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Connecting Government & Philanthropy: An Interview with Rene Cabral-Daniels

By Nell Edgington



Rene Cabral-DanielsIn this month’s Social Velocity interview we are talking with Rene Cabral-Daniels, head of the Council on Foundations’ Public-Philanthropic Partnership Initiative that works to connect government and philanthropic resources in order to create bigger, better solutions to social problems. Rene has been a leader in both government and philanthropy, including roles as director of the Office of Health Policy and Planning for the Virginia Department of Health, and as vice president for grant programs at the Williamsburg Community Health Foundation.

You can read all of the interviews in our Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: What are the goals of the Public-Philanthropic Partnership Initiative, what impact do you hope to have on social change efforts in this country?

Rene: The goals of the Public-Philanthropic Partnership Initiative (PPPI) are exciting ones as they reflect a growing desire by a number of entities within philanthropy to better collaborate their similar investments in social change with government to achieve enhanced impact and effectiveness. Philanthropy can, and should, be a key player alongside the public and private sectors to help the nation accelerate the pace of its response to emerging challenges. For philanthropies seeking information, context and guidance on partnering with government to advance the common good, the PPPI will facilitate the flow of information, ideas and opportunities between philanthropy and government and elevate promising practices and models so that partnership achievements transcend administrations. Essentially, the PPPI serves as a conduit between foundations and the federal government to substantially increase the quality and quantity of government-philanthropic collaborations. The PPPI has three major goals:

  1. Catalog current opportunities and develop tools and resources to enable foundations, large and small, to successfully partner with government;
  2. Generate timely analysis and commentary to increase awareness and understanding among the foundation community and government about all aspects of public-philanthropic partnerships and PPPI; and
  3. Position the Council as an intermediary for public-philanthropic partnerships.

The PPPI’s potential for impact on social change efforts in this country is like no other. When one considers the overall goal of philanthropy to promote its investments and partnerships to enhance real change – new solutions to old, enduring problems then the PPPI’s emphasis on partnerships assures a longstanding, meaningful impact that coalesces the sector’s greatest resource- its intellectual capital. While the financial capital of some funders may be greater than others, every funder has significant intellectual capital in what works as well as what does not work in addressing a particular challenge. Thus, every funder has the capacity to effectuate meaningful change in the areas that they fund. The Council assures that the Public Philanthropic Partnerships are not and cannot be simply the domain of a few large foundations that partnered with one administration at one point in time. Thus, the PPP supports the desire of many foundations (of all sizes and missions) which choose to collaborate with public sector agencies in ways that enhance the delivery of common program missions.

Nell: Connecting foundations and government is a pretty new idea, why has the Council created this initiative and what is it about this particular time that seems right for something like this?

Rene: When I first came to the Council, I thought the PPPI was a new idea. However, after researching the history of philanthropy, it became clear to me that public-philanthropic partnerships have not only been around for a very long time but that there have been a number of successes that continue today such as the existence of public libraries, elimination of diseases such as yellow fever and the creation of the Head Start program. Another fascinating fact I learned while researching the history of philanthropy is that the foundation for public philanthropic relationships within the federal government was set under the Reagan administration. Reagan’s early activities as President was to urge the country to, “get the private sector in the driver’s seat so we can start using market incentives and philanthropy to find lasting solutions to community problems.” He highlighted the role of philanthropy by, among other actions, declaring the first National Philanthropy Day in 1986. Clearly, President Reagan recognized the leadership role of the philanthropic community within the private sector. He created the base for successful public-philanthropic partnerships that continue to this day. Recognition of philanthropy’s role did not end with his administration. Successive administrations have likewise partnered with philanthropy to solve intractable social problems. One great example is President Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, also known as PEPFAR, which serves to help save the lives of those suffering from HIV/AIDS around the world. The current administration’s creation of the Office of Social Innovation and Civil Participation merely elevates the important role of philanthropy recognized by earlier administrations, by dedicating an office that exists to leverage as well as scale up public-philanthropic partnerships. Like the government, the Council’s history with public-philanthropic partnerships is about as old as the Council itself. Its recent creation of the PPPI capitalizes on government’s elevated interest in these partnerships, which is sure to transcend administrations.

While both the federal government and the Council have had a long history with public philanthropic partnerships, there is another important reason why the Council has created this initiative at this time. The PPPI furthers the Council’s goal to promote philanthropy in an important way. The PPPI leverages the Council’s promotion in a range of activities that fall into its four priority categories – connecting, convening, communicating, and building capacity. The Council’s strengths in these four areas are simply unparalleled within the philanthropic sector. As a connector, the Council brings together foundations and government agencies seeking partnerships that can enhance their common goals. The Council’s convening abilities allow it to bring different audiences together to learn from one another about topics essential to ensure strong and productive partnerships. As a communicator, the Council provides timely information to members, government agencies, and colleague organizations on existing or future partnerships, effective practices, emerging opportunities and available PPP resources. Finally, the Council enhances the capacity of philanthropy to participate in public-philanthropic partnerships both by utilizing the Council’s expertise and by aggregating the expertise of its members and colleague organizations. Thus, the PPPI provides a wonderful platform for the Council accomplish its overall goal to promote philanthropy.

Nell: How do you define successful public/philanthropic partnerships? What does that look like?

Rene: My answer may sound circular but I think a successful public/philanthropic partnership is one whereby a shared vision of success that was clearly considered, articulated and memorialized by both the government and philanthropic partners becomes a reality. In essence, both parties have to define success for themselves at the onset of the partnership. There simply is no magic formula for successful public/philanthropic partnerships as the definition of success is as variable as the number and types of partnership possibilities. To respond further to your question, I would like to highlight an excellent document from Grantcraft which funders might want to consider when contemplating potential public/philanthropic partnership engagement. It is called Working with Government and offers a host of important considerations funders should address when contemplating partnerships with government. Funders that decide to engage in public-philanthropic partnerships should then consider the Council on Foundations’ Public-Philanthropic Partnership Initiative website. This website offers a wealth of information about public philanthropic partnerships and highlights the Council’s engagement in a range of activities that fall into its four priority categories – connecting, convening, communicating, and building capacity.

Nell: Do you see philanthropists increasingly wanting to collaborate among themselves and with other funders, both government and private sector funders? If so, why?

Rene: While I have no quantitative data that can demonstrate a trend or an acceleration of interest in partnerships, it is clear from a number of sources such as conference session suggestions, affinity group and member inquiries as well as webinar participation that the desire to collaborate is very strong within the philanthropic sector. I suspect one very important reason is that the downturn in the economy has encouraged funders to reconsider the many benefits of collaboration in their efforts to scale up projects while possessing fewer resources. Funders are likely realizing that their collaborative efforts are not only enhancing their economic resources, but their human and intellectual resources as well. The questions the Council receives from its members regarding collaboration make it clear that they have realized that just as there are different types of partnerships, there are many types of collaborations and that certain types of funders are better than others when considering specific types of collaboration. For example, a collaborative effort that requires the entities to act quickly to solve a challenge where time is of the essence may not be the best fit for government. However, the government might be an ideal entity with which to collaborate if the activity involves addressing a long-term community health problem, such as child obesity.

Nell: Government has a tendency to get dismissed in social change efforts, particularly in recent years with the social innovation movement because government can be viewed as bureaucratic and slow to change.  Do you think government can be more nimble and adaptive to this new energy around social change efforts?

Rene: This question is best answered by providing some legal history. When President Roosevelt expanded the number of federal agencies in the early 1930s Congress became concerned that an important political doctrine of the Constitution requiring separation of powers between the three branches of government was becoming obfuscated. Our system of government has a system of checks and balances to assure one branch of government does not have too much power. One important concern with the federal agencies is that they had legislative, judicial and executive responsibilities without public input. Because of this concern, Congress passed the Administrative Procedure Act in 1946. It has been called “a bill of rights for the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose affairs are controlled or regulated” by federal government agencies. The APA requires agencies to keep the public currently informed of their structure, procedures and rules and provides for public participation in the rule making process. More recent examples of other laws that assure public participation in government decisions include the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which makes public all administrative procedures and hearings and the Government in the Sunshine Act, which makes agency meetings public.

While the need to assure the citizenry has adequate input into agency decisions is an important tenet of the American government, it also challenges the ability of government to act quickly. The private sector is not saddled with this important, yet burdensome responsibility. While the government may never be as nimble as the private sector in executing social change activities, its many resources can still be adaptive to new social change efforts. I think the more strategic funders will harness as well as leverage those resources in addressing social change challenges. Examples of some of these resources are as follows:

  1. The government has a tremendous amount of relevant, longitudinal socio-economic data that are often underutilized because government lacks the ability to make these data user-friendly. Collaborative efforts between government and others to improve the utility of this rich resource can inform social change movement efforts going forward.
  2. Another important resource that government possesses is the breadth of its workforce. Excluding postal workers, the federal government will employ 2.11 million people in 2011. To build on Justice Holmes’ analogy of a “marketplace of ideas”, the federal workforce offers a “supermarket” of ideas. This expansive knowledge base translates into a plethora of professional expertise that can be tapped to address the complexity of social challenges. The ability to harness the interest and energy of large numbers of people toward a particular goal is another related benefit.
  3. Finally, the government’s history in addressing or attempting to address social change challenges might help to identify the circumstances under which some social change efforts have been successful, as well as the conditions which have frustrated past efforts.

So, I guess in a nutshell I would suggest those engaged in social change efforts acknowledge that while government strives to act quickly, it does not have the luxury of forsaking timely public notice and participation of its efforts. Also, because many social challenges are protracted, their resolution may require significant time. In social change efforts, government should not be relegated to a role whereby it is expected to act quickly but rather one whereby its many resources are appropriately tailored to inform the quick action of its partners.

Nell: Where do you think collaboration between government and philanthropy will be 10 years from now? What do you hope the future looks like?

Rene: In my opinion, the collaboration between government and philanthropy will be much more intricate than what we are seeing today and therefore the resultant successes that emanate from that collaboration will be more sophisticated. I think that the lines that separate the two will become a bit blurred as they build upon the successes of current public-philanthropic partnerships and learn to have realistic expectations of one another. In particular, I anticipate seeing a greater number of matching grants and cooperative agreements, sponsorships and co-sponsorships and the staff sharing.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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