The National Recreation Foundation, Inc. was incorporated in 1965, making it 54 years old this year. Although that may seem relatively old for a nonprofit in the United States, NRF’s roots actually reach all the way back to World War I.
Support for the war was one of the nation’s top priorities. Concern arose for recreation and leisure opportunities for troops, as this was understood to insure mental and physical preparedness. Prior to the war, the regular U.S. Army numbered 133,000, but over 4 million were mobilized by Armistice Day. Little was available to them in terms of recreation, thus the War Camp Community Service (WCCS) was established. The WCCS became one of seven social service organizations addressing military welfare and recreation, and it funded athletics, libraries, motion pictures and theatrical entertainments among activities for the troopsIt is impressive to note that the massive work accomplished by the WCCS was undertaken without government support. Instead, these organizations raised funds on their own. Proposed by President Woodrow Wilson, a joint fundraising campaign was conducted during one week in November 1918 when every day Americans were invited to make donations in support of the troops. The campaign was hugely successful and raised a total of $190 million! Of that, $16 million was allocated to the WCCS. The war ended sooner than anticipated. Of the $16 million raised for WCCS, nearly $1.5 million was not spent and instead was placed in an investment portfolio.
In subsequent years, the increasing need for highly qualified administrators to manage the growing number of public and private recreation agencies was recognized. The National Recreation School was created in 1926 to provide graduate training for recreational leaders. The WCCS assets, now $2.7 million, were transferred to the National Recreation School, whose main objectives were:
“The development in all communities through public and private agencies and by every appropriate means of play and recreation, higher and more adequate community and neighborhood expression, a better life and better moral and social conditions, and particularly the training of workers and the carrying on of general educational work for the wise use of leisure to promote and further any of the above purposes.”
The School was based in New York City and produced its first graduates in 1927. By 1935, the Depression resulted in the discontinuation of the graduate program of the National Recreation School. This coincided with the emergence of recreation curricula at some universities. In all, the School graduated 295 students.
In the 1940s and 50s, the School provided grants for the National Recreation Association from what was now a $3 million fund. At this time the School did not have any students and was acting more as a grant-making foundation than a school. In 1964, the executive committee of the National Recreation School agreed to move funds to a new entity called the National Recreation Foundation (NRF).
NRF was incorporated January 23, 1965 and held its first meeting February 1, 1965. It received all the assets of the School, valued at $5.4 million. The NRF has always been an independent foundation and while it historically provided funding to the National Recreation Association, now called the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), the fund was not designed to function as an operational fund for the Association. Instead, its purpose is to provide support for the development of recreation programs:
The National Recreation Foundation is to support, initiate or assist in the promotion or development of leadership, programs, or facilities in the recreation, park and conservation field of a scientific, literary, educational, or recreational nature.
NRF continues to fund recreation programs aimed at enhancing community and individual wellness, as well as mental and physical health. In today’s society, NRF is just as necessary and relevant as it was at its early inception. Through targeted giving, NRF continues to assist in the development and holistic health of the nation’s youth.
This history is outlined in the History of the National Recreation Foundation: Enriching the Quality of Life in America 1917-2010, compiled and edited by Charles E. Hartsoe and Tony A. Mobley, Sagamore Publishing LLC, Urbana, IL, 2011.
 The other six were: YMCA, YWCA, Knights of Columbus, Jewish Welfare Board, American Library Association and the Salvation Army.
 From the certificate of incorporation of the National Recreation School filed in the office of the Secretary of State of New York in 1930.