Scouting for Partners & Projects

To find likely government partners and projects, experienced grantmakers cultivate networks where they're likely to come across promising ideas, opportunities, and connections. They keep their ears open constantly for people in government who might help move an agenda and for moments when the involvement of philanthropy might be particularly valued.

To explain how they scout for government partners, grantmakers from a range of foundations suggested these deceptively straightforward tips. Each is also a great scanning tactic, whether or not you decide to work with government. 

Ask around. The most common method for locating government partners and projects is also the simplest: ask around. A grantmaker who wants to understand a field and get a sense of which officials are most ambitious for change may ask for recommendations from membership organizations such as the Council of State Governments; grantees, particularly those who work with government or have policy experience; or colleagues at other foundations.

Some foundations hire consultants to scan the policy and political environment in a particular jurisdiction and identify potential partners and opportunities. A foundation may decide to bring a former government official onboard as a staff member or advisor specifically because of the contacts that person brings to the job.

A grantmaker who works both nationally and internationally noted that good partners are often a little bit different from their peers, and that finding them can take careful listening, time, and a certain amount of tact. "There are always going to be people in government who hew to the party line and don’t want to see any changes," he said. "Some are going to be very defensive."

He looks for opportunities to engage people from government in conversation, "maybe inviting sets of people to participate in discussions, workshops, or conferences, then kind of seeing who looks like they might be promising to work with. Regardless of what you end up trying to do systematically, you've got to start with individuals who are open and receptive."

A program officer who formerly worked in state government described a habit he maintains to keep in touch with prospective partners: "Every year, fairly religiously, I attend certain conferences that attract government officials. I don't attend many of the sessions. Instead, I work the halls. People come up and say, 'Let's grab a cup of coffee or a beer.  I want to talk to you about an idea.' In the course of three days, I may have 100 conversations. It's that type of stuff, more than anything else, that gets me opportunities to work with government."

Look for champions. When seeking government partnerships, grantmakers look first for champions — government actors who are creative, willing to go beyond the usual boundaries, and able to see the promise of collaboration. A program officer at a large national foundation explained how it works: "There are a lot of fine people in government who really know what they're doing. It can be helpful to them to have people from outside government to interact with, share ideas with, and maybe help them promote something they can't do internally or can’t do exclusively from within." Champions, he said, may also be people in government who take the long view and are willing to invest time in research, factfinding, and experimentation.

Another grantmaker advised finding champions at several levels of government, from midlevel career professionals to high-level political appointees. Recalling an initiative to change forestry practice in several states, she explained that she and her colleagues had sought out "sympathetic people at various levels of government, from people out in the field to people all the way at the top of central agency." Champions at the top of the organization "who really understand why reform might be important" are essential, she noted, but champions closer to the ground can "make sure there's adequate information, and information that helps change people’s minds or helps them form an opinion."

Moreover, champions have to be at the right level to make reform happen — which doesn't necessarily mean being higher up the ladder. "If a governor is a champion but he or she has appointed a commissioner who has no real interest" in a particular reform or project, said one grantmaker, "then it's probably not going to work."

A government official urged funders to think not just about people but also about places that have what it takes to be good partners: "There are cities or regions that have just that little spark of something, where funders can get really good results.'

Tap into opportunity moments. Be alert for events — an election, a crisis, a court order, the new agency head — that create an opening for change. A grantmaker at a large national foundation noted, "We have defined what we call 'opportunity moments,' so we work with people when they're in a crisis. What we want is for everybody to sit up and take notice that something has to change. If a governor runs on a change agenda, we may offer to help right after the election." It's often advantageous to begin working with government at the beginning of a term of office. A grantmaker who used to work in government advised, "If you can, time it so that you start working at the beginning of an administration because then, presumably, you have at least a few years."

It's important to evaluate each opportunity individually, said a foundation president. "The decisions about which projects we get involved in with government are not formulaic. They are iterative, fluid, open discussions, heavily driven by targets of opportunity and the presence of strong partners. We give each one the 'finger in the wind' test."

Scan strategically. Several people stressed the importance of scanning in a way that's focused enough to be effective but open enough to turn up important new ideas and people.

A foundation that aims to improve urban school systems with large percentages of minority and poor children writes letters to districts that meet those criteria to suggest an area where it is interested in supporting new work. Sometimes, a grantmaker at the foundation explained, they "cast the net very widely and send out letters to 100 or more districts." In other cases, they "talk to a lot of people first and send out fewer letters." The latter approach is "more efficient," but the wider net sometimes turns up new and capable partners.

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Working with Government.