Working with Government: Guidance for Grantmakers

Foundation-government collaborations seem to be on the rise as each sector looks to pool resources with new partners. How can grantmakers take advantage of the benefits while managing the risks of working on terrain that can be unfamiliar to all parties? The guide includes case studies, suggestions for finding changemakers in government, and advice on navigating roles and power dynamics. Government partners chime in with ideas for keeping things running smoothly.

Highlights

  • Ways to work with government
  • Your reality/their reality
  • Philanthropic liaisons and how they can help

What's in the Guide?

  • Why Work with Government?For grantmakers interested in advancing systemic change or addressing root problems, working with government can be an important opportunity — even an essential one. But it can also mean venturing into territory where the rules are new and the power dynamics unfamiliar.
  • Ways to Work with Government: From tight partnerships with firm timelines and objectives to loose alliances that evolve over time, foundation-government partnerships take many forms. What they have in common is a motivation to solve public problems by leveraging the distinctive capacities of philanthropy and the public sector.
  • Scouting for Partners and Projects: Grantmakers who forge good partnerships are often skilled at scanning for innovators in government — officials who are willing to champion improvements and know how to get things done. These funders are also alert for opportunity moments, when help from a foundation makes all the difference.
  • Entry Points: Four Cases: There are certain things that philanthropy can do more easily, rapidly, or flexibly than government can do itself. These four cases — one each from the local, state, national, and international sphere — show how four grantmakers used that insight to open up new opportunities.
  • Managing Relationships with Government Partners: Building and sustaining good relationships takes planning, awareness, compromise, and candor. Here’s straightforward advice about what to do at specific points in the lifespan of a partnership with government.
  • Do Your Homework: Learning about Government and How It Works: Any funder who wants to be an effective collaborator with government officials needs to take a refresher course in how government operates and what it’s like to work in the public sector. Their realities and yours are not the same.
  • takeaways
    What Government Partners Wish Grantmakers Knew

    Here’s a short list of things they (government leaders, nonprofits, other grantmakers, philanthropic advisors) encourage grantmakers to bear in mind to help collaborations succeed:

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    Do Your Homework: Learning about Government and How It Works

    Before bringing ideas to government, experienced funders said, vet them thoroughly with colleagues in philanthropy, grantees who work with government, and others who can help think through the practical implications of a policy change.

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    Public Finance 101
    • The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities offers background reports, podcasts, and other resources on federal and state budget processes, tax issues, and government assistance programs in its Policy Basics series.
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    Avoiding the Minefields in Government Partnerships

    What do grantmakers who’ve worked with government worry about the most? Here’s a cheat sheet of things to watch out for — and, with luck and careful planning, avoid.

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    Managing Relationships with Government Partners: Sustaining Good Relationships

    Let government own the agenda: A government official who doesn’t fully embrace a reform agenda won’t be able to ensure that the strategy is well enough executed to “stick” over time.

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    Managing Relationships with Government Partners: Building Trust

    Start with a good attitude: The first rule of working with government is to put cynicism about government and government officials aside. “You have to come in with the attitude that government can work,” said a grantmaker who has been part of many partnerships.

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  • takeaways
    Foundation-Government Partnerships: Your Reality and Theirs

    Grantmaker: “This initiative is a top priority for my foundation.”
    Government partner: “This initiative is one of hundreds of responsibilities for my agency.”

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    Scouting for Partners & Projects

    To find likely government partners and projects, experienced grantmakers cultivate networks where they're likely to come across promising ideas, opportunities, and connections. They keep their ears open constantly for people in government who might help move an agenda and for moments when the involvement of philanthropy might be particularly valued.

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    Win-Win Projects

    Successful partnership projects maximize the assets of both partners and produce benefits for both sides.

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    Ways to Work with Government: Exchange and Learning

    Another way to work with government is by supporting discussion or exchange that enables public officials to learn, plan, and make connections. When officials in one Western U.S. state expressed interest in redesigning its Medicaid delivery system, for example, a local foundation covered the cost of briefings and workshops at which key government stakeholders vetted promising ideas.

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  • takeaways
    Ways to Work with Government: Working Through an Intermediary

    In this type of collaboration, a foundation and government agency work together through an organization that brings special expertise — or the independence that comes from being a third party — to an issue, project, or plan.

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    Co-Funding Resources in Government

    The Public-Philanthropic Partnership Initiative, a project of the Council on Foundations, has assembled a helpful list of cofunding relationship types, along with definitions and relevant guidelines for how and when each may be used. See the initiative’s website for the most up-to-date information on each type and a growing library of online resources.

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    Ways to Work with Government: Teaming Up

    In this type of relationship, a foundation and government partner work directly together to develop and implement a project.

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    Power Relations

    The issue of power relations can be particularly tricky. Like it or not, most nonprofit grantees treat funders with a certain deference. Government partners are less likely to do that — which can cause an unsettling feeling for grantmakers who are used to being the ones whose attention is sought.

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  • takeaways
    First Steps

    First, they advised, learn about the government you’re working with as a subject in itself — how it operates, how decisions are made, and how policies get implemented on the ground. “You absolutely must know the rules of the game,” one grantmaker warned.

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    Introduction: Working with Government

    For grantmakers who work extensively with government, the rationale goes something like this: If we really want to address the biggest social problems or meet the most pressing community needs, we’ve got to think strategically about what government can do, how philanthropy can contribute, and how we can forge relationships that catalyze action, leverage resources, and ensure continuing support...

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  • takeaways
    On Risk Capital and Testing Ideas That Can Go to Scale

    From Luis Ubiñas, Ford Foundation: “Philanthropy’s resources are modest when compared with the complex problems we seek to solve. So foundations must act strategically — providing ‘risk capital’ to test ideas and demonstrate new solutions that can be brought to scale through partnerships with government and business.”

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  • takeaways
    On the Hard Work of Working with Government

    From Gail Nayowith, Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund: “Foundations and government share an obligation to solve problems and meet social needs, so it makes sense for them to work together. In practice, partnering with government is hard work, but it offers rich returns.”

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    On Resisting Cynicism about Government

    From Handy Lindsey, Cameron Foundation: “My cynicism and suspicion were long ago dispelled by the remarkable effectiveness of these alliances and the scale of community benefits that were derived.”

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    On Developing Closer Relationships with Government

    From Gara LaMarche, Atlantic Philanthropies: “Philanthropy has too often in the last several decades kept an arm’s length relationship with government and public policy. That has to change if we are to have any hope of making real progress on many of the leading challenges of our time.”

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  • takeaways
    On Coordinating with Government Without Getting Co-opted

    From Vartan Gregorian, Carnegie Corporation of New York: “Foundations cherish their independence, but we live in difficult times. When appropriate, foundations must coordinate their actions with each other, as well as with state and federal governments, provided they don’t lose their autonomy and independence in the process.”

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    On Maintaining Health Skepticism about Government

    From Chester E. Finn, Jr., Thomas B. Fordham Institute: “When you team up with the government, you compromise your ability to be critical of the government, and sometimes you compromise your ability to do controversial and maybe unpopular things with your money.”

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    On Working with Public Leaders

    From Christine DeVita, Wallace Foundation: “Foundations that aspire to bring about beneficial change must be willing to work with public leaders who have the power and authority to create change.”

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    On Research and Policy Debate

    From Karen Davis, The Commonwealth Fund: “Foundations can make a difference by bridging the worlds of research and policy — encouraging research that is relevant to timely policy issues and making sure that information reaches those who can effect change.”

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Working with government is not something one person inside a foundation can do alone. In addition to encouraging others to read this guide, how do you get a conversation started among colleagues, board members, and government officials about whether or not a partnership makes sense?

  • Review your own history. Review programs in which the foundation had a relationship with government in the past.
  • Interview the parties involved. How did it work? Was it helpful? What was learned and how has it been captured in the foundation’s practices? Invite longtime staff and board members to reflect on programs from the past that didn’t have a relationship with government. Are there ways they might have been better or worse with a government-philanthropy relationship? 
  • Focus on desired outcomes. One of our colleagues said, "You do it [work with government] because it enables you to advance goals that matter. It's got to be connected to your mission." Look at your existing programs and invite current grantees, staff, or board members to think through what might happen if government were advancing the same goals. Is that imaginable? What might be a first step for exploring that potential with government partners?
  • Travel together. Foundations can invite players across sectors to learn together about innovations or problematic situations in a field or community. Site visits, conferences, and even lunchtime seminars can create opportunities to hear from colleagues and lay the groundwork for opportunities down the road. Obviously, in these situations, it's important to respect rules and regulations regarding food and travel expenses for government officials. How do you hone your skills to work with government? The guide offers many suggestions for learning about how government works and how to build good relationships with government officials. Here are a few of our favorites, plus some from our archives.
  • Emulate others. With the help of your regional association, an affinity group, or the Council on Foundations, seek out foundations that have worked with government at different times to learn more about their experience in fields or communities similar to yours.
  • Get acquainted. When visiting communities where you have grantees, make a point of introducing yourself to local officials to learn what’s on their minds; join the "Foundations on the Hill" annual event organized by the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers and the Council on Foundations to meet national government officials.
  • Be ethnographic. Attend meetings where government staff and officials go; listen to how they think and talk, and figure out what’s important to them.

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