In an environment of increasingly urgent domestic and international challenges and finite private and public resources, there is a compelling policy interest in better understanding interactions between private and public philanthropic efforts and learning how to promote more effective collaboration between the sectors. To improve their knowledge of the intersection between private philanthropic efforts addressing health and social services and similar public initiatives funded by the federal government, the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) contracted with Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. (MPR) to study public and private philanthropic activity. The study was designed to explore whether and how public and private philanthropic efforts can complement each other to improve effectiveness of services and programs across the country and around the world.
Rather than studying private philanthropic organizations of all types, such as nonprofit service providers or religious organizations, ASPE and MPR focused the study on foundations and their interactions with the federal government. Unlike individual, household, and business donors, foundations and U.S. government agencies expend their philanthropic dollars through large, carefully planned and budgeted grant or assistance programs. While agendas and decision-making differ between foundations and federal agencies, their spending and programs reflect many overlapping interests and priorities.
The distribution and overlap of public and private funding are of interest not just as descriptive statistics, however, but also as potential opportunities. Philanthropy and its impact could be enhanced through more purposeful interaction between the federal government and foundations. Developing a greater understanding of the ways in which the USG and foundation sectors develop and implement their philanthropic endeavors could allow for a more informed approach to interaction, and ideally the more efficient use of this nations vast philanthropic resources. To promote this understanding, ASPE posed questions for the study such as: How often and in what ways do foundation and USG spending and efforts overlap? What options are there for more productive interactions between the two sectors? What can each sector learn from the other? What research or other activities could enhance prospects for productive synergies with foundations and other members of the philanthropic and nonprofit communities?