Efforts to maximize philanthropic spending could benefit from more explicit efforts to exploit the relative strengths of the public and private sectors. The literature suggests that foundations are comparatively advantaged by their independence, agility, flexibility, and ability to take risks and innovate. They often engage in cutting-edge work where they can plant a seed, but they are not often directly involved in large scaling-up activities that expand implementation of the intervention beyond initial demonstration programs or sites. Since foundations have more limited resources than the federal government, many of their investments aim to leverage other resources or influence the activity of larger playerspotentially governments.
In contrast, the U.S. government has greater resources and potential influence, relatively more stringent accountability structures, and often longer time horizons. The federal government more typically implements proven solution strategies rather than high-risk experiments, and it can play a special role in bringing solutions to a broader target population. Foundations and USG both may play an important convening rolebringing the relevant actors together to address social problemsalthough some foundations may be advantaged by their perceived neutrality.
Despite these differing strengths, the processes by which foundations and federal agencies identify problems to address, develop and implement interventions, and monitor progress are similar, and the literature indicates that both private and public sector actors are keenly interested in cross-sector collaborations. But successful partnerships require that all parties involved understand the interests, capacities, and approaches of the other actors, which may be difficult to achieve (Fosler 2002). Indeed, one study found that private sector partners felt the USG did not understand their interests and looked to them only to fill gaps, even as USG actors felt they were ill-equipped to deal with private sector partners and that bureaucratic structures hindered the development of partnerships (U.S. Department of State 2008). Opportunities for partnership exist at each stage in the development of philanthropic initiatives, but stakeholders must work to address these and other challenges to ensure success.
A theoretical framework useful for analyzing public-private partnerships categorized foundation interactions with government along a spectrum of collaboration (Sandfort 2008). At one end, termed supplementary interaction, one organization or sector may explicitly seek to fill perceived gaps in the work of another organization or sector. Such cases of supplementary interaction require relatively little communication or coordination between the organizations involved. At the other end of the spectrum, full and formal partnerships require a high level of communication and coordination between actors. Through the case studies, MPR further developed this framework to describe five types of overlaps, interactions, and partnerships underway between foundations and the federal government. The case studies identified contextual and organizational factors that influence program approaches and the feasibility of partnerships. Several focused on emerging innovations in philanthropic decision-making, funding, and governance.