National Leadership Forum Addresses Philanthropy’s Intersection with Government

Suze Wampler

Solving critical public issues requires risk-taking, a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom — and, increasingly, a new level of collaboration across sectors. To take stock of philanthropy’s growing engagement in public policy work, examine what is driving cross sector partnerships, and reflect on what success looks like in this new arena, The USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy (The Center) convened a national leadership forum on Philanthropy & Government: Public Problem Solving at the Intersection.

Held February 11–12 at the LA Hotel Downtown, the gathering attracted over 230 attendees and built upon The Center’s longstanding examination of philanthropic strategies and their nexus with other sectors to solve public problems.

“Over the past 16 years, we have been heartened by the growing interest in philanthropy to work in partnership with government and business,” said James Ferris, director of The Center and Emery Evans Olson Chair in Nonprofit Entrepreneurship and Public Policy at the USC Price School of Public Policy, in his opening remarks. “In the process, philanthropy has learned a lot as it has taken more risks and come to realize that it can leverage more than just grants,” he observed, pointing out that knowledge, talent, and reputation also have immense value in scaling impact and realizing philanthropy’s full potential.

The importance of risk-taking also was a key theme in the opening plenary session featuring leaders of three major foundations that have recently placed big bets on some audacious ideas. Moderated by Fred Ali, chair of The Center’s Board of Advisors and Weingart Foundation president and CEO, the panel included Rip Rapson, president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation; Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of The California Endowment; and Larry Kramer, president of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Using Detroit as an example of how philanthropy has stepped in to help revive a city after economic decline in an unprecedented way, Rapson explained that bold action was needed because the situation in the city was so dire. The Ford, W.K. Kellogg, and Kresge foundations, along with other philanthropic institutions came together, to create “a temporary scaffolding” that enabled the city’s bankruptcy to be resolved quickly and that set the stage for revitalization.

Philanthropy “simply had to help steward the really fragile ecologies of arts and culture, the emerging food system, and, particularly, human services organization[s],” Rapson said. “There simply was not the support from any quarter for those entities to get through the crisis without philanthropic help.” By bearing the initial risk of large infrastructure projects like the riverfront conservancy and the city’s light rail, the foundations served as “guarantors of value,” signaling to the private sector “that Detroit was an investable proposition.”

The California Endowment’s commitment of $350 million to ensure successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act across the state likewise involved both significant risk and an expanded role for the philanthropy. While The California Endowment had been advocating for universal health coverage for years, the investment constituted an almost 60 percent increase above its base spending, Ross said. After significant deliberation on how to approach a politically controversial policy issue, the board ultimately approved the strategy because it was convinced this was the “biggest thing in healthcare in a half-century,” and the numbers showed an exponentially strong return on investment in terms of improved health outcomes.

Acknowledging a different type of strategy altogether, Kramer discussed how The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has begun to focus on addressing intractability and dysfunction in the federal government through The Madison Initiative. Citing the U.S. constitution’s deliberate creation of a government designed to force compromise, Kramer noted, “If that can’t happen anymore — and it can’t — then you have a big problem.” Thus, the foundation is joining with other funders, civic groups, and leaders from the government and other sectors to help restore pragmatism and the spirit of compromise to Congress. The initiative also hopes to reform campaign finance and the election process while promoting a more informed, engaged citizenry.

Following the opening plenary, breakout sessions addressed these issues and others in greater detail, including sessions on philanthropic efforts to improve cities and places, implement the Affordable Care Act, create pathways to integrate and engage immigrants, and support the charter school movement.

Monica Lozano, chair of U.S. Hispanic Media and of the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society Program, concluded the first day by delivering a keynote address on strategic leadership and foundation governance. In her remarks, Lozano continually referred to opportunities for collaboration, “In the old paradigm, government, civil society, and business each acted primarily in their own sphere and each role was independently defined. But in this new world of change and rapidity, the need to adapt requires collaboration. With the blurring of traditional roles, we’re seeing new hybrid organizations starting to emerge…no one entity has the capacity to move the dial alone; we need philanthropy, government, and the private sector to all come together collaboratively to seek solutions.”

Day two of the forum shifted focus to specific strategies for effectively working at the intersection of philanthropy and government, and included breakout sessions on impact investing, movements for change, philanthropic-government partnerships, and strategic communications.

Joining a discussion with Eggers were two innovators – Parag Gupta, who founded Waste Ventures India, and Fazail Karmali, Associate Director, Network Engagement and Bellagio Programs, The Rockefeller Foundation. Gupta discussed what he had learned in jumpstarting an environmentally-friendly, solid waste management social enterprise in India, while Karmali discussed different ways that foundations could harness the power of networks to create change, working in partnership with both government and business.

Ferris moderated the closing plenary panel that addressed the question: what does philanthropy need to do differently? Panelists included foundation leaders: Carol Larson, president and CEO of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; Christopher Oechsli, president and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies; Hilary Pennington, vice president, Education, Creativity, and Free Expression, Ford Foundation; and Dalila Wilson-Scott, president and head of Global Philanthropy, JP Morgan Chase & Co.

Larson underscored the importance as well as the challenge of creating and maintaining effective partnerships, drawing on The Packard Foundation’s experiences and its focused efforts to bring different funders together. “Collaboration begins at the top,” she said. “You have to hire for it and keep reminding your board what it leads to.” She also noted that the “sweet spot” is approaching a problem from different angles than your collaborators, and agreeing upon who will take the lead on which parts.

Wilson-Scott urged attendees not to leave private-sector members out of philanthropy-government conversations or those between funders, pointing out that businesses often have much more to offer than just their funding streams. “We’re on track to invest about $250 million this year,” she said of JPMorgan Chase’s philanthropy. She added that the company has numerous other assets to bear, “whether it’s our data, our people, our reach, our networks, [or] our convening power. If you had to put a value on that, it would far exceed $250 million a year.”

Oechsli shared his experiences presiding over the largest limited life foundation to intentionally shut its door, and the lessons Atlantic Philanthropies is beginning to take away from that experience. Bringing the forum full circle to where the conversation began, with a focus on risk taking, Oechsli reminded the audience that, “There’s a sense of urgency to what we do that requires some real rigor in our decision making. It’s very easy as we all know in the world of philanthropy to get pulled in 100 directions even within the spaces that we specialize and occupy. There are so many great opportunities and so many great organizations and people that it’s really difficult to remain focused. We’re always afraid of missing the next Einstein in our efforts to be focused. But that is the challenge.”

Pennington spoke about the need to change people’s conceptions about government. “I think philanthropy has inadvertently contributed to the degradation of people’s opinion of government,” she added. “We’re trying to think differently going forward in how we engage with governments.” In this era of partnerships, “we have to co-create from the beginning with other partners, whether that’s government, other foundations, or the private sector,” Pennington said.

Based in the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy focuses on philanthropic strategies for public problem solving. The Center is a key part of the Price School’s mission of working to improve the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad.

The forum was sponsored by JP Morgan Chase & Co. Wells Fargo, and others. More information about the forum, including photos, videos and the program, can be found on The Center’s website.