winning and nationally recognized program restores and makes available historic structures in the Park for innovative visitor programs. The Trust will expand programming and utilization of existing structures and pursue resources to add newly rehabilitated structures to the program.
  • Canal Pride – The Trust’s volunteer programs serve an important community engagement entry point for the Park’s overall volunteer activity, representing nearly 40% of the Park’s volunteers. The Trust will invest to expand this outreach to targeted communities and populations. This includes expanding its outreach to corporations and member organizations as a means of engaging support for the Park.
  • Canal Discoveries – This innovative program provides meaningful interpretive and visitor information that can be accessed anywhere through smart phones, tablets, or computers. The Trust will complete development of the Plan Your Visit portal and market it so that it serves as the entry point for a broader range of visitors. It will work with Park staff to build on this valuable platform.
  • Canal Towns – This beneficial partnership extends the Trust outreach to towns bordering the Park, particularly in the more sparsely populated western portion of the Park. The Trust will work with the Park to leverage the Canal Towns Partnership, as well as target communities that border the entire length of the Park to increase volunteers, donors and advocates.

Core Strategy Four: Significantly increase funding and resources
The Trust will continue to invest in its fundraising capacity, resources, and infrastructure with the following priorities:

  • William O Douglas Society – The Trust will increase its outreach to identify, cultivate, and solicit potential donors with significant giving capacity. The Trust will engage all members of the Board of Directors, the Advisory Board and current Society members to support this effort. 
  • Individual Donors – The Trust and the Park appreciate the support provided by donors at all levels. The Trust will use its multiple communication platforms to increase the number of new donors and to retain and upgrade current donors by informing them about the Park’s needs and the effective use of donor funds in support of the Park. 
  • Project Campaigns – The Trust will promote fundraising in support of priority Park and Partner projects, including making a Park project the centerpiece of the live auction at the Trust’s annual Park After Dark fundraiser.  
  • Other Fundraising Platforms – The Trust will continue to build out its full range of donor opportunities, including Donor Recognition, Bench Donation, estate gift-planning and Centennial-related programs. 

Core Strategy Five:  Build strong leadership and organizational capacity
The Trust will continue to invest in the three pillars of its organizational capacity to chart a defined long-term path for financial and programmatic stability and growth for the Trust. 

  • Trust Leadership – The Trust’s leadership and talented staff spearhead its stakeholder relationships and program and financial success.  The Trust will continue to invest in attracting and retaining top talent to ensure its ability to effectively fulfill its mission. 
  • Strong Board – The Trust will increase the size of the board to 16 board members, with representation from locations along the entire length of the Canal, with a focus on financial wherewithal, diversity of backgrounds, and expertise.
  • Park Partnership  – Public-private partnerships through friends organizations are the cornerstone for sustaining support across the NPS.  This requires new ways of working for the Park, and additional requirements for the Trust. Both the Park and the Trust have met these challenges head on, and can point to several significant successes. The leadership of both organizations are committed to building on these successes to collaboratively work towards defining the Towpath Forever vision, identifying new opportunities for partnership and support, and building relationships that support the effective implementation of Park and Partner programs.

How the Strategic Plan will be used

The C&O Canal Trust Strategic Plan provides a framework to guide the organization and the Park leadership for the next three years. Staff will develop implementation plans for each successive year with concrete objectives, measurable goals and financial budgets. Specific Partner roles, responsibilities and investments will be agreed to annually with Park leadership via the Annual Work Plan. The Board will provide essential support and oversight through active engagement on Board Committees and quarterly Board meetings.