Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

What Makes Public-Private Partnerships Work?

June 28, 2012

What makes public-private partnerships work? There are many right answers to that question, but one of them surely is: ongoing evaluation.

In 2004, Washington State legislators took a bold step of allocating $2 million to address family homelessness. The  Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation stepped in right behind them, adding another $2 million and challenging other private funders to join the effort. The result? The creation of the Washington Families Fund—a completely out-of-the-box public-private partnership that is yielding results.

Building Changes was selected to lead the Washington Families Fund back in 2005, and in response to many questions about the secret to the Fund’s success, we decided to take time to reflect. With support from the Oak Foundation, we completed a case study that tells the story of how it all came together, plus a separate compilation of recommendations for leading a public-private partnership.

The recommendations include a range of topics, including how to structure and allocate funds and how technical assistance to providers improves their services to homeless families. But, I want to highlight evaluation because it addresses some big questions:

  •  Are funds being well spent?
  • Is the public-private partnership working?
  • And most importantly, are homeless families being effectively supported?

To borrow a housing metaphor, if fundraising and grantmaking are the bricks and mortar that built this partnership from the ground up, evaluation ensures its maintenance, upkeep, and ultimately, renovation.

Since Washington Families Fund’s inception, we’ve been evaluating families’ outcomes—the percentage that moved to stable housing after departing their providers’ program, their change in income, and children’s school stability. Collecting and analyzing this information sheds light on which practices should be highlighted and which need improvement.

Evaluating family outcomes helped us make cutting-edge shifts to grantmaking. Our data showed that approximately one-in-five families were returning to homelessness. Working with our grantees and the data, we determined there was a cohort of  “high-needs” families that had experienced a combination of chronic homelessness, physical or sexual violence, and child welfare system involvement, and often required mental health and chemical dependency treatment.

As a result, we added a grant program to specifically test a new model for housing and serving  people with multiple challenges. With funds from the Gates Foundation, Westat, a national research organization, is tracking both their outcomes and will assess whether this new model really improves families’ stability. During the next few years, Westat will compare the Washington Families’ Fund high-needs families with another group in Washington State that share similar needs but are not part of the Washington Families Fund.   

This kind of evaluation excites me because it will help Washington State better target our resources according to the needs of the individuals. It also has the potential to help communities across the country as they address homelessness or other social issues. We look forward to sharing future reports as evaluation results—and fresh insights—emerge.

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