What Kinds of Public-Private Partnerships Do We Want?

Monday, May 19, 2014

What Kinds of Public-Private Partnerships Do We Want?

By Laura Wolff,  Acting Executive Director, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation

At this time last year, many Philanthropy New York members and grantees were taking advantage of the first campaign season in 12 years with open races for all the citywide offices, to focus public attention on critical policy issues and inform the thinking of the City’s next leaders. Now that we’re several months into the new Administration, it is time to consider how we reposition ourselves for this new era.

As staff and board members of foundations and corporate giving programs, we are often sought out by government officials and nonprofit leaders to discuss potential partnerships. Particularly at times of transition, we—and Philanthropy New York – often initiate these conversations, eager to share our knowledge and ideas in the hope that they will be useful and influential.   Yet, while we want to be loved for our minds, others, not surprisingly, are often more focused on our more tangible assets and are disappointed when we decline to simply write a check.

However, I believe that resistance to public -private partnerships in which foundations serve as “ATMs” for government agencies is not primarily a question of philanthropic ego.  Rather it reflects justifiable concerns about achieving sustainable change, as well as the appropriate role of each of the three pillars in the civic ecosystem: not-for-profits, philanthropy, and government. Given each sector’s purpose and relative resources, the normative configuration of roles should be government partnering with philanthropy in supporting nonprofits to administer services and programs that advance the public good (rather than government and nonprofits both seeking money from foundations). In addition, foundations can be constructive partners to government by serving as conveners and sources of information about local needs, potential nonprofit partners, relevant research, best practices and experts in a field.

Some government agency initiatives, particularly one-time R&D projects, can be suitable candidates for foundation support, when:

  • The government agency has the expertise and staff capacity to carry out the project, or plans to engage a suitable consultant. (If a nonprofit is to be engaged to conduct the work, it may be more appropriate for the foundation to make a grant to the nonprofit directly),
  • But itcannot fund the project at all, or in a timely fashion, due to constraints imposed by its public funding streams and contracting requirements.
  • The project is intended to guide or strengthen ongoing or future government programs; and
  • There is a realistic prospect – including political will and identifiable public funding stream(s)—that this larger scale implementation or impact will occur.

Some examples of this kind of strategic public-private partnership include the development of:

  • Assessment rubrics to be used by government agencies or government-funded programs in selecting participants or determining the appropriate treatment for particular clients;
  • Professional development and training curricula and resources;
  • Financing models for publicly subsidized housing or community development ventures.

And there are many other examples, including program evaluation. However, when government officials seek private support to introduce new programs, add components and staff to existing programs, and/or expand the population served, it is reasonable to ask how the expansion—or even the program itself—will be sustained following the grant period.

If the answer is that current programs will be revamped and existing funds redeployed, then it conforms to the R&D model. If not, individual – or even multiple – foundation grants will not achieve the goal of creating ongoing high quality programs. Instead, what may be needed is an outside strategy of public will building and advocacy.

Support for advocacy and organizing to advance systemic change is particularly timely in New York City now, under a mayor who stated in his 100 Day Address: “This Administration is a product of movement politics.” Indeed the influence of a wide range of issue advocates and movement organizers supported by Philanthropy New York members over many years is already reflected in the Mayor’s emphasis on such priorities as early childhood education, after-school, affordable housing, policing reforms, and supporting low-wage workers.

Regardless of our approach to public-private funding partnerships, it is essential for philanthropists to engage with our government counterparts in order to better understand the larger policy, regulatory and funding environment within which we and our grantees operate. In many fields, public dollars vastly outnumber foundation dollars, and government regulations and contract terms play a major role in determining nonprofit organizations’ viability, management choices and program content. Thus, the greater our understanding of government priorities and strategies, the better informed and more effective our grantmaking will be—whether we directly support publicly funded programs, complementary services, or systemic reform efforts.

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