What Government Partners Wish Grantmakers Knew

Here’s a short list of things they (government leaders, nonprofits, other grantmakers, philanthropic advisors) encourage grantmakers to bear in mind to help collaborations succeed:

  • Government processes can be slow — for legitimate reasons. More than any other issue, government officials cited the time factor as an area where the expectations of philanthropy and government are worlds apart. “Remember that governments tend to move slowly,” said one, “burdened by sunshine and budget protocols that foundations and nonprofits don’t necessarily have to adhere to daily.” A few went so far as to defend government’s slow pace, reminding grantmakers that “government answers to all the taxpayers, so the process can be slow — but inclusionary, in the long run.” One person noted that “very little systemic change can happen in a year — anywhere, but especially in government. Multi-year partnerships are the only way to effect lasting change.” Yet one local official argued that grantmakers shouldn’t always be so patient with government’s “bureaucratic internal processes”: “If philanthropy commits support and demands timely action, local government can in all truth accelerate their processes to facilitate quicker action.”
  • To bridge the culture gap, build personal relationships. Many government respondents stressed the personal side of building collaboration — learning about government, getting to know government officials, and familiarizing them with how philanthropy works. “The most important thing I learned working in both sectors,” said a government policymaker who was once a grantmaker, “is that the partners have to meet enough to begin to understand each other’s language, culture, and motivations.” Remember, said another, that “a government agency is like any other organization in that it is run by people and success is all about relationships. Set up a meeting, go to lunch, be open to talking about whatever possibilities there may be, and look for each other’s strengths and challenges.” One official reported having seen good partnerships grow out of “foundation officers participating as commission members, panelists, and advisors to government agencies. I encourage this participation as much as possible.”
  • Use information and data sources that have credibility with government officials. Another category of advice focused on cultivating knowledge that’s relevant to government officials. Pay attention to the indicators public-sector officials are using to assess their work and for which they’re being held accountable, one government partner advised, whether it’s data on student achievement, health insurance, or some other measure: “When a project is linked to them, there’s broader space to collaborate, providing it doesn’t compromise your original goals.” “Become proficient at using government data resources,” said another: “the Census, CDC, and other federally funded programs contain a wealth of information” that can help make the case for a collaborative project.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate the participation of government partners. By tactfully recognizing the efforts of government officials, some respondents said, grantmakers can strengthen a partnership, increase the chances that change will stick, and lay the groundwork for future partnerships. Remember even while you’re planning a partnership, said one official, that the “advantages of the collaboration will need to be recognized, measured, reported, and touted for a sustaining relationship to have a chance.” Make it a rule when working with government to “praise and thank everyone for their involvement, no matter how small,” another suggested.
  • Government values philanthropy’s independence; cultivate it. Several government officials noted that independence is a big part of what makes philanthropy valuable to public-sector partners. “Steer clear of political party battles,” said one, while another urged grantmakers to “maintain independence — not necessarily contrary views, but independence.” “Be a constructive critic,” one experienced partner advised. “Listen, question, and probe government priorities but avoid challenging policymakers outright.” Equally important, this same official urged, “Be yourself. Your autonomy is envied by, and useful to, government. Funders have freedom to experiment, learn, and fail that politicians do not. Funders are most useful when they are true partners in making things work, willing to offer advice and take part in the risks and rewards and not merely follow government blindly.”

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.