The Philanthropic Liaison Phenomenon

While researching our new guide on working with government, we kept hearing about government agencies that have appointed “philanthropic liaisons” to coordinate relationships with foundations and other donors. The standout example is the Michigan Office of Foundation Liaison, created in 2003 by the newly elected governor and the Council of Michigan Foundations. With one foot in government and the other in philanthropy, the office is financed and governed by funders, while the director serves on the governor’s staff.

Others have followed the Michigan model. In 2007, Mayor Cory Booker and the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers established a philanthropic liaison for the city of Newark. New Mexico set up an Office of Philanthropic Outreach in 2009, with major funding from the Kellogg Foundation. Federal agencies with foundation liaisons on staff include the Department of Education and the Department of State.

How do grantmakers view these positions? We asked and got mixed responses. Some called liaisons helpful matchmakers between two sectors that don’t understand each other well enough. Others are not so sure, expressing concern that liaisons could easily become gatekeepers that limit the flow of information and access in both directions.

We’d love to hear from people who’ve had experience with foundation liaisons at any level — city, state, or national. Are they key collaborators, or another layer of bureaucracy? Who benefits: government, philanthropy, nonprofits, the community? Is this a phenomenon that deserves to grow?

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