GHJ asked Marie DeAeth-d’Almeida, Director of Operations and Grants Management for the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, about public-private partnerships.

Q: What is the public-private partnership model?

A: That is a great question – and one we hear often! The short answer is that the public-private partnership model is a collaborative endeavor that taps into the efficiency of three key societal elements: the private sector, the social good of nonprofits and the potential for scale and impact of government. When I meet new folks curious about the type of work I do, I usually explain that we partner with philanthropic entities, nonprofit organizations and private businesses to support civic programming. As the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, we only report to our independent Board of Directors, but we align our programming efforts with the Mayor’s vision for L.A., and we work closely with our partners in the City to execute that vision.

The nonprofit sector, in exchange for the benefit of being tax-exempt, provides additional public good. Traditionally, the governmental, corporate and nonprofit/philanthropic sectors have all operated in silos. More recently, these sectors (and the world at large) are realizing that more can get done – and with better outcomes – through collaboration when each person/organization/industry draws on its own strengths for the greater good.

The issues facing society today are complex and multifaceted, which means that the response to these challenges will also require multidimensional and inclusive solutions. This is the value-add of public-private partnerships and what the Mayor’s Fund specializes in.

Q: What is unique about the model that the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles has established?

A: In many ways, the Mayor’s Fund operates much like a community foundation, an operating foundation and a regular nonprofit. We are categorized by the IRS as a 501(c)3 nonprofit and sub-categorized as a public charity. Like community foundations, we are both grant-making and grant-seeking. Like operating foundations, we pay program expenditures directly in many cases. Like a regular nonprofit, we fundraise from institutional philanthropies, the corporate social responsibility arms of private businesses and individuals. We are unique though in the scale and potential for impact that our programs can have because they are tied to civic initiatives.

Q: Are there best practices that you have encountered?

A: Because a public-private partnership (PPP) inherently involves working closely with a government or municipality, that also means you might be working with elected officials and their staff. A good strategy to insulate a new PPP-focused organization from partisan politics is to incorporate bipartisan and nonpartisan input when the organization is starting up, defining the scope of its programming and developing its internal systems and processes. This is what we did when the Mayor’s Fund was founded.

The Mayor’s Fund also believes in transparency and accountability. To those ends, the fund submits to a voluntary annual audit of our finances and makes our 990 publicly available. We also list major donors on our website. It is also important to note that, in the same way, a city is responsible to its citizens for how it spends taxpayer dollars, nonprofits are responsible to their donors. In keeping with nonprofit best practices, we take our reporting to donors on the outcomes of programs that they fund very seriously. We always strive to engage our donors meaningfully and communicate our successes and challenges effectively.

Q: What recommendations or cautions do you have for those looking to set up such a model?

A: There is a rising interest in creating organizations like ours, in order to support governments and municipalities by enabling them to do more for their residents without additional taxation on the public. Now that we have been operational for more than five years, we have had many people reach out to us for guidance as they are also interested in starting an organization that similarly straddles the public-private realm, and we, of course, are happy to oblige.

In addition to the best practices I spoke of earlier, other tidbits of advice we offer include:

  • Be strategic from the outset and incorporate as a nonprofit using best practices for the nonprofit sector.
  • Think about the Board structure and term lengths and limits.
  • Consider your revenue model, which does not have to rely solely on direct fundraising. For example, the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia is funded by their city’s annual marathon.
  • Perhaps most importantly, consider and define (as well as is possible), both the relationship to the partnering government and the delineation therebetween. If the organization that you are founding will be paying a governmental entity directly, what are the processes for receiving and allocating that funding for that government? Set yourself up to be able to work with those systems, but with the flexibility to be the lean, value-add that is the reason for creating a public-private partnership. A government must be responsible with the revenue from its tax base and similarly a nonprofit must be responsible to its donors.

Q: Anything else you would like to share?

A: Most of this blog has focused on the “public” and “private” entities of the public-private partnership model, but now let us focus on the word “partnership.” A collaborative endeavor or partnership can take many forms. It can be an informal project between friends, or the partnership between a donor and its grantee, or the type of tripartite (or more) partnerships the Mayor’s Fund engages in between our donors, private resources and the City of Los Angeles.

Whatever form it takes, every collaborative endeavor requires trust, understanding, flexibility, communication and perseverance. Every person, as well as every organization, has a different working style, expectations and capacities when entering a collaborative endeavor. No collaboration is ever perfect, but the most successful partnerships are ones where there is clear communication of roles and expectations; accountability for each party's contributions; and a positive disposition that understands that all parties are working to create meaningful change in our communities and in the world. For the Mayor’s Fund, our mission for these partnerships is to build an ever-better, thriving and more equitable Los Angeles. This is the attitude that we like to embrace and encourage anyone seeking to dip their toes into the world of public-private partnerships.