Maximizing the Value of Philanthropic Efforts through Planned Partnerships between the U.S. Government and Private Foundations. Weighing the Costs and Benefits of Partnership


A clear caution emerged from case study discussions: intensive partnerships present challenges, and their value should be weighed carefully before partners commit. The United Nations Foundation echoed this caution in its undated report on public-private partnerships. The report emphasized the difficulties associated with such collaboration and concluded that any such effort should deliver better results than what any partner could achieve alone (U.N. Foundation n.d.). Case studies indicated that identifying partners could be difficult and time consuming. Moreover, after partners are identified, different and sometimes conflicting organizational cultures and constraints must be worked through. Also, the more intensely collaborative or formal the partnership, the more resources are likely to be required to support the interaction itselfincluding regular communications and structures for shared operations, administration, and governance. The relative paucity of full partnerships in the cases studied here may reflect this difficult reality. Examples from the case studies shed light on the issue, highlighting instances where collaboration has or has not added value, and suggesting some ways to determine if value is added.

Formation of partnerships should be preceded not only by attention to the question of costs, but also by the specific identification of how value will be added. In formulating the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), the founding partners (World Health Organization, World Bank, UNICEF, and the Gates Foundation) identified two primary areas where value might be added. First, they believed that a pooled financing mechanismwhich eventually took shape as the International Finance Facility for Immunization (more commonly known by its acronym, IFFIm)would enable GAVI to leverage more funding to support access to immunization than would be possible otherwise. Second, they recognized that the administrative burden on recipient countries could be reduced if GAVI centralized bureaucratic procedures. Rather than dealing with multiple funders reporting requirements, recipients of this funding would deal with GAVI alone. This approach helped to address a major concern of U.S. foreign aid recipients voiced by the HELP Commission (2007).

Organizations may also benefit from systematic procedures for assessing the value added by partnering activities. In-country MCAs working with the MCC might be interested in partnering with other funders, but they would be required to demonstrate explicitly the value of any collaborative effort in the cost-benefit analysis that is part of MCC compact development. Formal cost-benefit analysis may not be appropriate in all cases of potential collaboration, but such tools can formalize and systematize the assessment of value added through collaborationas can the more flexible and subjective measures, such as the expected return (ER) metric developed by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which considers other funders contributions.

Part of weighing and identifying the value of collaboration is focusing on how to minimize its cost or burden. Avoiding reporting requirements from each of multiple donors in GAVI is a good example of lessening the burden associated with partnerships. MCCs reliance on MOUs as its primary collaborative vehicle with other donor organizations, rather than more intensive collaborations, may reflect its emphasis on containing administrative costs. In some cases, important costs may be intangible. The Ashoka Fellows program offers an example in which partnerships with USG or other governments may be avoided, at least in part because the costs have been deemed to outweigh benefits. Ashoka does not accept any funding from USG or other governments and seems hesitant to interact with any government. This is understandable, given that Ashoka Fellows often seek to change the way their own countries governments act or are structured. Similarly, in some cases, social entrepreneurs independence or integrity might be perceived as compromised should they be affiliated in some way with the U.S. government.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is experienced in partnering with the federal government and other foundations. It has developed a process for the careful consideration of partnership opportunities. RWJFs interactions with others often originate during the initial strategic process when RWJF considers different approaches to achieving its program goals. Consistent with the due diligence characteristic of large foundations, this process includes a survey of existing programs and players in the area. According to a respondent from the foundation, since USG is involved in virtually everything we are interested in, on most RWJF projects, program staff identify USG activities in the area. Staff members then evaluate what type of interaction offers the most potential for achieving the particular program goals. At the most basic level, there must be common ground on the approach, priorities, and goals. The utility of interaction will vary by program area and even by project; an RWJF effort to improve an existing USG program would involve a different type of interaction than trying to create broad strategies to reduce childhood obesity, for example. The type of interaction RWJF ultimately pursues depends on a staff evaluation, at a tactical level, of the costs and benefits of interaction.

From its experience the foundation believes that the benefits to interaction can be substantial. They include useful learning, minimized duplication, and even leveraging additional funding. While deeper interaction can amplify these benefits, RWJF often decides that less formal or no interaction is the most efficient path. Previous RWJF interactions have revealed that initial enthusiasm over the obvious benefits of interaction can obscure the high costs of deeper relationships. Building full partnerships requires careful development and understanding of rules and roles, either through memoranda or contracts, which the foundation has found to be challenging.

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