Success Through Collaboration

With the right focus, the right team and an ongoing commitment to the project and the partnership, the public and private sectors can join forces to tackle even the most vexing challenges facing large, urban municipalities.

In San Francisco, the shared vision of three brothers became a $45 million citywide effort to improve athletic fields for youth sports.

For the past six years, the City Fields Foundation and the Recreation and Parks Department have worked together to address a chronic shortfall of public fields for local kids.

Now, after renovating a dozen athletic fields in six parks, reorganizing the sports-permit system, and negotiating a joint-use agreement with the local school district, this project has added 66,000 hours of new play time for city kids, and is close to eliminating the deficit of youth play spaces.

As a result, 1,800 more kids are playing ball in the city’s parks.

But there were plenty of bumps in the road. Both agencies learned valuable lessons that have made the partnership and other projects more successful.

Here are some suggestions for joining forces for a similar endeavor:

Be your partner’s best advocate and toughest critic.

The public sector needs more than money; it needs outside support, perspective and expertise.

At the same time, the private sector needs to understand the competing demands on a public agency, and must support that group in negotiating solutions. No matter how noble people’s intentions, some folks are going to oppose any proposal as many have differing views on how to use city parks.

Honest and direct internal dialogue is the best way to prepare for external challenges. Ask tough questions. Respect one another’s perspective and concerns. Demand solid deliverables.

Above all, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want as long as you are willing to help achieve it.

Be true partners.

Both sectors have preconceived notions about each other that are easily dispelled by simply putting information on the table. Each group must be willing to operate at both 30,000 feet and delve deeply into details. By making collaborative decisions, both sides will learn the other’s strengths, weaknesses, hopes and fears.

Before making a decision, be sure to ask whether the partner organization agrees. If not, give a call or shoot off an e-mail. If your overtures and the other organization’s responses aren’t short and simple, take the time to talk it through. The more you work together, the more you’ll be able to anticipate and understand each other’s perspectives.

(Don’t worry about taking credit--the work will speak for itself.)

Partnerships are difficult work.

Take the long view, and accept that you don’t always have to be right (even when you are).

Remain flexible on funding.

Long-term, trusting partnerships should collaborate to make projects as cost-efficient as possible and have ample time to make sure all parties meet their obligations.

Given most cities’ contracting and purchasing processes, private donors can often procure materials and services faster and cheaper, and should be willing to do so if it will significantly increase cost-efficiency. (Just make sure the city picks up more costs for another portion of the project.)

Be patient and impatient.

Everything takes longer in local government. All decisions receive lengthy deliberation in the philanthropic community. Expect this behavior from both sides and know that it will change over time with experience and trust.

The public partner is accustomed to and naturally moves at a city’s slow, bureaucratic pace. A philanthropic gift may motivate the other side to move faster. There will be some resistance and some doubt, especially at the staff level. Don’t hesitate to politely ask upper management to move things along. After the boss calls a few times, staff will pick up the tempo.

A philanthropic partner wants to affect long-term change even though there are immediate needs. The organization may also want to focus on a narrow subset of constituents, even though the agency serves an entire city. Help the philanthropy understand the systems, services and constraints so it doesn’t get overly frustrated and walk away. The easiest way is to start small and build on success.

Be popular and make new friends.

Focus entirely on the positive aspects of the project and what you are trying to accomplish. Accept support without offering to reciprocate on issues not directly related to making the project a success.

Share the kudos with partners and reward everyone who participates. People want to feel appreciated and will stay involved as long as they have meaningful work that is recognized.

The community wants to participate in large civic projects, and it is incumbent on the partnership to capitalize on this interest and generosity. The more people who feel a degree of “ownership” of the project, the stronger the project will be. Use a project’s popularity to draw skills and resources from disparate groups, and incorporate them into the project in a useful way. This may require more work, but will expand and strengthen community support and likely produce a better project.

Encourage everyone interested in a project to ask questions and share concerns, as well as provide ideas and advice about projects, city parks, athletics, philanthropy and kids.

This includes neighbors, sports leagues, city supervisors, parents and even the folks opposed to projects. Being open, accepting and available allows both organizations the opportunity to hear directly from people offering kudos and concerns, and use that information to build better projects.

By accepting all ideas and offers of help, one can identify supporters and build a database. Communicate with those individuals or groups regularly. They need to follow the project as it progresses so they are willing, informed and available when they are needed to testify at city hall, speak at a neighborhood meeting, or answer a reporter’s questions.

Don’t rely only on e-mail blasts. Find reasons to talk to constituents about specific issues and projects. Put faces to names and let them do the same. An in-person handshake is still the best way to start a friendship and build a network.

Do the right thing.

Philanthropic ventures are meant to be “good works.” Never, ever take a shortcut or cede the moral high ground; otherwise, the motives behind the public-private partnership will be questioned and support will wane.

It’s much better to do the right thing than to repair the wrong thing. When in doubt, ask, “Is this the right thing to do, and are we doing it the right way?” Gut instincts will provide the answer.

Susan Hirsch is a philanthropic advisor and director of the City Fields Foundation (

Phil Ginsburg is the general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department ( If you are interested in receiving a case study about the Playfields Initiative, please e-mail