Connecting the Dots: Strengthening Communities Through Public-Private-Nonprofit Partnerships
“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
No matter how much and how sincerely it tries, a for-profit corporation will never have social good as its central organizing principle. Why? Because that's simply not what the foundational design principles and ongoing incentive structures are built to generate. Instead, the core design of for-profit organizations ensures the delivery of positive return on invested capital in a reasonable (usually annual) timeframe. That's it, that's what that particular tool is good for.
In the same way, a nonprofit is designed to transform capital into social good — that's what that particular tool is good for. And a public institution, like a school district, is designed for highly stable, very long-term delivery of a social service to the residents of a particular geography.
A society that expects a public institution to be a radical innovator or a nonprofit to generate a financial return on investment or, as I mentioned earlier, a for-profit to reliably and consistently deliver social good is a society that will forever struggle with consistent and equitable outcomes for its citizens and residents. These tools must be used as designed — but they must be used in a way that creates interdependence and incentivizes collaboration between them.
As a nonprofit, DAE simply could not have created what we have as rapidly as we have using the single-use tool that a nonprofit is. Our corporate partners, in particular Synchrony Financial, and the public school districts with which we partner are very different tools. Collectively, however, we are a complete intervention. Together we are building something that not only achieves a social good (using the nonprofit tools) but does it in a way that has long-term financial stability and economic return (using the for-profit tools) — and delivers stable, long-term service specific to a particular geography (using the public institution tools).
At DAE, we focus on two different collaboration models — one for corporate and school district partners, and one for nonprofit, community partners.
Corporate and School District Partnerships
When we engage with school districts and corporate partners, we are all focused on getting to a predetermined place and measuring outcomes. Listening always comes first. Then, with a deeper understanding of how the system works and the external factors that affect it, we talk about how the tools will be used to address a school’s needs without interfering with the way the system functions. We come in to help address environmental factors that pose challenges to teaching and learning.
For example, student disengagement connected to the COVID-19 pandemic is not something a district alone can solve overnight. DAE invites districts to send us those students after school and, within a few months, we can help them re-engage. We never approach a partnership with the intention to fix what they’re doing, change what they’re doing or break what they’re doing. DAE just wants to provide the resources and support to help them solve external factors more rapidly.
Nonprofit, Community Partnerships
Engaging with nonprofit partners, by contrast, leads to a more organic approach. These are partners that align with the way we see the world and what the world needs, therefore, there are no transactional requirements or outcomes. Similar to jazz musicians, we can all improvise and support each other, allowing things to naturally unfold. When nonprofits tinker away together, exciting projects emerge that both can be proud to have helped create.
Returning to the tool analogy and the public-private collaboration I outlined, to complain that a hammer is ineffective in turning screws is to be ignorant to the purpose and value of a hammer — and it invites unnecessary and ultimately ineffective attempts to “transform” the hammer. A competent and effective builder is one who not only has a complete toolbox, but also the discernment to never overvalue a single tool.
Experience tells the builder that the tools must be used together to meet the various demands of a particular build. For many, and likely for most, of the issues we will face in the coming decades, we can no longer keep operating in silos of for-profit, nonprofit and public. Instead, we must develop the means of facilitating interdependence between these highly effective, but fundamentally different tools.
Related story: Think Beyond Your Nonprofit’s Niche: Expanding Impact Through Collaboration
A.M. Bhatt is founder and CEO of DAE, a nonprofit democratizing access to 21st century digital career and life skills for high school students and young adults from communities that have been historically and systemically under-resourced.