Public Private Partnerships

No one can do this work alone

“Having a public and private set of cohort members proved to me invaluable. You can't build next generation organizations, whether in the public sector or the private sector without recognizing that the work is done together. It's certainly not siloed on its impact in community.” – Tracy Wareing Evans, NextGen Advisor

Given the critical role public sector agencies play in the human service sector, Kresge intentionally funded and engaged both public and private agencies in the second cohort of the NextGen Initiative. The second cohort included a cross-section of ten organizations (5 public agencies and 5 nonprofits) that reflect the complex and diverse human services ecosystem – organizations span public agencies and nonprofit and community-based organizations, work across a range of intersectional issues (e.g. child welfare, criminal justice, education, healthcare), and leverage distinct pathways and strategies to advance social and economic mobility. No one agency or sector can do this work alone and the Initiative was designed to support create synergistic learning and collaboration within ecosystems and across geographies

To advance social and economic mobility, both sectors must honor the agency and dignity of the people and communities they serve by building systems and cross-sector partnerships that work for people. This is what the Human Services Value Curve refers to as “generative partnership” – when public and private sectors work within a “more agile, solutions-oriented relationship” focused on a goal bigger than collaborating on a single initiative, their potential impact is transformative. You also “gain access to additional perspectives and insights necessary to help all of us understand root causes of the nation’s tough societal issues, and systemically address the causes of stressors facing families and communities.”  By creating a cohort that is representative of the types of organizations and stakeholders within the human services field, Kresge created space to explore what it means to “have partners row in the same direction” and what enabling conditions allow public and private agencies to be in generative partnership. 

Throughout the NextGen learning journey, cohort members were in constant conversation with their peers from public and private sectors, including a webinar co-designed with Advisory Board Member Tracy Wareing Evans, President and CEO of the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA), specifically on public-private partnership. Throughout these learning opportunities, cohort members were able to reflect on their own experiences working in public-private partnerships, surface motivations for partnerships, discuss common obstacles, and make the case for how these partnerships can.

Key Takeaways and Insights

Guiding Questions

As part of the NextGen learning journey, some of the questions explored surrounding public-private partnerships include the following. Please keep these in mind as you read through the key insights and takeaways:

  • What role does cross-sector partnership play in advancing social and economic mobility? What does it look like when this work is done well?
  • What can private and public agencies learn from each other and how can they work together?
  • What are key enablers to public-private partnerships? What challenges exist?

Shifting Assumptions and Mindsets

The NextGen cohort reflected substantial variation with regard to conditions, context, and readiness for public-private partnerships across the country. At the first Leadership Academy, a couple of cohort members initially voiced uncertainty around how public and private cohort members could benefit from a shared learning space. Some nonprofit and community-based organizations, in particular, had not experienced public sector agencies with innovation and flexibility and wanted to learn more about how they could work together. However, it didn’t take much time for cohort members to come to the realization that bringing both sectors together is critical to this work. One nonprofit leader stated, “I’m going to be looking for [public] allies now rather than expecting adversaries in my meetings.” Another said, “This opportunity was a chance for me to be amongst governmental human service organizations who I may have a bias toward...why not try to synergize with them to make things work better for the community?”

Siloed ways of working have led to long held beliefs and an “us vs. them” mentality that often limits human service organizations’ ability to work across sectors. One advisory board member validated cohort members’ initial reservations and uncertainty by stating, “whether you are a community-based organization that has chosen not to receive [public] funding because you think it’s going to be too bureaucratic, or whether you sit in the public sector and you’ve had exchanges with community based organizations that feels off from what you’re trying to accomplish” these assumptions and mindsets are often one of the first obstacles to public-private partnerships. Conversations throughout the course of the NextGen learning journey showed how shifting mindsets is an essential first step when building capacity for public-private partnerships. One advisory board member called these “breakthrough moments” that help leaders across sectors “stand in each other’s shoes, see vantage points differently, and open up new conversations.” Ultimately, cohort members spoke to the importance of shifting from transactional, contract-based relationships to relationships built on partnership and mutual respect. The development of case studies (link) provided cohort members the opportunity for these types of breakthrough moments; the presentation of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services Case Study, in particular, provided an opportunity for the cohort to see how one public agency reformed operations and ways of working to improve outcomes for customers across their human service system.

“I hope there are opportunities for us to share with our local government the models that are do I inspire my county to do what some [public agencies] are doing in this room?” -NextGen Cohort Member

Leveraging each Sector’s Strengths

Public-private partnerships require identifying and leveraging the distinct strengths of each institution. When working together, organizations must clearly define roles and figure out how to maximize impact by having the right people focused on the right things. As Wareing-Evans and Dreyfus put it, “when you commit to a generative partnership, you will more fully leverage each other’s assets, expend existing resources more efficiently, and spur innovation and adaptive solutions, which actually generate new resources.” For example, community-based organizations often have more flexibility with their funding to test out new approaches to advancing social and economic mobility, but public agencies often have the resources to sustain services at scale – together, these strengths can be leveraged for transformative impact. Allegheny County Department of Human Services is one cohort member that is advancing public-private partnerships by leveraging the strengths of community-based organizations, local foundations, healthcare providers/insurers, and contracted employees to comprehensively meet the needs of the communities they serve. For example, almost all their work, particularly in their Office of Community Services, happens through contracts with community-based organizations. They also have several staff hired by third party contractors, which gives them additional flexibility in hiring in comparison to only staffing with county positions. A partnership with two major managed care organizations led to data sharing agreements that are supporting a collaboration on how to collaboratively address social determinants of health. Further, the pandemic provided new opportunities for strengthened partnerships, including a large collaboration that was created to address childcare for school age children when schools were closed – Allegheny DHS and several partners joined forces to fund 65 community learning hubs serving over 1,000 children every day.

“So much of this is systems work; we don’t have all the pieces. We collaborate with the city the state, and non-profits to develop our strategy. We’ve continued work breaking down silos – in our department, county, or the sub-systems we all work on.” – NextGen Cohort Member

Identifying Shared Values and Building Trust

To work towards generative partnership, public and private organizations must agree upon a shared vision for their work and nurture positive and authentic relationships among stakeholders. The ability to build trust and establish strong community partnerships is a strength that many cohort members share, with more than half of cohort members identifying partnership and collaboration as their key “enabler” in advancing social and economic mobility. One advisory board member explained that the NextGen Initiative created a space where both sectors could identify those shared values and build trust: “So much of our world is structured in a way where similar organizations have to compete with each other. [NextGen] is not a competitive framework, but one set up for cooperation.”

During the NextGen Webinar on public-private partnerships, cohort members were asked to reflect on a cross-sector partnership they were involved with, specifically what motivated the partnership and what shared values public and private partners operated under. Cohort members shared motivations like “serving the same population,” “understanding that we can’t [achieve] our goals without working together,” “a need to improve customer outcomes,” and “a shared understanding of community needs.” During the webinar the group also heard about the partnership between Olmsted County Community Services and Family Service Rochester. See below for a deeper dive into this public-private partnership and what they’ve accomplished together over the past 15 years

“So much of our work [as a public agency] happens through these nonprofit agencies... I do think we have some level of trust with the community that helped at this time.” – Amy Malen, Allegheny County Department of Human Services

Addressing Inherent Challenges

There are numerous challenges that get in the way of public and private agencies working together. During the NextGen Initiative, cohort members had the opportunity to reflect on some of these inherent challenges and explore solutions and opportunities for new ways of working. Some barriers to cross-sector partnership that were discussed included: limited funding and/or willingness of public agencies to implement innovative changes that community-based organizations are surfacing, a lack of interoperability between public and private data platforms that would support shared planning and learning, limited and inconsistent feedback loops between community members, public agencies, and private partners, and conflicting program requirements across different agencies. During the pandemic, both sectors had to address these challenges and shift ways of working overnight to meet urgent community needs. In the past two years, cohort members named how this moment helped accelerate a culture of collaboration while achieving policy changes that previously lacked political willpower (for example, Olmsted County was able to close their juvenile detention center, Washington State suspended TANF time limits, and Mary’s Center was able to pay for telehealth). As one cohort member said, "some of the changes that have been made, they've been advocating for these for over 10 years, a decade, and the changes happen overnight." The question moving forward will be what innovations from this moment can be retained and strengthened coming out of the pandemic?

One challenge both public and private cohort members discussed throughout the course of the NextGen Initiative was the “benefits cliff,” which refers to the decrease or complete loss of public benefits that can occur with a client’s small increase in income. This can cause families to lose some or all economic supports[1] and if the loss of benefits outpace a wage increase many families lose progress towards social and economic mobility[2]. Martha O’Bryan Center is one cohort member that is part of a public-private partnership working to explore this challenge. Specifically, in January 2021 they began discussions with a public agency, Metropolitan Development and Housing to bring their Family Success Network model to all eight public housing communities in Nashville. One of the shared challenges they wanted to address together was the negative effects of the benefits cliff on social and economic mobility. As a result of this work, Martha O’Bryan Center and Metropolitan Development and Housing are now building a much larger collaborative (including the Nashville Chamber of Commerce and several other human-service organizations) to scale their work and explore this issue.

[1] Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), school nutrition programs, health care, child care assistance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and housing


Case Study: Olmsted County Community Services and Family Service Rochester

Olmsted County Services cited their partnership with the private nonprofit Family Service Rochester as “one of the most significant public-private partnerships in our work” and that they have “relied on shared values of trust, respect, and transparency” to build a strong working relationship. Intentionally building a relationship rooted in trust has allowed both entities to be honest when there are challenges, so they are able to problem solve together.

  • About the Partnership: Olmsted County and Family Service Rochester partner together on over 10 programs serving different populations in their community. Their most notable and longstanding partnership is through the PACE (Parents & Children Excel) Program, which was developed in response to the disproportionate number of African American families and other families of color in the child protection system. The program has six social workers, five from Family Services Rochester and one public agency staff. To support integration, all staff have the same supervisor and are co-located in the Olmsted County public agency building. Co-location creates the opportunity for all staff to be treated equally and have equitable access to the same resources (e.g. technology, group consultation, county funding to use with clients, agency wide training opportunities).
  • What motivated the partnership. The motivation for the partnership was both agencies common goal of supporting families and addressing the disproportionate number of kids of color that were being referred to their “deeper end services.” The program works with all children of color between the ages of 7 and 14 who have attendance and academics issues in school or behavior problems at home, school or community and intent to help keep families out of deeper end services, both in child protection and corrections. The partnership also supports flexible hiring. As a community-based agency, Family Service Rochester does not deal with the restrictions or “red tape” that a public agency might face during the hiring process. Family Service Rochester was intentional and creative in their hiring process and hired a team of diverse and qualified staff that can work with clients in culturally responsive ways. Braided funding opportunities also helped motivate this partnership. PACE was able to get funding through various mechanisms that wouldn’t have been available without the collaboration between both entities – this braided funding helped support a specific mentoring component of the program.
  • Values that guide the work. Staff shared that the core values that guide the partnership are trust, mutual respect, and transparency. Trust has been built through intentional relationships between staff at all levels and ensuring FSR has a seat at Olmsted’s decision-making tables. For example, one supervisor attends weekly team meetings with all the county child and family managers. Further, FSR contributes to the county’s strategic plan and other county-wide initiatives and learning cohorts, like the NextGen Initiative. Further a FSR supervisor helps lead the county department’s DEI efforts, showing the true integration and trust that has developed across both agencies.
  • Advancing social and economic mobility. This public-private partnership has enabled staff to utilize the strengths of both agencies to deeply understand and address community needs and has inspired the belief that “we can do more together than we can do separately.” A value that has developed across both organizations is the desire to take the time “to understand and address the root cause” of what is causing inequities in their community. Preliminary results from an external evaluation show that children and families that participate in PACE are less likely to enter the counties deeper end child protective services, as well as preliminary data that shows significant cost savings of early intervention services.
Participant Testimonials

What progress has your organization made
in the past two years?

“During the 2020-2021 school year, 100% of students in our Child Development Associate and Medical Assistant programs passed their credentialing exams, preparing them for employment.”

The Mary Center for Maternal and Child Care and Briya Public Charter School