These days you can’t avoid hearing about new opportunities for public-philanthropic partnerships. It reminds me of novelist John Steinbeck’s comment, “Ideas are like rabbits—you get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
As the Council on Foundations strengthens and grows its Public-Philanthropic Partnership Initiative (PPPI), it’s a good time to take stock of where public-philanthropic partnerships originate and why there is such a heightened interest in them now. For starters, the Obama administration’s Social Innovation Fund is shining a spotlight on new ways to leverage public and private dollars to expand the impact of limited financial resources. But the concept goes back further than many may realize.
The 1992 book, “The Politics of Knowledge: The Carnegie Corporation, Philanthropy, and Public Policy,” chronicles public philanthropic efforts preceding the Great Depression when the Carnegie Corporation capitalized private organizations to increase the government’s capacity for governance.
Former President Ronald Reagan incubated the modern idea of public-philanthropic partnerships when he proclaimed his vision to “get the private sector in the driver’s seat,” using market incentives and philanthropy to solve community problems.
In 1982, Reagan created the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities to increase private sector support. Three years later, he created a successful Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives and appointed C. William Verity, a leading corporate philanthropist, to direct it.
President George H.W. Bush invoked the vision of a “thousand points of light.” The Points of Light Foundation and the HandsOn Network went on to become the Points of Light Institute, the largest volunteer management and civic engagement organization in the nation.
President Bill Clinton and the National Endowment for the Humanities convened the first-ever White House Conference on Philanthropy to explore the changing face of the sector. The Clinton administration also leveraged the “21st Century Community Learning Centers to develop comprehensive public-philanthropic partnerships for after-school programs. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the J.C. Penney Company provided significant leadership and support for this initiative.
President George W. Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003 to bring effective HIV/AIDS interventions to scale and fully integrate the initiative into the health and development plans of partner countries. PEPFAR has achieved remarkable success in expanding access to HIV prevention, care, and treatment in low-resource settings.
While there may be a heightened awareness of public-philanthropic partnerships right now, the past reveals a rich tradition of partnerships that have resulted in the creation of many successful programs. To help continue that tradition, the PPPI is working to connect the innovations and best practices of foundations with the government agencies looking to broaden the reach of philanthropic investments.
If we follow Steinbeck’s line of thinking, we should see even greater proliferation in the future.
Rene Cabral-Daniels is director of public-philanthropic partnerships for the Council on Foundations