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Public-Philanthropic Partnership Initiative

A Place for Government in Social Innovation?: An Interview with Laura Tomasko

Laura TomaskoIn this month’s Social Velocity interview we are talking with Laura Tomasko. While she shares her millennial generation’s passion for social innovation, she sees a real opportunity, that many dismiss, for government to play a role. Laura serves as manager of Public-Philanthropic Partnerships at the Council on Foundations. She is a proud StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow who holds a Master of Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, where she served as the Vernon Snow Fellow in Nonprofit Management. You can follow her on Twitter at @lauratomasko.

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

Nell: Many of your contemporaries are as passionate about social innovation as you are, but they tend to dismiss government. Why don’t you? Why do you think there is hope for government to be reinvented?

Laura: I don’t dismiss government because I believe that cross-sector partnerships benefit social innovation. People, organizations, and sectors all have strengths and limitations. Partnering affords an opportunity to merge skills and areas of expertise for the purpose of achieving a common goal. Like any institution, there are ways that government could improve. But I don’t believe that government needs to be reinvented to be a helpful partner in social innovation. In classrooms and professional settings, my generation recognizes the value of partnerships and discusses how to blend social innovation and government. Increasingly, master’s degree programs in public service emphasize social entrepreneurship. Fellowship programs like StartingBloc train emerging leaders to drive social innovation across sectors. Last fall, I facilitated a conversation among StartingBloc fellows on the role the public sector plays in social innovation, and I saw that these next generation leaders recognize the valuable role that government can play in social innovation.

Nell: Where do you think government fits into the social innovation movement? What should government’s role be?

Laura: Government provides an incredible platform for convening people and connecting ideas. Right now, we are seeing federal innovation initiatives that elevate results-oriented programs and incentivize public-private partnerships. The White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation used its platform to draw attention to federal initiatives such as the Social Innovation Fund and the Investing in Innovation Fund. The Corporation for National and Community Service and the Department of Education, the federal agencies that respectively house those initiatives, attracted interest from public and philanthropic entities that want to work together to support innovative community-based models for change. These examples demonstrate the ability of government to draw attention to social innovation and encourage the development of partnerships to sustain the movement.

Nell: What are you working on right now at the Council on Foundations’ Public-Philanthropic Initiative? What gets you really excited there?

Laura: I serve as the Council’s manager of the Public-Philanthropic Partnerships Initiative, a program that marries my passion for social innovation and government. The goal of the initiative is to increase substantially the quality and quantity of government-philanthropic collaborations. We serve as a conduit between foundations and the federal government by cataloging opportunities, developing partnership tools, and generating analysis and commentary about current partnerships. As foundations work with the public sector, we are here to offer support and coordination assistance. During the Council’s Family Philanthropy Conference last month, I met with our members and had conversations about collaborating with government to scale up promising programs. Philanthropy plays an important leadership role in society, and I get excited by the opportunity to bring together people and ideas and facilitate connections.

Nell: How confident are you that public and private money can come together to create significant social change? There wasn’t a large government presence at past Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) conferences, for example, but that might be changing. What will it take to get private and public money to collaborate more?

Laura: I believe that public and private money can come together to create social change. To encourage more collaboration, both the public and private sides need to understand and trust one another. The barrier of unfamiliarity creates misunderstandings and missed opportunities for partnerships. Greater understanding of the risks and opportunities can build trust and lead to significant social change. The SOCAP conferences are excellent platforms for breaking down barriers, increasing understanding, and fostering relationships among for-profit investors, social entrepreneurs, government officials, and philanthropic leaders. In your interview with Kevin Doyle Jones, one of the SOCAP founders, he described SOCAP10 as a time for translation as people learn to work together. A few months ago, I was excited to hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announce her intention to bring SOCAP to the State Department in fall 2011. With the talented SOCAP team leading the way, I am optimistic that participants can move past translation and into action, developing public-private collaborations in the social capital markets.

Nell: What sorts of changes would you like to see in government, at the local, state and federal levels in order for it to be more effective and instrumental in the social innovation movement?

Laura: The social innovation movement focuses on the root causes of social conditions. It looks to new and creative means for improvement, rather than continuing to treat the manifestations of problems. Innovators, optimistic about the potential for change, focus on the assets of clients and aim to use resources in new ways. With an end goal in mind, they emphasize measurement, evaluation, and collaboration when appropriate. Government can help these efforts by aligning incentives in a way that encourages innovators to address the root causes of social conditions and by supporting programs that emphasize results. Through federal innovation funds, we are seeing government invest in ventures at a level commensurate with past and potential impact. In addition to emphasizing the importance of measurement, I think that government should seek opportunities to work with philanthropy as a knowledge partner. For example, community foundations can offer local governments innovative solutions for addressing critical needs in the community.

Nell: There has already been a bit of controversy around the Social Innovation Fund, the federal government’s first official foray into the social innovation realm. What do you think about this first attempt by the federal government to play a role? Is it working or is too soon to tell?

Laura: I like the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) because it raises the visibility of philanthropy’s leadership in social innovation. The SIF offers a model for how government can leverage funds and expertise to identify promising and innovative mid-sized nonprofits. Once selected as intermediaries of SIF funds, grantmaking organizations identify and grow high-performing nonprofits. This is an important aspect of the SIF design because government defers to philanthropy’s knowledge when finding effective ways to meet community needs. In addition to encouraging public-philanthropic partnerships, I like that the SIF focuses on evidence, a desire to scale success, and the need for growth capital. George Overholser has provided incredible thought-leadership about the field of nonprofit financing. Sean Stannard-Stockton, president and CEO of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors, wrote a great post that applies Overholser’s distinction between builders and buyers to the SIF. Steve Goldberg also has offered detailed commentary about why the SIF is so important.

Even among those who like the SIF concept, some have criticized its implementation. As with any initiative in its early stages, it is helpful to have conversations about what is working and what could be improved. From my perspective, I see two good measures of success for the SIF. The first measure is whether the community-based organizations that receive public-private funds and resources can achieve their desired impact. Community-based organizations have just begun receiving funds, so we still have to wait and see. The second measure is whether state and local governments elect to implement similar models moving forward. Even before the SIF, state and local governments showed interest in social innovation and entrepreneurship. I am hopeful that these initiatives will continue to exist and new ones will develop. The more of these models that exist, the more opportunities will be available for philanthropy and government to collaborate in supporting social innovation.

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

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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