Building Stronger Relationships Between Governments and Nonprofits

After the tragic killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, protests have swept across the United States. This has led to a wide-ranging discussion about how to reform policing in the country – from a push to hold officers accountable to a fundamental reconsideration of how cities should address crime, mental health, and many other issues that are too often left up to police departments.

It’s clear that the nonprofit sector has a major role to play in this shift. Nonprofits have boots on the ground in communities across the country, and they are often focused on the problems that can lead to crime: joblessness, poverty, a lack of affordable housing, educational disparities, substance abuse, and so on. Many nonprofits also combat racism, which perpetuates systems of inequality and leads to the breakdown of trust in communities.

Although nonprofits have the expertise and infrastructure necessary to help cities develop more proactive and productive responses to the problems listed above, they also have to come up with ways to work with local governments more efficiently and transparently. If nonprofits are going to take on greater responsibilities in their communities, it’s all the more important for them to be as data-driven and accountable as possible.

How governments can strengthen their relationships with nonprofits

According to a 2019 report from the National Council of Nonprofits, almost a third of nonprofit revenue comes from government grants and contracts. Governments clearly recognize the value of working with nonprofits to increase their capacity to deliver critical services, but they often impose unnecessary costs and constraints on the organizations they work with.

For example, there are several persistent problems with government-nonprofit relationships: the full cost of services isn’t reimbursed; grant application and reporting processes are convoluted; contracts are often changed mid-project; and late payments are common. These problems are particularly acute right now, as many nonprofits are operating on thinner margins than ever amid the COVID-19 pandemic even as demand for their services increases. Meanwhile, as cities focus on implementing innovative solutions to crime, poverty, and inequality, nonprofits need robust support from local governments.

There are several solutions to the most pressing problems that hinder government-nonprofit partnerships. First, the full cost and scope of projects should be outlined in the development phase so governments and nonprofits can plan accordingly, payments can be delivered on time, and there won’t be any surprises. Second, the application and reporting processes should be centralized, digitized, and streamlined – there’s no reason for nonprofits (or governments, for that matter) to waste resources tracking down and generating needless paperwork. And third, there should be ongoing open communication between nonprofits and local governments.

How nonprofits can be effective facilitators

While there are plenty of ways local governments can treat nonprofits more fairly and increase the impact of their programs, nonprofits themselves have to take responsibility for driving these changes. For example, consider the fact that the most disruptive problems that nonprofits face in their partnerships with governments – from payment discrepancies to messy reporting and application processes – are a result of inadequate communication. This is a stark reminder that nonprofits need to set expectations and establish channels for unfettered communication right at the outset.

Nonprofits need to set expectations and establish channels for unfettered communication right at the outset.

This is where technology comes in. Nonprofits have never had more access to data about the implementation and performance of their programs, nor have they had more tools for making those data actionable or communicating their findings and strategies with grantors. These are all tech-enabled advances, but just 20 percent of nonprofits consider themselves leaders and innovators when it comes to the adoption of new technologies. Two of the top reporting challenges nonprofits cite are the inability to gather statistics on the impact of their programs and the lack of a consistent framework for measuring and recording outcomes.

As the founder and CEO of Resilia, I happen to know that any nonprofit (no matter its size) is capable of overcoming these challenges. There are digital platforms that can help nonprofits track and report outcomes, maintain consistent communication with local governments, and build healthier relationships based on clear, data-driven objectives. It’s true that city governments need to do a better job making payments on time, addressing logistical obstacles, and so on, but nonprofits also have to be advocates for themselves and their work.

Building joint capacities between nonprofits and governments

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced that $75 million in Disaster Relief Assistance funds would support immigrant workers who have been affected by COVID-19. The press release notes that the funds will be “dispersed through a community-based model of regional nonprofits with expertise and experience serving undocumented communities.” The California Immigrant Resilience Fund has simultaneously raised almost $40 billion (of a $50 billion goal) to supplement the state funds.

This is an example of how nonprofits can help governments build capacity on multiple levels: with fundraising, the deployment of programs, and intergovernmental cooperation. While Disaster Relief Assistance is a statewide initiative, the state government is using the nonprofit sector to ensure that the resources are being efficiently distributed to communities around California. This should be a reminder to city governments that nonprofits can help them allocate state and federal resources to where they’ll do the most good.

As cities explore new ways to deal with problems like poverty, crime, and racial discrimination, nonprofits will be under a microscope like never before. Nonprofits already face public perception problems when it comes to providing services that are typically administered directly by local governments. For example, they aren’t subject to electoral accountability, which can lead to the view that nonprofits are superseding elected officials. Moreover, there will be increasing political pressure to demonstrate that their efforts are having concrete outcomes in the coming months and years.

Nonprofits need to make it clear that their efforts complement and support the work of local governments. They should also use all the resources at their disposal to demonstrate their effectiveness, which will make a stronger case to local officials and other stakeholders that they deserve community support. When local governments and nonprofits focus on setting clear norms and expectations for projects, increasing operational efficiencies by focusing on what they each do best, maintaining consistent communication, and rigorously tracking outcomes, they will be far more effective than they ever could have been on their own.

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Building for Resiliency in a Floodplain

Knowing that flooding is inevitable, we moved forward with developing the Brick Works site by testing new green design features that would mitigate risk and withstand most rain events. Stormwater management ponds collect water from the central parking lot; greenways and other hard surfaces filter sediment in the water before it’s released into the Don River. We also built out the site with wet flood-proofing, which allows water to flow in and out of buildings instead of preventing it from entering. A raised floor made of Cupolex allows water, moisture, and gases to escape from beneath the floor. Elevators default to the second floor, and mechanical systems are located above the projected water level from even the most severe flood. These measures are meant to minimize damage rather than stop the flood, and they were successfully put to the test during spring floods in 2012 and again in 2013.  

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Governance of Metropolitan Transport: Power, Leadership, and the Essential Art of Building Lasting Alliances

What does it take to deliver a high-quality transport system across a metropolitan region, one that is socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable, and economically productive? This month Staff Writer Kate O’Brien spoke by phone with Måns Lönnroth, whose professional experience, first as an academic and later as a governmental operative, has given him a unique and valuable perspective on answering this question.

“This whole project started because I saw that almost all presentations at the Transportation Research Board (TRB, one of seven program units of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine) were about what to do to organize metropolitan transport. But there was very little about how to actually get things done. When I was visiting there, I actually asked the Chair of the TRB’s Executive Committee why, and his answer was “How is much more difficult than what.” And he was right.”

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Building the Backbone for Collaboration: Q&A with the New Leadership Network

How do you build a network that equips local leaders to change systems through racially equitable strategies?

The New Leadership Network—launched in 2013 to support local leaders in the Central Valley of California—explored this question over five years, as the authors along with their design teams focused on building the backbone for cross-sector, cross-issue collaboration. Nearly 100 people joined this network and launched over 80 collaborations tackling a range of issues facing their communities—from kindergarten-readiness programs to redesigning police cadet training with community input.

Now, the New Leadership Network has lessons to share for other communities aiming to support networked action that centers racial equity. Living Cities interviewed two participants, Reggie Rucker, who was a participant in the network, and Adene Sacks, who led the network and co-authored a book about it, Leading Systems Change: A Workbook for Community Practitioners and Funders.

Q1: Tell us a little bit about the New Leadership Network—why is something like this needed, and what did you get out of being a part of it?

Adene Sacks (co-author of Leading Systems Change): When the James Irvine Foundation initiated the creation of the New Leadership Network, they were looking to invest in the Central Valley of California. This region has a number of complicated problems (high unemployment, high poverty rates, poor air and water quality, failing schools, etc.) and was historically under-invested in from philanthropy, compared to the wealthier coastal regions of California. The program addressed the full range of needs leaders have when they strive to get out of their silos and embrace a systems change approach.

Reggie Rucker (Director of Placemaking at the Downtown Modesto Partnership; participated as a fellow in the New Leadership Network): The two most lasting takeaways for me have been the application of human-centered design, and the understanding of the existing network of leaders in our community. Through human-centered design, I am continuously operating from empathy over intellect—more so than I was accustomed to. The practice of piloting ideas and testing hypotheses, rather than just thinking through ideas to get to an answer or outcome, has been important for the way I work in the community. Being part of the network of leaders let me know that I have friends who I can lean on to help with the work that I’m passionate about, and listen and coach from a place of understanding that others in my life don’t really have.

Q2: How do you see this network benefiting the communities in which you work? What are some of the tangible impacts you have seen?

The process of centering equity begins with who is at the table.

Rucker: Getting a network of our leaders to all begin to look at our work through the lens of equity is vitally important. Whether economic empowerment, education, civic pride, community development, law enforcement, or any other work we’re engaged in, awareness of how all communities are included and impacted by this work is the only way sustainable progress can be made. Additionally, the relationships grounded in empathy created an atmosphere of cooperation, support and hope rather than cynicism. That goes a long way in making the space necessary for change when it is inherently risky. In recent months, I’ve seen The Modesto Bee publish more positive and hopeful stories about the community, the Downtown Modesto Master Plan focus heavily on inclusivity of the economically disadvantaged and structurally segregated West Modesto, and leaders from the network take bold leaps by changing roles in a concerted effort to maximize the impact they can have in our community.

Sacks: The network helped elevate emerging leaders, many of whom struggled to gain access to more traditional places of power in the community, to positions of greater influence. The network created a pipeline of potential members now being recruited for local boards and commissions, and in general is seen as a continuing “civic innovation” engine in both counties.

Q3: Living Cities has learned that you cannot create systems change without naming racial and working to close racial gaps. How has the New Leadership Network centered racial equity? What are some challenges and successes you’ve seen in centering racial equity?

Sacks: The process of centering equity begins with who is at the table. We focus on who these leaders are as individuals; the networks they represent; and their contribution to a collective of the community. As we describe in the book, our journey from the original all-white facilitation team in Fresno to becoming a multi-racial team in Stanislaus, provided the basis for the learning and the failure we asked the leaders to address around issues of power and equity at all stages of their work with us.

Rucker: The focus on developing strong relationships and working from a place of empathy also makes it easier to have these conversations. Just the other day, I was able to highlight for a friend and colleague that an interview panel he was assembling was all white men. Having a conversation that got him thinking more critically about what’s possible, or not possible, is something I don’t know that I would have been as prepared to do without the New Leadership Network.

Q4: What advice would you give to other communities looking to create systems change through centering racial equity?

A system will not change when half of that system is fighting against the other half.

Rucker: Empathy and strong relationships are key. A system will not change when half of that system is fighting against the other half. It also takes a huge dose of creativity, both in the sense of finding a way where there appears to be no way, and also in finding joy in work that often feels daunting.

Sacks: One of the more unique aspects of the New Leadership Network was that all involved, including our funders at the James Irvine Foundation as well as our local backbone at the Stanislaus Community Foundation, were deeply committed to examining their own relationship to racial and economic inequity. This experience has solidified our belief that those leading systems change, regardless of role, need to grow their awareness of how racial inequity impacts their work and their own leadership.

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CityLab Daily: Building a Bird-Friendly New York

What We’re Following

Wing it: Anyone working in a glass skyscraper will likely recognize that unmistakable thud that comes from birds flying full speed at a window. That’s especially true in New York City, where each year up to 230,000 birds collide with buildings, and many die as a result, according to estimates from New York City Audubon. But this week, the city council passed a bill to update the building code, requiring more bird-friendly design on exteriors below 75 feet.

The problem architects need to solve for is getting birds to see buildings as actual obstacles, since birds have not evolved to gain sufficient depth perception. But adapting buildings is pretty simple: The bill advises architects to place design patterns on windows or netting around buildings. CityLab’s Linda Poon has the story: New York City Will Require Bird-Friendly Glass on Buildings

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

Why Kansas City’s Free Transit Experiment Matters

The Missouri city is the first major one in the U.S. to offer no-cost public transportation. Will a boost in subsidized mobility pay off with economic benefits?

Laura Bliss

The Right to Eviction Counsel Is Gaining Momentum

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio expands tenant protections, a pair of U.S. senators introduce the Eviction Crisis Act to help renters get legal help.

Kriston Capps

New York Just Set a ‘Dangerous Precedent’ on Algorithms, Experts Warn

NYC’s task force on algorithms was supposed to be a beacon of transparent government. It couldn’t even gain access to basic information.

Kate Kaye

How Friday the 13th Could Actually Be a Lucky Day

Our fears end up translating into safer roads and cheaper flights.

Aria Bendix



What We’re Reading

Why people are freezing in America’s prisons (Vox)

Many renters who face eviction owe less than $600 (New York Times)

Seattle joins the rush to slow down traffic on city streets (Wired)

In cities across America, the fight for curb space heats up during the holidays (Wall Street Journal)

The trailer for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights suggests it’s right on time (Slate)


Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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ILSR’s 2019 Annual Report: Building Local Power

It’s been a tremendous year for ILSR and for our work fighting corporate control and building local power across the economy. Our 2019 Annual Report outlines some of the progress we’ve made this year. In addition to the many policy victories and accomplishments we’ve had, we’ve also quietly celebrated our 45th birthday! … Read More

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Building Inclusive Ecosystems: Reflections from HBCU@SXSW [PODCAST]

This March, we joined OHUB in Austin for their signature program, HBCU@SXSW, where African American, Pan Asian, and Latinx students are sponsored to gain immersive exposure, interactive learning opportunities and direct access to paid summer internships and early career roles.

Rodney Sampson, the founder of OHUB, welcomed us to HBCU@SXSW, where we met and interviewed professionals and executives of corporations focused on operationalizing racial equity. All of our interviews are featured in this podcast series, Planning for the New Majority: A collection of stories from OHUB@SXSW19.

Check out episodes one and two!

Our final episode, “Inclusive Ecosystems,” features Rodney Sampson from Opportunity Hub, Dell Gines from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Catarina Schwab from NPX, and Ben Hect from Living Cities. Listen to learn how racial equity can be embedded into the process of creating a network of support for founders of color and the role that both private and institutional investors can play to accelerate this process.

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In the podcast, Rodney and Dell share the value of cross-sector relationships such as their own. Check out their report, Building Entrepreneurship Ecosystems in Communities of Color, informed by their experiences in different sectors.

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