After a round of dating, will the budding romance between foundations and government amount to much?
Several participants used the metaphor of a relationship at a Council on Foundations session here focused on public and philanthropic partnerships.
“We’ve spent a year letting each other know how much we love each other,” said Chris Gates, executive director of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, a Denver group. “As we get over that crush moment, we’re getting to much harder questions.”
Among them, he said, is the increasing accountability that foundations will face as they collaborate with government and use more public dollars to finance their projects. Questions will rightly be asked, he said, about who is making decisions and what might be motivating board members.
Likewise, said Lance Lindblom, president of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, it is too early for government to tout its work with foundations as a success. Mr. Lindblom said he had been involved in foundation-government partnerships since the Carter administration, although he noted that the enthusiasm for collaborations has never been greater than under the Obama administration.
“Let’s see what comes out of the pipe,” Mr. Lindblom said.
The majority of such partnerships exist at the state and local levels. Another speaker, Colorado Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, said Colorado’s efforts to bring high-speed Internet access to rural communities and improve low-performing public schools were expedited by pilot projects paid for by foundations.
“They helped us make smarter decisions faster than we could have on our own,” she said.
William Schambra, director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, sounded a note of caution. He said foundations have played an important role as outsiders in areas like education, where they have agitated for and supported charter schools, which helped push government to improve all public schools. Foundations also should be concerned about hitching themselves to government at a time when public opinion about big government is near historical lows in national polls.
“Foundations need to be very careful in their haste to get inside the process,” Mr. Schambra said.