Partnership Profile: Union Pacific Railroad

A student looks through binoculars out into the distance

Open OutDoors for Kids participant, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

NPS Photo / Kayla McCraren

Building the Next Generation of Park Explorers

For nearly 160 years, Union Pacific Railroad has been committed to Building America—powering the economy and improving lives for millions across the country. Building upon this heritage, Union Pacific created what is now called the Community Ties Giving Program to ensure the safety and prosperity of communities in which they operate, and where their employees live and work.

Union Pacific logo

Though there are many ways which Union Pacific could demonstrate its community commitment, it is important they do so in ways that are authentic to the brand and leverage its rich heritage. With the National Park Foundation (NPF), Union Pacific wrote the next chapter in its legacy of commitment to exploration and education. As the premier supporter of NPF’s Youth Engagement and Education mission, Union Pacific is creating the next generation of park stewards, equipped with knowledge and experiences that will create pathways for future success.


The Backstory

Our partnership has been decades in the making. When the National Park Service was created, Union Pacific provided expanded access to these landscapes, developing park infrastructure that visitors still use and enjoy today at parks including Yellowstone, Zion, Grand Canyon and Death Valley. 

Union Pacific graphic poster for Colorado Rockies

Vintage Union Pacific Railroad Poster

Union Pacific

Today, Union Pacific remains committed to sharing the wonders of our American nation with the next generation of park goers.

“Union Pacific’s Community Ties Giving Program seeks to ensure everyone has access to special places in the community that celebrate cultural diversity and the natural, environment and the social interactions that enrich our lives,” said Ranae Keckeisen, Director of Corporate Relations for Union Pacific, “We brought people to the parks a hundred years ago, and while our trains don’t carry passengers anymore, we still want to get people to the parks now.”

During the partnership development phase, NPF collaborated closely with Union Pacific, spending extra time and thought developing a nuanced B2B strategy. NPF’s ability to serve as a national organization that works across a system of 400+ parks in different communities served an important role in helping the company connect to key B2B and local community stakeholders, while delivering strategic business and philanthropic impact. “We have a long history together, but I’m most looking forward to our future,” said Ranae.


Strategic Approach

Seen from above, five students sit on a blanket with a park ranger in a circle. Around then are their backpacks and school materials.

Open OutDoors for Kids field trip to Arches National Park

NPS Photo / Dawn Kish

With Union Pacific’s success linked to the economic prosperity and wellbeing of the cities and towns in which it operates, Union Pacific and NPF focused their partnership on strengthening and scaling NPF’s Open OutDoors for Kids (OOK) program to contribute back to the communities where the railroad operates. This work builds visibility and engagement through activations that inspires UP’s stakeholders through its long history with the national parks.  The strategy focused on three core goals:

  • Access: Investing in transportation, programming, and free entry to the parks for children and teachers in key Union Pacific communities to experience hands-on, immersive learning.
  • Education: Establishing "in-park" opportunities for children to learn in our national parks, the world's largest outdoor classrooms. Using a three-touch design, teachers conduct classroom activities before and after field trips to reinforce what students learn during their exploration. Engaging teachers to develop an awareness of national parks as a resource and leverage them as a resource on an ongoing basis.
  • Outreach and Engagement: Engaging key stakeholders, including members of the community and UP employees to bring visibility to the critical need for out-of-classroom experiences for kids, and establish sustainable, close relationships between Union Pacific and its communities, educators, and local parks.

Our Results

Wonder Wander Photo Challenge winning submission August/September, 3 of 4

Submission to the 2019 Wonder + Wander Photo Challenge

Today, Union Pacific’s partnership with the National Park Foundation is, in Ranae’s words, flourishing, thanks to philanthropic programs and public awareness campaigns that deliver meaningful community impact and strengthen relationships among Union Pacific’s key community and stakeholders.

  • To engage students across the country, Union Pacific and the National Park Foundation collaborated with the National Park Service to create Railroad Explorer, the ​newest Junior Ranger booklet about the transcontinental railroad and its impacts on the settlement of the west. The Junior Ranger program provides kids and families with opportunities to explore and learn about national parks in a fun and engaging way. With this latest edition, kids are able to connect to the story of the American railroad through our national parks.
  • As the largest private sponsor of OOK since 2018, Union Pacific has helped create pathways for over 125,000 kids to enjoy, understand and connect with nature through outdoor activity, experiential learning, and cultural heritage exercises.  Through its long-term support extending through 2024, Union Pacific will independently build an entirely new generation of park explorers.

Our Shared Vision: Connect 1,000,000 More Kids to National Parks by 2025

  • During the summer of 2019, NPF and Union Pacific partnered on the Wonder + Wander Photo Challenge, which encouraged park visitors to “Explore America’s Backyard” by recreating vintage park photos. Leveraging Union Pacific’s unique archive of national park photos, the photo contest used the power of national parks to connect a B2B company with new audiences and build community level connections. In total, the campaign generated over 6.2+ million media impressions.
  • In November 2019, NPF and Union Pacific inspired a new generation of park explorers through a media trip with six journalists across Texas celebrating the restoration of the Big Boy 4014, the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad and shared history between railroads and national parks. Press coverage includes Forbes, USA Today, and Landlopers.

Insights from the Expert

For companies considering a nonprofit partnership, Ranae shared this advice on building effective and strategic partnerships:

  • Think long-term: “Committing to a multi-year partnership was a very good decision for us,” said Ranae. “There’s an ebb and flow to every partnership, and the first year probably won’t be the high-water mark.” Ranae advises companies to be focused, committed, and patient.
  • Be creative when working in B2B: “Retailers have natural assets like stores and products that can help them promote a partnership,” said Ranae. “We’re a freight transportation company so we don’t have that. B2B’s need a partner that will bring creative – yet doable – ideas to the table.”  
  • Choose a strong, strategic partner: Ranae recommends the National Park Foundation because they’ve compounded their success year after year, they bring passion and creativity that reach key audiences and have an excellent staff with very little turnover.
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Commitment from our partners is critical to the success of the parks. We engage with organizations in a variety of ways that both help our parks and your organization.