In Era Of Government Scarcity, Public-Private Partnerships Bridge Community Needs

Eric Tanenblatt

Thursday, July 5th, 2018

By Eric Tanenblatt and Rick Jackson

Solving problems like poverty, or inequities in housing, education or healthcare, is an expensive undertaking, and the gap between what’s required and what’s actually available, especially from public resource pools, is dramatic and widening.

With every passing day, the social and economic problems facing local communities grow steeper, even as governments’ capacity to functionally address them shrinks. Indeed, some of our nation’s most persistent social ills have persisted for generations, and not for lack of trying.

But as resource scarcity increasingly defines a government’s willingness and capacity to engage, a new solution mode has emerged that lessens the burden on the public sector by leveraging the innovation and agility of the private sector.

Those of us in Atlanta, which recently hosted the world’s largest service-focused conference, are no stranger to public-private partnerships, as they are responsible for some of the capital city’s most defining destinations, including the bustling Atlanta Beltline project and the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Yet the utility of these much-talked-about arrangements, which blend the resources and know-how of the government, business, and philanthropic sectors, goes far beyond just building bridges and stadiums. Increasingly, they’ve come to define how we address (and solve) some of our greatest problems.

Consider Georgia, which received more than $26 million last year through public-private partnerships initiated by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that administers the AmeriCorps programs. Complementing that huge investment, which was funded from a variety of public and private sources, was the dedicated, full-time service of more than 3,100 Americans working to expand economic opportunity at more than 500 sites across the state.

Working in concert with local public agencies and community and faith-based nonprofits, CNCS leveraged millions of dollars in outside, private contributions to super-charge Georgia’s schools and veteran care centers, food banks and health clinics, youth centers and jobs training programs.

Teaching a child to read, or helping a physically or emotionally wounded veteran readjust to life after service are life-altering initiatives and, increasingly, these efforts are made possible through the generosity of private businesses.

Engaging business not only injects new money into the equation, but an enthusiasm and clinical precision that is so often lacking in the public sector. Programs funded by CNCS, for example, are subject to market forces in a way that the failed, bloated government programs of the past never were, because only initiatives deemed worthy by the private sector are greenlighted.

Leveraging private capital, including business, philanthropic and community agency sources, creates stakeholders and, ultimately, new layers of accountability. In Georgia, CNCS was able to generate $11.2 million in outside resource to aid the work of groups like Catholic Charities of USA, Georgia 4-H, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Food Corps, Teach for America, Lutheran Services of Georgia, Hunger Free America and YouthBuild.

When Points of Light convened its annual conference—drawing thousands of civic, philanthropic, business, and government leaders to Atlanta to discuss the evolving challenges and landscape of social problems—the big question was how best to align the unique expertise and resources of businesses and community groups.

It makes sense that Points of Light, the international service organization that was borne of President George H. W. Bush’s famous “thousand points of light” speech, would have such a discussion in Georgia, where local businesses of all sizes have set the gold standard for giving back.

With a shared belief that giving back is good not only for the communities they serve, but ultimately also their own bottom lines, Georgia businesses came together last year to launch goBeyondProfit, a first-of-its-kind initiative to extol and encourage corporate generosity of all kinds.

The effort, which we launched together as founding chairman and board member, is all about finding creative ways to align unique business models with community needs, such as Southern Sprinklers’ annual in-kind gift to Arlington National Cemetery.

For 15 years now, this Roswell-based small business has foot the bill for its staff and their family to travel to Washington, DC to repair the iconic military cemetery’s aging irrigation system, which is beyond the site’s resource capacity and specialty.

Then there’s Jackson Healthcare, which leveraged its business model to create a not-for-profit organization to connect underserved children with doctors through telemedicine and other emerging technologies, or Dentons, the global law firm that devoted in excess $375,000 in pro bono legal and public policy services to help organize the much-need revitalization of Atlanta’s Westside neighborhoods.

The blended finance model of public-private partnerships is helping to meet the needs of today’s complex social problems in ways that are good for both businesses and government.

As Bernie Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot who joined us as a founding ambassador of goBeyondProfit,  recently observed in a column for Fox Business, “We learned that giving back in a deliberate, thoughtful way helped grow our business by making it a place that attracted and retained both talent and customers.” Giving back “can hurt,” he added, “[b]ut going beyond profit was the best business decision we ever made.”

Business has always been a force for good in our world, because a good-paying job is the best social program, and pairing their commercial creativity and expertise with effective community and government initiatives only magnifies their positive impact.

Georgia businesses understand that we don’t need big government budgets to fix social problems, only big hearts and clear vision.