Since 2008, over half of the global population lives in cities. In Europe and North America this number is closer to 80 percent. If we look at economic activity from both a global and transatlantic perspective, such thresholds were surpassed decades ago, without any acknowledgement or realisation by policymakers of the impact that this would have on increasing and now overlapping global, transatlantic, and urban challenges. Cities are driving the global economy, concentrating people and wealth; but also poverty and inequality. While urbanisation as a millenary development is inherently resilient, our societies and cities are not. To make our societies more sustainable and inclusive, change needs to materialise at the local level or we will fail.

The increasingly complex and interconnected nature of the challenges faced by transatlantic cities make them irresolvable if addressed by any single entity. Cities need cross-sector, multi-level, and multi-faceted approaches and strategies to effectively advance any issues related to today’s social, economic, or environmental challenges. Beyond the platitudes, how can this be operationalised to enable such cross-sector partnerships at the local level? The European Foundation Centre’s Funders Forum on Sustainable Cities recently organised a workshop with leaders from the philanthropic sector to start to address this very question, which will be further explored and tested with cross-sector participants at GMF’s upcoming BUILD conference. The role of philanthropy and the context in which they operate in Europe and the United States has important differences, but there is a lot of room for them to learn and share from each other on processes, tools, and partnership models to achieve these common goals.

Simply requesting more funding for important local level projects is not enough. To move the needle against the challenges that emanate from and affect transatlantic cities, philanthropic engagement needs to go beyond its traditional role and be a part of agenda-setting, convening, and strategic leadership at the local level. Yet, local governments cannot outsource their democratically mandated role in agenda-setting and policymaking to philanthropy, just as philanthropy should not substitute public functions without the corresponding mechanisms of legitimacy or accountability. Effective change will require cross-sector partnerships to strike a coordinated and complementary balance between the public functions expected of local governments and the de facto role philanthropy plays in many urban areas. While the exact configuration of this balance will and should vary enormously, there is a great potential for learning between transatlantic cities in this equilibrium. Innovative partnership models and paradigms need to be encouraged and established that can overcome these challenges. For cross-sector entities to join forces in innovative ways there needs to be an enabling framework that allows and encourages curated collaborative processes, intentional innovation and engagement, cross-sector and administrative permeability, and allows philanthropies and cities to engage in a way whereby each partners’ inherent strengths and weaknesses are complementary and leveraged strategically.

Exploring innovative partnership models and paradigms for cross-sector collaboration does not necessarily mean coming up with anything entirely new. There are innovative models, practices, processes, and tools established and operating already, but often operate on a restricted scale or shape. There are in fact countless examples of remarkably successful and effective cross-sector engagement between philanthropy and local governments addressing local specific urban problems, yet these are often episodic and project-based rather than programmatic or systemic. Innovative changes that can influence the structure of cross-sector collaboration on a wider scale and scope are less common. One example worth mentioning is the Office of Foundation Liaison for the State of Michigan, which was founded in 2003 through cross-sector efforts to catalyze and strengthen coordinated efforts between philanthropies and local authorities in a systemic way, It has since been replicated in several states and cities across the United States. GMF, in partnership with the Funders Forum on Sustainable Cities, will try to draw out and adapt some of these innovations as well as to ideate new models in the upcoming BUILD breakout session that will continue the exploration of the topic. The transatlantic and cross-sector BUILD participants will have the opportunity to share insights and experience, which will be will be leveraged to identify new opportunities and forms of collaboration to address today´s overlapping global and local challenges, and ultimately be summarized in a publication by the European Foundation Centre and GMF. 

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