Out of Crisis, Opportunity?

The City of Saint Paul, just like other local governments across Minnesota, is facing tough budget choices. The one-two punch of state cuts to Local Government Aid (LGA) and a worsening economy has forced many cities to put tough choices on the table. One highly visible piece of the possible budget solution in Saint Paul comes from its Parks and Recreation department. In addition to proposing that three rec centers be closed, Director of Parks and Recreation Mike Hahm recently suggested that the city pull out of three others “with hopes of finding neighborhood groups or nonprofits to take over the centers with their own programs,” similar to what was done in the city in 2006. Saint Paul may also look to nonprofit partners at two other rec centers, asking current partner organizations to fully take over operations that are currently shared.

Clearly this will not be the last time we see a government entity look to the nonprofit sector to help maintain public services, especially in these tough economic times. Does this situation create valuable opportunities for nonprofits of all types to improve their services and presence in communities? Or, as the need for partnerships continues to increase, will the nonprofit sector start to feel overburdened by the task at hand? How can governments and nonprofits be strategic about their partnerships going forward, and make the most of the current situation?

The article quoted above can be found here.


Susan Earle raises important points about the effects of the economic crisis on the public sector that are likely to impact the nonprofit sector. But, let’s think more about what exactly “strategic” partnerships might entail. “Strategic” has become an overused word, but in this case, we can think about what characteristics are more likely to make government-nonprofit partnerships actually work – that is, help partners do more than they could do alone, develop innovative solutions to problems, create more public value, and so forth. From both research and practice, we can cite a litany of factors that contribute to effective partnerships, including, for example, favorable policy environments, pre-existing networks, respected conveners and strong leaders, trust-building processes, clear understanding of accountability concerns, and agreements over ultimate outcomes. From our research on collaborations in the transportation field, one factor stands out that may be especially important in the case Susan presents – prior existing relationships that engendered basic trust among partners. As a top level official with MnDOT recently stated about a partnership to reduce Twin Cities’ congestion, “If we hadn’t had strong relationships, we couldn’t have moved so fast.” The existence of trusting, prior relationships is an important twist to “shovel ready,” and should be considered here. St. Paul’s Parks and Recreation centers have worked with community-based nonprofits – if the experiences have been positive, then there is something solid to build upon. If not, then there is the potential for problems because trust-building, absolutely essential to effective partnerships, will need to start anew. Additionally, as I stated in an earlier blog entry, both partners need to take a hard-nosed approach to costs and benefits. For example, what kinds of risks will this expose the nonprofit to? Are its financial structure and management systems up to these added responsibilities, for example, for facilities management as well as new programs? What neither the City nor its local nonprofits want are results that weaken either partner and add little to the stock of public value.

Post a comment

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs or the University of Minnesota. The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota or the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.