Public-Philanthropic Collaboratives: Finding a Partner in Uncle Sam

“How can we work in concert with the public sector to grow, sustain and innovate in our communities in a time of shrinking resources?”

This was the question Stephanie Powers, the director of the Council on Foundation’s Public-Philanthropic Partnership Initiative, posed to a roomful of community foundation leaders at the Council’s annual Community Foundation Conference last week in San Francisco.  A particularly relevant question, given President Obama was in the process of unveiling his 3 trillion dollar debt reduction plan – a plan that undoubtedly will have far-reaching consequences to the philanthropic community and the regions that they serve.

John Kania, Managing Director at FSG, provided a perspective on the problem: work differently. Many factors prevent successfully cracking complex social problems – lack of human capital, lack of financial resources, lack of public will. The biggest issue, however, is that organizations are working in isolation. Instead of using a rushing torrent of water to carve a canyon, nonprofits, funders, and public entities are chipping away at it one drop at a time. Progress against social problems is held back by strategies that promote isolated impact versus collective action.

So how do you turn the tide? How do you do more with less? For starters, you change the way you collaborate. For years, groups have assumed they could gain leverage and solve social problems by collaborating with others. This is true – to an extent. But not entirely effective, as we still are facing many of the same, and in some cases growing, social problems today.

To do more with less, stakeholders will need to go beyond collaboration to collective impact. Align, share, complement, communicate and support. This is not your mother’s collaboration – this is collaboration on hyper-drive.

By working differently, the philanthropic field, and can better position itself to attract more public funding to a cause. Federal, state, and local governments are trying to do more with less, too. Put yourself in Uncle Sam’s shoes: If you have finite funds to invest in addressing social problems, how would you want to give? Take a “spray and pray” approach by funding a handful of well-meaning organizations? Or fund a well-coordinated, streamlined group of committed and aligned multi-sector stakeholders? Now that is how you get bang for your buck.

So who’s doing it? Who has seen success?

Take the Franklin County Communities That Care Coalition (CTC).

Who are they? CTC has more than 140 members, including local government, businesses, schools, law enforcement, faith-based organizations, media, hospitals, mental health providers, parent advocates, and afterschool programs.

What do they do? CTC promotes the health and well-being of young people, focusing on reducing risk factors and strengthening protective factors to target youth substance abuse and other behaviors.

How did they do it? The Coalition engaged in a strategic planning effort to identify key goals, and created buy-in from members to contribute staff time and align funding, resources, and programming to those goals. Then individual member agencies applied for funding and directed it to coalition goals and strategies. 

What results have they seen?  They have seen a 10% decline among  8th graders in alcohol abuse (16% decline among 12th graders); a major decline in binge drinking among both grades; and a 10% decline in marijuana abuse among 8th  graders (13% decline among 12th graders).

How did they leverage their funding? As a result of this alignment, the coalition leveraged multiple streams of Federal and State substance abuse funding, and other sources, for a total of nearly $5M over 9 years, including multi-million dollar grant support from the US Dept. of Health and Human Services, the US Dept. of Justice, and Massachusetts Dept. of Public Health (among others).

During the conference break-out groups, community foundation leaders reflected on their success stories in securing public funding, as well as lessons learned. Some of the key takeaways include:

Be at the table: Change mindsets and influence how public dollars are being spent by getting involved in the conversation

Get your Board on board: Communicate with your Trustees to solicit their ideas and gain buy-in to your strategy. Influencing the public agenda is effective, but can make some uneasy if not well informed.

Invest in relationships: Take the time to get to know and build relationships with public sector officials. Often, they don’t know who to connect to in the philanthropic sector. Let it be you!

Deemphasize attribution: No man is an island – nor is a nonprofit or funder. Commit to your cause, work together with partners, and celebrate your collective successes rather than your isolated impact.

You can’t know enough: Leverage your peers in the field. Invite community foundation leaders who have been successful in securing public funding to speak with you and your Board.

In for a penny, in for a pound: Know what you are getting yourself into when accepting public funds. When you accept public funds, know you are also accepting accountability for public reporting requirements (and the administrative burden that goes along with this). Think creatively about to structure that investment (e.g., supporting organization).

Create awareness: Help educate the public sector on the role of community foundations – you are more than a charitable checkbook – you are an innovator, a convener, and an incredible resource about the needs and stakeholders in your community.

Key your eye on the prize: Be patient. Taking a collective impact approach to solving complex issues will take time, as will helping to influence the public agenda and how dollars are being spent. Remain flexible to adapt to changing conditions.

What are your success stories and lessons learned from engaging in public-philanthropic partnerships?


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