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Public-Private Partnerships: Lessons from Michigan’s Office of Foundation Liaison

by Teri Behrens
Public-Private Partnerships: Lessons from Michigan’s Office of Foundation Liaison

Michigan’s nonpartisan Office of Foundation Liaison (OFL) was created in 2003 at the suggestion of Michigan philanthropic leaders. The overarching goal of OFL is to foster partnerships between foundations and state government agencies. The OFL staff works to create shared agendas among foundations and agencies and then to identify the investments that each can make in support of that agenda.

Begun under the administration of Democrat Jennifer Granholm, it currently operates with the support of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and is located in the governor’s administrative offices. This senior-level position — unique in the nation — helps to identify and broker strategic partnerships between the state and foundations likely to result in policy reforms that would improve the lives of children and families in Michigan.

Since its inception, OFL has been funded by 17 foundations, with an office provided by the state government. It is governed by an advisory committee of contributing funders; the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF), its fiscal agent; and a member of the governor’s executive staff.

The OFL is one of a growing number of offices designed to facilitate public-private collaboration. The Michigan office is unique in operating at the state level; one explanation for this may be that it also has one of the oldest and largest grantmaker associations in the country, the Council of Michigan Foundations.

The Johnson Center for Philanthropy recently completed an evaluation of OFL. Some of the lessons from this evaluation may be helpful to others as they seek to build cross-sector partnerships.

1. The work of bridging sectors is time- and relationship-intensive.
It is often difficult for outsiders to understand what a liaison office does. I interviewed the two-person staff every month in order to understand what projects they were engaged in and how they worked. We created word clouds to show what the key activities were. The one below is for the work in the economic/workforce development area. The work is one-on-one conversations, meetings, phone calls, making introductions — in short, building trusting relationships.

2. The strategy has to be adapted to the partners and the project.
OFL staff has a toolkit that ranges from doing individual coaching in preparation for a meeting to bringing in national experts on a topic. The ability to assess what is the right way to intervene and then use the right tool is critical.

3. The liaison role can lead directly to joint investments.
We found that the OFL is widely credited with fostering collaboration between and among foundations and government agencies. Both sectors point to specific examples of how the OFL brought people to the table and helped structure the discussion to reach a shared agenda. A liaison office can be extremely effective in overcoming hurdles — if the partners really do want to work together.

4. The individuals matter.
The two individuals who staff the office (Karen Aldridge-Eason and Maura Dewan) brought the right skill set and knowledge of both government and foundations to the job. They have the respect of both foundation and government staff, and people are willing to listen.

We’d love to hear lessons from others who are involved in cross-sector bridge-building. What makes it work?