Office of Foundation Liaison celebrates 10 years as ‘gift to the state’

As 10-year anniversaries go, this one has been observed with little fanfare. But many agree that the Office of Foundation Liaison’s (OFL) decade-long track record of helping to improve the lives of Michigan residents is something to celebrate.

“The number of things that we have done and the speed that we have done them at has been truly exciting,” said Gov. Rick Snyder, “and the future offers many more potential things to work on together.”

The Lansing-based OFL gets results by acting as adviser, convener, facilitator and catalyst, according to Karen Aldridge-Eason, who has been the Foundation Liaison from its inception in 2003 as a loaned executive from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The OFL has leveraged more than $110 million in grants from Michigan foundations since 2003 for initiatives in education, workforce and economic development, health, land use and the environment.

Among the OFL’s major strong suits is aligning the state’s philanthropic community with government, business and nonprofit organizations, she said, and developing relationships that lead to solutions.

Perhaps nowhere were these skills put to better use than when the Michigan Benefit Access Initiative (MBAI) was launched at then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s behest to fix an antiquated benefits system.

From the outset, Aldridge-Eason said, the OFL convened groups that were serving struggling Michigan families and young children — a singular feat in itself, drawing together government, foundations, nonprofits and the private sector — and facilitated the discussions about the most effective ways to access and deliver benefits such as food and medical assistance, payments for utilities in danger of being shut off and other emergency services.

MBAI has resulted in a streamlined benefits process, in large part through the creation of the MI Bridges website, according to a recent independent evaluation by Lansing-based Public Policy Associates, Inc. Improvements include a significant increase in online applications as well as faster processing times, access to better medical care and lower recidivism rates for people who have gone off benefits — all of which reduce the burden on Michigan Department of Human Services case workers.

Other successfully launched programs the OFL has spearheaded are: Double Up Food Bucks, the Michigan College Access Network, the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative and the Early Childhood Investment Corporation.

“It was a gift to the state,” Granholm said about the OFL shortly before she left office on Jan. 1, 2011. “It was a gift to us to be able to coordinate and align these strategies throughout the entire administration.”

The Office of Foundation Liaison was born of necessity, Granholm said, when the rest of the country was slowly emerging from a recession but more and more Michigan workers were losing their jobs. As state coffers were straining to help those in need, her administration was looking for creative solutions from outside government.

Karen Aldridge-Eason

Karen Aldridge-Eason

The new Foundation Liaison program was modeled on one that had been used by the City of Detroit. Since its founding, the OFL has been supported by the Council of Michigan Foundations and 17 Michigan foundations, including Mott. The cost to the taxpayer has been very low; foundations continue to pay the OFL’s salaries and expenses while the state covers office space and supplies.

The former program director of the Mott Foundation’s Flint Program, Aldridge-Eason had served as director of Michigan’s Office of Health and Human Services and budget director for the City of Flint. Program Associate Maura Dewan also has been an integral part of the OFL for a decade.

Under Granholm, the OFL was a cabinet-level post, and under Snyder it remains a part of the governor’s executive team. Michigan’s OFL has been used as a model for similar programs in other cities, states and even the country of Liberia.

Aldridge-Eason is quick to identify key reasons that the OFL has continued — and remained effective — through two gubernatorial administrations from two different political parties: the government’s openness to partnering and the tremendous support of Michigan foundations.

“Plus, we listen carefully,” she added. “Maura and I save a lot of work for a lot of people. Sometimes in government they are looking at symptoms of problems, so we often have conversations to get a better idea of the policy issue — the system change that is going to have long-term impact.

“Ultimately, what we are looking for are better public policies and systems that work better for Michigan residents and families.”

Snyder was effusive when asked about the OFL.

“It is something that was successfully started before I became governor, but I think it has only gotten better and gotten stronger,” he said. “It’s really created a better bond between the foundation community and the state government and — even more importantly — it is showing real results for the citizens of Michigan.”

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