Maximizing the Value of Philanthropic Efforts through Planned Partnerships between the U.S. Government and Private Foundations. Scope of the Problem


Philanthropic action may spring from specific and focused concerns, or from an understanding of a broad and global nexus of challenges. Some problems can be straightforward or narrowly defined, such as the suffering caused by malaria. Others inevitably entail greater complexity, such as the suffering caused by poverty. Either way, the nature of the problem has implications for the feasibility of different philanthropic approaches, including partnering efforts.

Clear definition of a problem allows potential stakeholders to assess whether suitable strategies to address it are compatible with their organizational missions and within their programmatic capabilities. A clear view of the problem also allows already committed stakeholders to assess whether other organizations might be interested in addressing the same problem. In such instances, productive interaction among USG and foundations may be feasible, and partnership might be an option, even if the particular roles of each partner will need to be elaborated.

When a problem is less clearly understood or broader in scope, there likely will be greater ambiguity or more complex choices regarding appropriate interventions. Moreover, as problems become more complex and multifaceted, it may be less obvious whether potential partners would be willing to buy into an integrated intervention strategy or will commit to supporting its intensive pursuit. In such instances, interactions between USG and foundations may take a less intensively collaborative form, focusing on coordination or communication about a problem. However, early interaction on that basis sometimes can allow stakeholders to work toward narrowing the definition of the problem or, alternatively, to carve out their own pieces of the problem to address.

USG-foundation work to address malaria offers an example of how a narrowly defined problem can become a focus for collaboration. While malaria affects many lives, its causes and effects are relatively straightforward and well-understood, as are the potential solutions. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an early leader in addressing the malaria problem, hired well-credentialed senior advisors and program officers to craft a strategic plan for its malaria program and manage its implementation. The Foundation created formal partnerships through grant awards and informal partnerships through education and advocacy efforts.

Some have suggested that USGs centralization of malaria efforts in the Presidents Malaria Initiative (PMI) was influenced by the Gates Foundations work (Seattle Times, January 24, 2007). PMI was established to assist national malaria control programs in up to 15 target countries, focusing on four well-defined interventions: (1) spraying with insecticides; (2) insecticide-treated mosquito nets; (3) lifesaving drugs; and (4) treatment for pregnant women. All of these interventions use readily available approaches to reduce the number of malaria infections, supplementing the vaccine development and distribution work led by Gates. PMI, in turn, communicates and collaborates with federal agencies, international agencies, and private sector philanthropists, including foundations.

Alternatively, MCC offers a good example of an agency that addresses problems with broad scope. Although it targets a short list of nations and focuses on economic growth interventions, MCC has defined the nature of the problem it is addressing and its goals in the expansive terms set out by the U.S. Department of State. In its Foreign Assistance Framework, the State Department sets as the primary goal of all USG foreign aid, To help build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty, and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system (U.S. Department of State 2007).

MCCs adoption of the broad USG mission may constrain the range and intensity of its partnerships with foundations. MCCs organizational structure includes a unit dedicated to multilateral and donor relations, which seeks to engage NGOs, foundations, and other private sector entities. In practice, however, MCC has engaged in relatively few partnerships with foundations. This may, at least in part, stem from the expansive nature of the problem MCC seeks to address. MCCs most noteworthy interactions with foundations have, to date, taken the form of fairly general memoranda of understanding (MOU) rather than concrete and intense partnerships. Another factor that limits partnerships is that MCCs intervention strategy requires recipients of aid to devise their own interventions. Thus much of the onus for partnership rests on in-country actors (the MCAs), who may have little access to U.S. foundations.

The result may be that collaboration between MCC initiatives and foundations is more likely to arise by serendipity than by plan. The example of MCA-Armenias collaboration with the Lincy Foundationto augment road-building efforts called for in that countrys MCC compactcame about perhaps more through circumstance than through active efforts to promote collaboration. Lincy was already working on highway reconstruction in the country when MCA-Armenia selected this activity as one of its development priorities.[1]

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