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Noozhawk.com Santa Barbara Challenge

Santa Barbara’s Nonprofit Sector Steps In as Government Steps Away

Debate emerges over responsibility, proper balance between private and public sectors

[Noozhawk’s note: This is one in a series of articles on Noozhawk’s Santa Barbara Challenge, our public-engagement project on the city of Santa Barbara’s budget. Related links are below.]

Public programs are increasingly relying on a private approach to maintain services in Santa Barbara.

Traditionally, nonprofit and government philanthropic efforts did not often intersect. But a suffering economy has created a more open partnership between the public and private sectors’ initiatives.

“Certainly the needs are great, government cutbacks are quite clear and stark, and there’s more need for the philanthropic sector to step in as a safety net in many respects,” said Alixe Mattingly, vice president of communications at the Santa Barbara Foundation, which has partnered with Noozhawk as a sponsor of the Santa Barbara Challenge.

Take the Orfalea Foundations’ Aware and Prepare program. After a series of fires, mudslides, floods and earthquakes, the foundation decided to work with local government to bolster disaster-preparedness efforts in 2007.

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“There is a shift in the philanthropic sector that calls for government, nongovernmental entities and funders to all work in partnership to try and solve issue-based societal challenges,” said Lois Mitchell, president of the Orfalea Foundations, which includes The Orfalea Fund and the Orfalea Family Foundation.

“Government can no longer tackle these solo. It’s better for us to work together.”

Orfalea joined forces with the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Services, city administrators, local foundations and nonprofit organizations to create Aware & Prepare, which strives to coordinate disaster preparedness and response. Joint funds helped pay for “Radio Ready,” a system that links the county Emergency Operations Center with self-powered radio stations in the event of a blackout.

“Orfalea was encouraged to partner with the government because the program would only go so far,” Aware & Prepare coordinator Barbara Andersen said.

“There is a learning curve for philanthropy and government to be hands-on in making decisions,” said Andersen, who added that each decision regarding the program is made with the involvement of government.

Orfalea’s partnership with First 5 Santa Barbara County also uses private- and public-sector money to support the healthy development of children and their families.

Another example is the 1235 Teen Center, 1235 Chapala St., that was initially funded by the Santa Barbara Parks & Recreation Department. With the current economic constraints, services had to be cut and the department looked to the nonprofit Police Activities League to take over operations last year.

“We’ve lost about a third of our General Fund subsidy,” said Nancy Rapp, director of the Parks & Recreation Department. “To get to that point you can’t do that without making cuts that make a big dent, and that means you have to cut some services and staff.”

While the center has benefited with new services, such as PAL’s partnership with Notes for Notes, which provides musical instruments and a professional recording studio for youth, some argue that adding more to the nonprofit community’s plate comes at too high a cost.

“Cities aren’t shouldering their own responsibility,” said Geoff Green, executive director of The Fund for Santa Barbara, a community foundation that provides grants and technical assistance to local grassroots efforts. “It’s a priority choice they are making; they still lean on the nonprofit sector but do it disingenuously.

“They are outsourcing public responsibility without acknowledging that’s what they are doing.”

It’s a slippery slope and many nonprofit organizations can’t afford to take over projects, Green added. Once public dollars are poured into a project, history says they don’t come back, he said.

“Plenty of nonprofits do it because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “They take on huge pieces of public work, whether they can do it or not.

“Somebody has to step in and it’s almost always going to be the nonprofit sector.”

But Mitchell said nonprofit organizations have to take the right steps to make the programs more manageable. Sometimes you just have to respectfully decline requests for aid or limit funds, she said.

“The work is manageable, there are the things we concentrate on so requests aren’t overbearing,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes you just have to say no.”

Trust between the two sectors is something that needs to develop to operate efficiently and effectively, she said.

“It’s a delicate balance because you are accused of micromanaging,” she said. “There’s a lot of trust that has to happen and that can take a long time to make someone not feel like they are on the hot seat and under the microscope.”

Money can move very fast in the philanthropic sector, but there are levels of beauracracy that eat up more time, Andersen said.

But both sides do have a chance to benefit when donors leverage their dollars, the government gains additional capital and philanthropists bring a higher level of expertise to the table on the causes they support.

Foundations have learned to ask better questions in their support, said Jon Clark, executive director of the Bower Foundation.

“Foundations are asking better questions, ‘If we’re going to help a program you’re about to axe, what else are you cutting back?’” he said.

Santa Barbara City Administrator Jim Armstrong agreed.

“Foundations are asking tougher questions and are more outcome-oriented so money is spent more wisely,” he said.

The collaboration between government and nonprofit organizations has raised questions on the national level, said Ron Gallo, president and CEO of the Santa Barbara Foundation.

“What is it that government should be paying for and how should community organizations support them — what should the government be responsible for?” he said.

Government on the national level continues to support the collaboration. President Barack Obama created the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation to direct government resources to nonprofit and private programs that perform charitable work. The White House office started with a $50 million budget.

“From time to time we will work with the government and create alliances but we need to keep our independence that comes directly from family and the community,” Gallo said.

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Noozhawk staff writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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