Three areas where philanthropic funders can partner with government on infrastructure investments to advance equity in the United States.
This article originally appeared in Stanford Social Innovation Review.
Over the past several months I have received calls from dozens of philanthropic leaders eager to help ensure that the trillions of dollars flowing to US communities through the federal Infrastructure and Jobs Investment Act reach the country’s most vulnerable communities. But they often don’t know where their dollars will make the most impact.
While building things like roads and bridges or providing clean water is traditionally the work of government, public-philanthropic partnership provides a framework to ensure that local, state, and federal governments work closely with community-based organizations and philanthropic entities so that government funding actually serves people’s needs and lays the groundwork for lasting, equitable change.
The good news is that we have strong models for governing in partnership with the philanthropic sector to support local communities and scale impact at all levels of government. In cities across the country, Bloomberg Associates’ Collaborative Cities initiative, for example, is seeding partnerships between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to help cities creatively tackle social issues. The initiative helps different partners marshal resources, coordinate responses, and leverage the unique assets each brings to the table. In Michigan, the Office of the Foundation Liaison has an 18-year track record of forging partnerships between state government and the philanthropic sector to encourage programs or policy reforms that would improve the lives of residents. And in California, Governor Newsom has led 42 public-philanthropic partnerships leveraging more than $4 billion in private funding to advance policy priorities like addressing homelessness and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
Based on the dozens of public-private partnerships we’ve led in California, we see three areas where philanthropic funders would do well to invest now:
1. Civic Infrastructure Through Community Capacity Building
While the majority of the focus on the infrastructure bill has been on roads, bridges, and broadband, one major opportunity that often gets overlooked is the chance to invest in civic infrastructure. Philanthropy is well-poised to support the capacity building of local organizations so that they can build the strength and voice they need to effectively represent community interests, not just now but for the long run.
This kind of cross-sector collaboration was a force behind our efforts to count all Californians in the 2020 census. The state worked with foundations to invest a combined $130 million in supporting community-based organizations (CBOs) so that they could reach people of color, as well as disabled, low-income, and other traditionally hard-to-count communities. We took worked with CBOs to do door knocking, calls, and outreach events, targeting zip codes where people were at-risk of not being counted.
As the census wrapped up, COVID-19 vaccines were just getting approved, so we doubled down on our partnerships with these organizations to reach those same less-resourced communities. As of the end of this year, our partnerships with Public Health Institute’s Together Toward Health Initiative, Sierra Health Foundation’s Vaccine Equity Campaign, and California Community Foundation have channeled more than $100 million to more than 700 CBO partners, reaching people in all of California’s 58 counties to educate them about the importance of getting vaccinated and provide support with vaccine appointments.
Now is the time to build on networks of local partners to ensure that infrastructure spending is distributed equitably. For example, our office is developing a partnership between the California Natural Resources Agency Water Foundation and the Water Foundation and Water Funders Initiative to build community power and capacity to benefit from public funding, support water leaders who can represent community priorities, and support systemic solutions by aligning relief efforts with long-term strategies such as infrastructure investments.
In the coming months and years, state and local agencies across the United States will be distributing trillions of dollars that community-based organizations often can’t access, because they are too small to apply for complicated public funding grants. Philanthropic investments can help ensure that these organizations don’t end up on the sidelines by supporting their capacity to help influence how funding is distributed.
2. Technical Assistance
State and local agencies now tasked with implementing major expansions of programs like the child tax credit, broadband, and public transit projects will need to bring on more staff to distribute infrastructure funding within the bill’s time constraints. And state employees aren’t always in the best position to get out into communities to ensure that they are aware of these programs and how to participate. Philanthropic partnership can help provide the technical assistance agencies need to both ramp up their programs and to ensure that communities are part of the program design from the start.
One example is a partnership we developed in California to support technical assistance for workforce development organizations. The High Road Training Partnerships (HRTP) program, managed by the state Workforce Development Board (CWDB), supports high-quality jobs by funding collaboration between private employers, local community-based organizations, and labor. HRTP collaborations develop high-quality opportunities in targeted industries, get workers jobs, and enable them to develop stability in those jobs.
Partnerships like these are critical in the context of infrastructure, where for every billion spent, an estimated 20,000 jobs are created. This year, the state invested $100 million to expand the HRTP program, and CWDB has partnered with Jobs for the Future—a national nonprofit that drives change in workforce and education systems—to create technical assistance microgrants that cover pre-application costs and help CBOs and other small organizations apply for the funding.
Additionally, the Community Economic Resilience Fund, a $600 million state fund to support regional economic development planning in 13 regions in California, is a huge opportunity to build jobs for the future and develop inclusive, sustainable local economies. Philanthropic partners led by the James Irvine Foundation have come together to support mapping of existing community efforts and facilitation by California Forward, a statewide economic development organization, and PolicyLink, a national institute to advance racial and economic equity, to ensure that communities have the resources to put inclusion and racial equity at the center of these plans.
By working in partnership with the state to support these types of technical assistance, philanthropy can help give vulnerable communities greater agency in determining how to spend the influx of public dollars, having potential impact for generations to come.
3. Research and Evaluation
Philanthropic organizations have a long tradition of supporting research and evaluation in partnership with government, but with so much public funding at play, this is a moment to scale innovative policies and programs like never before. But making these programs sustainable requires that we develop strong data and evaluation practices to determine whether they are actually having an impact. Philanthropic partners are well poised to support evaluation efforts which could be used to improve these initiatives and advance policy advocacy for future programming.
For example, during the early days of the pandemic, we launched an initiative called Project Roomkey to house 50,000 unsheltered people in hotels and motels across the state rather than in congregate shelters. The program is potentially game-changing for our ability to house Californians in the long run, but to prove its full impact, California Health Care Foundation and Hilton Foundation are working together with the California Health and Human Services Agency to evaluate it, with a specific focus on the health impacts of providing housing and services.
Philanthropic leaders should examine opportunities to partner with state and local agencies to ensure that research and evaluation are built into infrastructure spending from the start, as opposed to being an afterthought.
We must not let this historic moment go to waste. With trillions of dollars flooding state and local agencies over the next several years, philanthropic partners can and should find ways to ensure that those dollars are truly reaching the communities that need it most. If that happens, we will be able to look back and know that this was a moment when America reversed the tide of inequity in our society.