How city leaders can develop, manage and maintain strategic partnerships
Over the past year, city leaders have faced extraordinary challenges including social unrest, a divided political environment, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession. With conflicting guidelines and mixed messages on a federal level, state and city leaders have been forced to take on these challenges on their own, while tackling unique problems within their own communities. Now more than ever, the pandemic and economic crisis have exacerbated the need for municipal leaders to collaborate with other sectors including nonprofit, business, and philanthropy.
The power of public-private collaboration
No community depends solely on its government leaders; they are reliant on a network of public, private, and nonprofit entities to meet basic needs and the unique challenges of their residents. As cities grow and rapidly change, collaborating with private and nonprofit sectors can enable local governments to react quickly and more effectively to these changes, from providing food vendor services in underserved areas to enhancing access to public transportation. Management of cross-sector partnerships can be daunting for any city leader, but below are some insights and lessons based on our work with dozens of cities across the world on how to develop and maintain these relationships.
Create the foundation
Creating a solid foundation is essential to any strategic partnership. Successful cross-sector collaborations are more likely when the targeted problems are well-defined and attainable benchmarks are established. This process is always strengthened by engaging stakeholders to develop a more holistic perspective of the challenges at hand and produce a more accurate problem statement. Public challenges cannot be fully understood or addressed, particularly in communities of color and with historically marginalized populations, without a shared understanding of language, value of culture and history, and meaningful involvement of diverse community members.
Additionally, it is important to understand any past efforts to help set the stage for a new strategy and anticipate obstacles a project may face. Leaders must consider challenges related to political dynamics among stakeholders, resources such as personnel and key structures, and the ability to come together around specific requirements and outcomes. External partners may also have different priorities and approaches than that of city government, which should be acknowledged at the outset.
Know your assets
In addition to defining needs and considering how strategic partnerships can benefit your city, it is imperative to assess the available resources that can be leveraged. Assets can include tangible resources, such as infrastructure, land, financial assets, and staff, as well as assets related to expertise and relevant technical skills. Having examined both assets and relevant resource gaps, leaders begin partnerships with a clearer vision of the existing capacities, as well as those needed for collaboration. It helps to identify these obstacles early so that partners may pursue work that recognizes but moves beyond these constraints.
For example, in response to the pandemic and social distancing measures, cities across the globe utilized public streets and sidewalks, reimagining them as spaces for recreation, outdoor dining, and other activities. The Fresh Air Fund, with philanthropic support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Ford Foundation, and the JPB Foundation, partnered with the City of New York to provide safe community spaces and programming for children on closed streets. The initiative, called Summer Spaces, recognized the toll of the pandemic, particularly in low-income communities of color, and the need to bring targeted services into these neighborhoods.
The ultimate success of a partnership often depends on champions, in and outside of government, who are passionate about the mission and can engage other stakeholders in the process. At the outset of a project, it is especially important for the mayor and key stakeholders to catalyze action and serve as advocates for a project.
Mayors have the ability to set the political agenda, work across different government agencies and with external partners, and create the environment necessary to drive change. While the mayor can help catalyze activity, the day-today decision making will need to be driven by others. As such, deputizing effective leaders and institutions is crucial. Many cities, such as Denver, Detroit, New York, and Fort Collins, have dedicated positions to oversee and manage cross-sector partnerships on behalf of their mayor’s office.
Partner and overcome
Cities with effective and resilient cross-sector collaboration often have reliable champions in the nonprofit and philanthropic communities. Local and place-based funders can serve as steady advocates for partnerships and a source of consistent fiscal support through changing political climates. Community-based organizations not only deliver essential services and programming but are helping cities design and deploy new policies and programs with a unique understanding of resident needs.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, municipal leaders have increasingly teamed up with private and nonprofit sectors in new and creative ways to protect and better support their communities. Technology access, food supply systems, financial assistance, and vaccine distribution are just some of the critical areas being bolstered through strategic partnerships. And importantly, city leaders are working to address social determinants of health disparities highlighted by the pandemic in low-income areas and communities of color. While each city’s challenges are unique, we hope the new Collaborative Cities guide produced by Bloomberg Philanthropies will help efforts to navigate and sustain effective public-private collaboration.
Megan Sheekey leads Strategic Partnerships for Bloomberg Associates (BA), the philanthropic consulting arm of Michael R. Bloomberg’s charitable organization, Bloomberg Philanthropies. Founded in 2014, BA works side by side with client cities to improve the quality of life for residents, taking a strategic, collaborative and results-oriented approach to make cities stronger, safer, more equitable and efficient. Bloomberg Philanthropies invests in more than 570 cities and over 160 countries around the world to ensure better, longer lives for the greatest number of people. The organization focuses on five key areas for creating lasting change: the Arts, Education, Environment, Government Innovation and Public Health.