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The COVID-19 pandemic was an all-hands-on-deck moment. As communities were jolted into emergency response on many fronts—health, jobs, housing, education, childcare, food, and mental health—collaboration and coordination became essential. In Milwaukee, the Civic Response Team united local governments, philanthropy, and nonprofits to collectively manage response and recovery. In just weeks, they housed hundreds of people, delivered tens of thousands of meals, built and promoted a COVID-19 testing system, distributed hundreds of thousands of masks, provided families with technology to connect to school, rescued childcare providers, and soothed anxieties and grief.

This paper studies how the public-private partnerships within the Civic Response Team worked during their first year, and shows what we can learn from them to support better partnership and emergency response in the future.

Top Takeaways

  1. The response was uneven across government jurisdictions and agencies, with the most impact coming from those who had prior relationships or partnerships.
  2. Philanthropic leaders played a key role using their influence and access to resources to support public-private collaboration, and they could do more to coordinate initiatives with public leaders, lift up and share credit with public sector partners, and help providers advocate to local government.
  3. Nonprofits were able to bring community voice and data to the table and worked best when they centered their work on innovating around community needs instead of promoting existing program interests.
The key is that we did not start from scratch. We had been working together already and weren’t caught flat-footed.

Nicole Angresano, Vice President of Community Impact, United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County