Should Every City Have a "Chief Philanthropy Officer"?

In Jacksonville, Florida, Mayor Lenny Curry is hiring for a novel new position within his administration—a chief philanthropy officer for the city.

The idea is not an entirely novel one; the state of Michigan created an Office of Foundation Liaison (OFL) in 2003 in what the state called a “first in the nation” cabinet-level position. And in Newark, New Jersey, a city famous for its connection with big givers like Mark Zuckerberg, then-Mayor Cory Booker appointed a philanthropic liaison in 2007.

Meanwhile, mayors in some bigger cities have long played the philanthropy game in one way or the other. The Fund for Public Schools, created in 2002 by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002, has raised over $350 million from private donors. Also in New York, the older Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York has raised funds to boost city programs since 1994. Philadelphia has a Mayor’s Fund, too, and last year, Eric Garcetti created a Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, which so far, has raised over $10 million from some 1,500 donors.

These funds are separate nonprofits, while the new position in Jacksonsville is within City Hall. Connecting municipal government with funders through a designated liaison has the potential to draw huge grants. In his first five years as Newark’s philanthropic liaison, Jeremy V. Johnson raised nearly $50 million for a variety of causes within the city by working with well-known funders like the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Nicholson Foundation. For a town with an annual budget of around $800 million, that’s no drop in the bucket. And the position costs Newark nothing—the city notes that it’s the “only liaison office in the nation supported in full by the philanthropic sector.”

In Michigan, the OFL is a slightly different animal. That office is explicitly partnered with the Council of Michigan Foundations and funded by 17 foundations, including Kellogg and Kresge. It also focuses on three priority issue areas—P-20 education, workforce development, and health. The OFL has brought in more than $150 million since 2003 by brokering partnerships between Michigan and funders whose goals align with the states. OFL credits its “unique connecting role being ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the executive office” as an important element of its success.

It’s not clear yet how Jacksonville’s model will compare to those of Michigan and Newark. With three times the population but with a lower national profile—at least when it comes to philanthropy—Jacksonville may find that what worked for New Jersey’s largest city might not work for Florida’s largest. And it will have to decide what lessons it can learn from Michigan’s OFL, an office with over a decade of experience. Either way, it will be interesting to see how the city fares and whether we might see more of these liaisons over the next few years.

One thing is clear: With philanthropy a rising force in society and fiscal pressures growing on local governments because of pension obligations, expect more elected officials to do whatever they can to raise private funds to supplement public spending. Quite apart from a fiscal imperative, the fact that foundations are often funding many of the same city nonprofits that get public money, and broadly grappling with the same urban problems, suggests a need for close coordination among those who control different flows of cash. 

But municipal efforts to connect with philanthropic donors are not without controversy. Critics have argued that private charitable contributions can allow donors that hope to curry favor with City Hall to make an end run around campaign finance limits. The Los Angeles Times recently raised such questions about Mayor Garcetti’s new fund.