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September 30, 2010 / nick geisinger

Ralph Smith: Don’t let energy, imagination, and innovation go to waste

Ralph Smith is executive vice president for the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a member of President Obama’s advisory committee on philanthropy. He spoke Tuesday to members of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers about what new large-scale federal programs—such as Promise Neighborhoods, the Social Innovation Fund, or the Investing in Innovation Fund—mean for local philanthropy.

Among the takeaways from Ralph Smith’s presentation about public-private partnerships was a point about the proposals that don’t receive funding:

Citing a long history of public-private partnerships under previous administrations, Smith noted that the relationship has recently changed, moving from aligned/complementary funding into co-funding.

“The match requirement,” observed Smith, “brings us into a new phase of our relationship.”

By setting the match requirement high enough that no single foundation could meet it, the administration all but required foundations to collaborate. “I have had more conversations with peer foundations about grantees in the last two months than in the last five years,” said Smith.

But in Smith’s view, the match requirement was not really about money; it was a way for the administration to capture philanthropy’s attention and to keep it. In effect, philanthropy is being invited to join an effort to create a market for the best and most promising ideas; that, in itself, says Smith, could prove to be a major breakthrough.

Since foundations are free to experiment in ways that the public sector cannot, one grantmaker in attendance questioned the wisdom of partnering with a large bureaucracy in the pursuit of innovation. Smith said that before we can advocate the cutting of red tape, philanthropy has plenty of work of its own to do in that area.

“You have six foundations co-funding, supporting a single i3 grantee,” said Smith. “Are we really going to require six reports?”


Oct. 21: Workshop: Streamlining the Grant Process
Paperwork vs. Progress: The Case for Streamlining (WG Daily)
Opportunities for Impact: Big Federal Programs and Place-Based Strategies (WG Daily)

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