President Biggs addresses Virginia Symposium on Philanthropy

May 19, 2017

VACo President Mary W. Biggs addressed the Virginia Symposium on Philanthropy on May 8, providing attendees with an overview of the role of local government in Virginia, challenges faced by localities, and opportunities for collaboration with private philanthropy.  The event, formally titled “The Virginia Symposium on Philanthropy:  Collaborating for Kids, Families and Communities,” was organized by First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, Secretary of Health and Human Resources William Hazel, MD, and U.S. Trust, and included representatives from state agencies, local government, nonprofit agencies, private and community foundations in Virginia, and national foundations.  The goal of the event was for representatives of government and the philanthropic community to understand each other’s activities and challenges so that future efforts could be better aligned.

President Biggs explained that the state’s structure of government favors a model where many services are state-supervised, but locally-administered, making local elected officials and staff the face of government for many Virginia residents.  This arrangement can be strained, however, when the state’s budget pressures lead it to reduce its support for shared services, with K-12 education a prime example.  She also discussed stresses on local revenue resulting from slow growth in real property taxes and limited options for revenue diversification.  She encouraged local donors and foundations to seek out their local elected officials, who have a holistic view of local needs, to find opportunities to collaborate.  An example of such work is the Montgomery County Educational Foundation, which supplements state and local contributions to the school system by making grants to teachers, students, and staff.  The Foundation has purchased tablets for at-risk classrooms and funded a “One School, One Book” program to promote reading.  She suggested some multi-disciplinary, complex issues where local governments would welcome creative solutions from the private sector:  providing high-speed internet access in rural areas; combatting substance abuse, especially prevention efforts; and developing a pre-K-through workforce educational continuum to prepare students for those jobs that do not require a college degree but do require some post-high school education and training.

The Symposium featured a number of panel discussions, including several sessions focused on examples of successful public-private collaboration.  Andrew Crawford, the Director of Social Services in Bedford County, and Denny Huff, the Executive Director of the Bedford Community Health Foundation, spoke about their efforts to help residents achieve self-sufficiency.  An umbrella organization, the Bedford Area Resource Council, coordinates efforts among community institutions, such as the local hospital, school system, and Workforce Investment Board, and supports mentorships and training classes to help residents in poverty obtain the skills and social supports needed to move out of poverty.

Several themes emerged from the discussions over the course of the symposium.  First, although government provides the major building blocks for essential social services, the strictures of the biennial state budgeting cycle can be ill-suited to addressing deep-rooted social problems such as multi-generational poverty.
Philanthropy, by contrast, is sometimes able to supply “patient capital,” and fund projects that may not demonstrate success for several years.  Representatives from the philanthropy community were interested in having further conversations with state agencies and localities, perhaps in future meetings at the regional level, to continue discussions about capitalizing on the unique strengths of each sector in coordinating efforts.

President Biggs said, “I appreciate the First Lady and Secretary Hazel inviting local government to be part of the conversation.  It was a great opportunity to share some examples of public-private collaboration happening in my locality, and to learn about work happening in other parts of the state.  Government resources are limited, so we welcome opportunities for innovative partnerships with the private sector in better serving our community.  I’m looking forward to more discussions about this issue.”

VACo Contact: Katie Boyle

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