Aligning for the Common Good

illustration of Jacksonville skyline

The City of Jacksonville’s Office of Strategic Partnerships connects private, public and nonprofit sectors to help fulfill common goals within the community

There is no doubt that the nonprofits in Jacksonville contribute significantly to the betterment of the community, but how much more impact could be achieved if the nonprofit sector worked more closely with the private and public sectors? Could funds be spread out even farther? Could these groups work hand-in-hand to reach even more people? In 2015, former Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry established the Office of Strategic Partnerships to answer these questions. The intent of the office was to align the public sector, the private sector and philanthropy around common goals; its results aligned much more.

Creating Something New

When then-Mayor Curry was elected, he asked Rena Coughlin, CEO of Nonprofit Center of Northeast Florida, to co-chair his transition committee. Coughlin said one of the things she wanted to prioritize was how to strengthen the relationship between the city and nonprofits, and to maximize, sort and leverage resources and partnerships to the highest extent.

“I think it’s a perfect way of thinking about how the relationship with philanthropy, nonprofits and government can work together,” Coughlin said. “Philanthropy has the ability to sort of take the risk and pilot something, and then government sees the benefits and says, ‘This is a smart use of taxpayer resources.’”

They created a subcommittee to design the layout of this office. The office was modeled after similar offices around the country at various levels of government.

“Using a nationally proven model, philanthropy was eager to step up and financially support the launching of this new department at the city,” said Kathleen Shaw, The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida Senior Vice President, Program and Initiatives.

The Community Foundation raised funds from Duval County’s philanthropic community to pay the first year’s salary of the director as a pilot project. Dawn Lockhart was chosen to become the inaugural director of the Office of Strategic Partnerships.

“The answer to creating good and important strategic impact in communities is to align all the stakeholders; the stakeholders are the public sector, the private sector, philanthropy and citizens, and everybody plays a role in creating common good,” said Lockhart. “While municipalities, by nature of what they do, are payer-funded entities that are required to do common good – and do – they don’t often align, intentionally or sometimes unintentionally, with the other sectors in order to make it easier to get the work done.”

The second year, the city agreed to share the cost. And then, in 2019, Curry fully funded and expanded the Office of Strategic Partnerships. He was the first in the Southeast to create this role within his administration.

Cooperation Begets Preparation

When Lockhart started, she formed a Strategic Partnerships Steering Committee to map out priorities and the structure of the office. One of the most important things that needed to happen was to convene the sectors around common goals in order to make sure everybody understood who was playing what role, Lockhart said. In her role, Lockhart had that convening power.

“The citizen is the one that really is the beneficiary of all three of the great intentions of all of the sectors, but they are also the beneficiary of lack of coordination and alignment,” Lockhart said.

One of the first initiatives Lockhart was tasked with was creating a Downtown Homeless Taskforce. The purpose was to ask public, private and philanthropic partners to make recommendations to the administration on what the priorities should be. The organizations had previously been operating in silos and the goal was to get them to align and work together.

“It created an opportunity for all of the organizations and the players and the partners to better understand the lanes that they needed to play in and to provide them with an infrastructure and a protocol in order to help them be successful,” Lockhart said.

Because of that, even despite a worldwide pandemic, Jacksonville realized a reduction in its point-in-time count of homelessness, down from 2016. In other cities, that number was going in the opposite direction, according to Lockhart.

“We were very intentional about aligning resources, developing collaborative strategies, identifying best practices, investing strategically in areas where we knew there were gaps,” Lockhart said. “And had we not launched that task force back in 2016, we would have not had the relationships and the trust that we needed to have in order to navigate a pandemic.”

The network was already in place to pivot and implement a strategy to deal with the increase in homelessness during the pandemic. A Shelter Taskforce was created, and they met weekly over two years to manage COVID within the homeless population. A large homeless camp that had formed downtown was able to be eliminated, and those living there were moved to a safe place and then transitioned into suitable housing. During the pandemic, they also deployed a COVID-testing-and-vaccination model in the city’s homeless shelters.

“Our city became a national model for how we handled this crisis and kept our homeless population safe,” said Cindy Funkhouser, president and CEO of the Sulzbacher Center and member of the taskforce.

Expanding Beyond the Core

The Shelter Taskforce also created the Urban Rest Stop (URS), which is housed on the Sulzbacher campus, but is a partnership between several agencies, including the Mental Health Resource Center.

“The URS is a long-needed project in this city and one that we have tried to establish for at least 15 years,” Funkhouser said. “It provides a place for street homeless people to go during the day to receive a myriad of services, including access to meals, healthcare, employment assistance, showers, bathrooms laundry, mail and more.”

Two large mobile outreach buses were also a result of the task force — Health and Hope on Wheels and the Housing and Hope on Wheels. These buses travel to all parts of Duval County to provide essential health, housing and income services to pockets of the homeless population who do not have access to all the services in the core.

“We tackled the issue of homelessness in the downtown core in a comprehensive manner that I had not seen in my 20 years of working with the city,” Funkhouser said.

From Homelessness to Housing

The office decided to sunset the Downtown Homeless Taskforce in order to address the larger issue of the lack of affordable housing. So, they created the Jacksonville Housing Partnership.

“How do we connect the dots between these two silos?” Lockhart asked. “You’ve got homeless organizations and providers, and then you have affordable housing developers who should naturally connect, but there was no mechanism to connect them.”

The No. 1 recommendation that came out of two housing strategy summits that were held was to create the Jacksonville Community Land Trust. The trust has first right of refusal on any land that is tax-reverted back to the city. There was also a recommendation to launch an affordable housing fund, which Lockhart is currently working on.

Gateway Communicators

Another directive of the Office of Strategic Partnership was to act as a navigator for nonprofit organizations in the city. Lockhart created the Nonprofit Gateway, which is housed on the city’s website. It provides a wealth of information, tools and resources nonprofits would need to partner with the city.

“An important part of this role is to create ways to streamline contracting for nonprofit partners so that they can get access to the resources that they need in a more streamlined manner,” Lockhart said.

Coughlin said getting all three sectors to work cohesively was a learning process in the beginning.

“I know that from the nonprofit community’s perspective, we were thinking we were getting a full-time advocate in the mayor’s office and that’s just not realistic,” she said. “But what we did gain is someone who knows the nonprofit community really well who can bring that intelligence, that understanding of the value proposition into discussions and into policy.”

According to Shaw, a city government as large as Jacksonville can be very difficult to navigate and almost impossible to work collaboratively within.

“Having a point person to assist in many different areas has opened doors and helped the nonprofit and philanthropic community have a seat at the table,” she said. “The Office of Strategic Partnerships has transformed the relationship between the city and philanthropy resulting in the development of civic assets, disaster response strategies, services and housing initiatives that ensure equitable and shared prosperity for vulnerable populations.”

A Foundation for the Future

The office’s impact has been so powerful that The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida was honored in 2023 with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary’s Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnerships for its role in helping lead the launch of the Office of Strategic Partnerships. The award is given to foundations that have transformed the relationship between the public and philanthropic sectors and led to measurable benefits for local communities.

Lockhart joined Shaw in receiving the award, one of nine from across the country. The awards were presented by Solomon Greene, HUD Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research, and Kathleen Enright, president and CEO of the Council on Foundations.

“We are proud to receive this honor on behalf of many partners, most importantly, the City of Jacksonville, the public sector partner whose work was recognized through the award,” Shaw said. “The city has embraced this position as an essential tool to foster collaboration with the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors.”

The Nonprofit Center has advocated for the continuation of the Office of Strategic Partnerships. Coughlin has “high hopes” that Mayor Donna Deegan will continue the office under her administration. 

by Jennifer Jensen