Flying back from the Grantmakers for Effective Organization’s National Conference, I reflected on the conversations I had about how to support nonprofits to enhance their effectiveness. I was particularly struck by the last session, “Can’t We All Play Nice: Reducing Government Barriers to Working with Nonprofits,” which highlighted the disproportionate amount of nonprofit support from the public sector as compared to philanthropy (about 3:1). While government agencies provide a large percentage of support for nonprofits that address pressing social issues, they often lack the appropriate knowledge, experience or capacity to support nonprofits as effectively as desired. The session presenter acknowledged that funders often hesitate to provide financial support to government agencies (for many valid reasons), but challenged the audience to consider ways that foundations and government agencies can work together to address similar social issues.
Initially, I thought of “big P” partnerships—highly visible public-private initiatives that focus on ambitious, long-term goals. However, thinking back on my own experience, I also remembered “small p” partnerships—behind the scenes partnerships between funders and government that fill small but critical needs that enhance government’s capacity to support nonprofits. These partnerships often take on issues that are unlikely to be addressed solely by government (or at all). Most importantly, these partnerships take advantage of foundations’ expertise, staffing and grantmaking agility. Examples of these successful partnerships include foundations supporting government agencies to:
- Conduct targeted research about evidence-based practices
- Analyze the pros and cons of currently debated policy options
- Build an infrastructure to connect and share multiple types of data to make the case for and achieve nonprofit goals (e.g., interactive public databases, geo-mapping)
- Hold trainings to translate nonprofit experience and learnings from foundation staff to public sector staff
- Augment human capital in the public sector by supporting the temporary assignment of foundation staff to public sector positions
Given the big role that government plays in the nonprofit sector, I think it is time to seriously consider how foundations can support “small p” partnerships, which enhance the capacity of the government sector. While the risks of such investments are high, the rewards and impacts may be too.