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Municipal Collaborations: Doing More with Less

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I recently reviewed regional homelessness action plans as part of a project I’m working on in Maine for Penquis, a community action program.  I was struck by how many plans called for improved coordination of existing resources and services as a strategy, and for enhancing and expanding partnerships as a tactic.

Increased engagement with municipal and county government (which I’m going to refer to collectively as local government) is often cited as a key target partner.  In Alabama, the plan calls for “an innovative partnership across federal, state and local levels.”  In Northeast Michigan, the plan seeks to “expand engagement with nontraditional partners” including the municipalities in the service area.  In Western Massachusetts, the plan proposes to “work with a broad range of partners” including local government to “generally maximize available resources.”

...[O]ne impact of this trend on local government is that its importance as a partner to the [private and nonprofit] sectors has increased.

The necessity to “do more with less” in today’s constrained economy appears to be a driver, but many think that something more fundamental is going on: that there’s a shift in the historical boundaries among the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.  This trend—known as blurring—is impacting all three sectors.  Some, such as Amy Lavine, propose that there is now a “fourth sector,” which has emerged as an “alternative framework.” In any case, one impact of this trend on local government is that its importance as a partner to the other two sectors has increased.

Private and Nonprofit Sectors Step In, Blend

Political and economic shifts over the last 35 or so years have caused many public-sector services to be reduced or eliminated. In some instances, these services have been privatized and shifted to the for-profit sector.  More often, the nonprofit sector has tried to fill the gaps. Asked to provide increased services with decreased funding, nonprofits have become more rigorously business-like.  Meanwhile, for both altruistic and marketing reasons, many businesses have become more socially focused. 

In the arena of social entrepreneurship—the development of for-profit businesses with an underlying social objective—for-profit and nonprofit roles often converge.  Two recent examples from my own experience: (1) I worked with a nonprofit in the Midwest that runs two substantial businesses that provide employment for their clients; and (2) I was hired by a large corporation to secure grant funds for nonprofits to purchase the company’s equipment, much needed by these organizations.

The concept of blurring has been discussed for some time.  James E. Austin, head of the Harvard Business School's Initiative on Social Enterprise, began publishing on this topic early in the last decade, stating that "we’ll see the stark differences between NPOs and businesses diminish, revealing a new world of integrated, rather than independent, sectors."

A 2009 LaPiana Consulting study, Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector, includes a lengthy discussion on the ways in which “sector boundaries are blurring.”

A sector-blind competitive environment is emerging where Wall Street investment houses compete with local United Ways and community foundations for donor-directed funds and a growing emphasis on corporate social responsibility means that social virtue is no longer perceived as exclusive to the nonprofit brand. Meanwhile, as donor demands for accountability and evidence of impact intensify, regulations that once preserved the unique role of nonprofits are coming under fire...This blurring of sector boundaries creates opportunities for a growing number of public-private and corporate-nonprofit collaborations....

Innovative Local Government Partnerships

Let me offer several examples of innovative local government partnerships in this new blurred environment.   

The following are from Maine, all recent projects of Shrum Associates, a local firm with which I am associated.

  • In Rockport, several businesses needed sewer and water extensions in order for them to grow and expand.  Through a partnership between the town and the businesses, they were able to leverage federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds that would not otherwise have been available.
  • In neighboring Rockland, the nonprofit Economic Development Corporation partnered with the municipality on a business loan program.  The municipality runs the program, while the nonprofit provides technical assistance to help business owners prepare financial statements and the loan application itself.
  • In the same county (Knox), a wide range of community organizations and providers came together to work on a feasibility study for establishing a federally qualified health center.  A representative from Rockland, the county’s largest town, was not only at the table, but provided in-kind support, such as meeting space, data, and staff resources to support the initiative.
  • To stimulate job growth, a local tribal government in Western Maine developed a business plan for a natural resource-based start-up with support from a nonprofit economic development agency.
....[M]y personal experience suggests there may be a greater number of such collaborations in rural areas [than in urban areas].

Are these projects outliers or limited to New England?  No, although my personal experience suggests there may be a greater number of such collaborations in rural areas.  Still, there are many urban examples, of which here are two:

  • The City of San Jose, California, and San Jose State University needed new libraries.  Instead of building two, they collaborated and built the Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Library, the first such joint use library in the United States.
  • The Northern New Jersey Community Foundation is sponsoring an eight town cultural district planning pilot project in Bergen County. The project builds on cultural asset mapping currently underway to formally identify and classify the rich array of resources in the area.  By focusing on eight of the municipalities in Bergen County that have expressed a particular interest in collaborative arts and culture development, the project seeks to establish a viable model that can be replicated throughout Bergen County and beyond.

Mirja P. Hanson, Ed. D., a colleague at Millennia Consulting, a Chicago firm with which I am affiliated, reports the following notable collaborations in Minnesota:

  • In Itasca County, a range of stakeholders including the municipality of Grand Rapids planned and implemented an educational leadership initiative.  Outcomes included enhanced educational effectiveness, and strengthening early childhood education opportunities in the area.
  • In the Mesabi Iron Range, the Laurentian Vision Mining Reclamation Partnership, a consortium of landowners, private mining interests, municipalities, utility concerns, the state government, academics, environmentalists, and others has been working for more than ten years to balance mining operations with the sustainable use of land and natural resources.  A key outcome has been a regional mine land database used by local communities and organizations in multi-use land planning.  This has produced new opportunities for integrating mining, transportation, resource protection, and residential development in creative and practical ways.

We all hope that the economy will improve, thus easing the burdens on all three sectors.  If current trends continue, we may not be returning to things as they were but rather going forward to things as they’ve become.  Have you observed blurring in your professional environment, and how has it impacted your work?

About the Author

David Rappoport

David Steven Rappoport, M.S., M.A., Senior Consultant, Millennia Consulting in Chicago, and Principal, Shrum Associates in Maine, can be contacted at Rappoport@ConsultMillennia.com. He works nationally with nonprofits, businesses, local and regional government agencies, and philanthropies to help them move forward with community health care and economic development projects. Typically, his focus is on the background work for complex funding proposals, and on writing the proposals themselves.

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