Elected officials, philanthropic organizations, and the new child protection office in Los Angeles County are all moving forward on a plan to put one person in charge of securing grants and donations targeted at preventing child maltreatment and improving outcomes for vulnerable children and families.
More specifically, they are trying to create and fund a new position—philanthropy liaison—within the recently formed Office of Child Protection (OCP). This person would serve as a bridge between the numerous county agencies involved in child welfare and the charitable foundations interested in funding improvements in these areas.
L.A. County Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Keuhl presented a motion requesting the OCP to establish a philanthropy liaison on June 16, which passed unanimously.
Their motion states that public-private partnerships have been used effectively by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Department of Education, the state of Michigan, and in cities like Denver and Newark.
“It’s time for L.A. County to join the club,” Solis said in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change.
Solis said she envisions the philanthropy liaison securing funds that would be used largely for conducting research and finding new solutions to difficult problems such as how to protect children from abuse, assist children who have experienced trauma in foster care, get more adults to become foster parents and prevent sex trafficking.
Solis said she anticipates the county paying $150,000 with charitable foundations providing matching funds to pay for this proposal.
Aileen Adams, a senior adviser to Solis, said that the county’s funds and matching funds would not merely pay for the philanthropy liaison’s salary, but to fund a three- or four-person office, which could include a deputy director and secretary.
Adams also noted that $150,000 is only an estimate and the OCP has been asked to create salary proposals.
The idea of having a philanthropy liaison was recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection in its 2014 report, which scored numerous headlines for decrying the county’s child welfare system as being “in a state of emergency.”
One of its 163 recommendations was to create the OCP and appoint a director tasked with creating a unified child protection system in L.A. County. One of the director’s more specific responsibilities would be to oversee county-wide prevention efforts, in part by “reaching out to the philanthropic community and building partnerships to improve the child protection system.”
“The power of public-private partnerships has been under-utilized by the county to date and should be an important strategy for improving services,” the report states.
The OCP, led by Interim Director Fesia Davenport, began operating in February. Solis and Kuehl’s motion directed Davenport to come up with options for establishing a philanthropy liaison, identify funding for the position, and report back to the board after 60 days with estimated costs and timeframes.
The motion was created after regional philanthropic leaders proposed that the establishment of a philanthropy liaison within OCP in a letter sent to the Board on June 1. The letter was written by executives from Southern California Grantmakers and the Weingart Foundation, and it was endorsed by 10 major foundations, according to the motion.
“It’s a public-private partnership concept that seems to be gaining momentum,” said Chris Essel, CEO of Southern California Grantmakers, which represents and supports foundations throughout the region. “We’re very excited about it. It’s something that will ultimately make a much bigger difference than if we all kept working in our silos.”
Formal collaboration between philanthropies and local governments does not have an extensive history. Bloomberg Philanthropies remains the most high-profile example of the involvement of foundations in local government. In 2011, Bloomberg’s organization provided grants to five cities with the goal of helping mayors’ offices in those cities use data-driven strategies from the private sector to encourage more effective and efficient practices in city-selected policy areas.
In 2007, Newark became the first city to feature a position paid for by a foundation. Under the administration of former Mayor Cory Booker, the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers hired Jeremy Johnson to serve as a liaison between Newark and the philanthropic community.
Johnson has raised tens of millions of dollars for public safety, education reform, workforce development and economic development initiatives in the city; and his position was retained by new Mayor Ras Baraka last year.
While the number of public-private partnerships has increased in recent years, significant challenges remain. A 2012 report authored by James Ferris of the USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy called attention to potential difficulties for foundations operating in public sectors with different transparency and accountability rules. And the sustainability of new foundation-driven initiatives is a continuing question for most philanthropic collaborations with local government.
Davenport said in a recent interview that she fully supports the idea. When she was working for the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), she explained, a small group of foundations met and asked how they could help the agency serve children and families, however, DCFS did not have an employee who could focus on philanthropy.
“Although we thought of ideas, it was difficult for us to keep the continuity, to keep the ball rolling,” Davenport said.
Update: This article was updated at 10:53 p.m. on the date of publication, 6/25/2015, to include Aileen Adams’ comments that the initial cost estimates are to fund more than one salary.
Holden Slattery is a Media for Policy Change Summer Fellow and a graduate student at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.