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Public-Private Partnerships: Lessons Learned by the Washington Families Fund

Foundations are often invited to join public-private partnerships, but do they really work? 

Foundations are often invited to join public-private partnerships, but do they really work? How do you effectively manage the desires and expectations of both public and private funders and still achieve results? Can partnerships be replicated in other communities?

Increasingly, people have asked for our perspective because of our role in creating and implementing the Washington Families Fund, a partnership launched in 2004 to address family homelessness in Washington State.

Recently, with support from the Oak Foundation, we created two documents: a case study that tells the story of how it all came together and a separate compilation of recommendations for leading a public-private partnership. While we believe that every partnership has its unique “sauce” that makes it work, we hope our reflections in these two documents will benefit others around the country.

In particular:

  • We hope that public and private funders consider our approach to covering costs: requiring multi-year investments and a pre-determined amount to technical assistance, evaluation, and administration from every investor.
  • We’ve also evolved our thinking on training and consulting, e.g. keeping trainings voluntary and supporting peer-to-peer networks.
  • We are especially proud of how we used evaluation to evolve our grantmaking strategy, such as increasing our focus on improving interventions for “high-needs” families.

Led by our agency, Building Changes, the Washington Families Fund has, over the past eight years, become a foundational element of Washington State’s strategy for ending homelessness. It began with the state government and 13 private funders pooling $5 million, and today features 25 funding partners that have jointly combined nearly $30 million. In that same time, the Fund has increased the housing and economic stability of 1,750 families, including more than 3,000 children, across the state.

In 2009, we expanded the Washington Families Fund to include intensive systems-change work in our state’s three largest counties, King, Pierce, and Snohomish. Look forward to our ongoing reflection on the “sauce” of our evolving public-private partnership here in Washington State.

Alice Shobe is executive director and Betsy Lieberman is emeritus executive director of Building Changes in Seattle, Washington.

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