Understanding the Unique Role of Nonprofits in Advancing Public-Private Partnerships
When you think of public-private partnerships, the first thing that comes to mind is likely a collaboration between governments and for-profit entities. However, a third party is essential for these partnerships to work: nonprofits. Nonprofit organizations are essential intermediaries who administer partnership services, build private support for government initiatives, and bridge private funding and government operations.
There are several reasons nonprofits may get involved in a public-private partnership. It could be because a nonprofit recognizes an opportunity for increased impact through a cross-sector partnership, such as a workforce development program that draws on public funding to train and place participants in jobs at private companies.
Nonprofits could see an opportunity to pursue strategic initiatives with implications for municipal operations, such as a new K-12 educational priority, by tapping into philanthropic funding. Sometimes these partnerships are born out of a crisis: At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, many nonprofits and municipalities pooled their resources and expertise to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
These are all sound reasons for nonprofits to pursue public-private partnerships. But these partnerships are often complex, long-term endeavors. Here are a few things to consider before exploring a public-private partnership.
Outline a Shared Vision With Partners
To determine whether such a partnership makes sense, leaders should start with an exploratory phase where all entities involved create clearly defined rules outlining who will lead which aspects and who will make key decisions. A vital tool for this phase is a memorandum of understanding (MOU) — a document that sketches out each entity's roles and responsibilities.
All entities should also be sure that they truly share a vision with their prospective partners. To support the advancement of a shared vision throughout the lifecycle of a partnership, open, candid communication is imperative. Public-private partnerships, as any partnership, work best when grounded in trust.
Find Gaps in Service or Community Needs
If you're a nonprofit executive eager to explore a public-private partnership, where should you begin? A review of existing service gaps within your organization’s catchment area is a great place to start. Is there a hurdle in accessing government services your members routinely face? Is a specific population you work with in need of additional services? These scenarios represent opportunities to further your organization’s expertise and mission through a public-private partnership.
Nonprofits can also keep an eye out for requests for proposals (RFPs) and requests for qualifications (RFQs), which are requests from municipalities to submit proposals to advance a specific initiative, that are in alignment with their mission and values. And it’s helpful to be well-versed in your municipality's procurement or bidding processes, so you're able to act swiftly.
Be Aware of Potential Drawbacks
Again, public-private partnerships are complicated undertakings, and nonprofit executives should be aware that there are potential risks and drawbacks. For example, public initiatives can be swayed by political considerations, which could put your nonprofit in a tricky position, whether because of shifts in funding or shifts in the focus of the program.
For this reason, and as noted previously, it's essential to ensure there is a clear understanding of expectations at the outset of the partnership. Another drawback can be the length of time required to negotiate and implement a public-private partnership. Make sure your nonprofit has the time, resources and energy to devote to this process.
Nonprofits play an important role in public-private partnerships and, through them, can be a powerful force for impact in both the public and private sector. Consider them a way to potentially further your mission, better serve your constituents and work across sectors to have an outsized positive impact.
The preceding press release was provided by a company unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of the staff of NonProfit PRO.
Celeste Frye, AICP, is co-founder and CEO of Public Works Partners LLC, a certified Women's Business Enterprise, Disadvantaged Business Enterprise and Small Business Enterprise planning and consulting firm, specializing in multi-stakeholder initiatives and building strong connections across the nonprofit, government and private sectors.