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Reflecting on the Annual Conference

September 2019

The time between the end of one GIH annual conference and beginning to plan for the following one is surprisingly short. We use the break to discuss lessons learned from past conferences and develop ways to build and improve on them. With this year’s annual conference being my last as GIH’s President and CEO, I would like to share a few personal reflections on the evolution of this gathering—which is still health philanthropy’s largest!—and its value to us and to the field.

The annual conference is a time for connection, exchange, learning, thinking, and creativity. It involves an enormous amount of GIH staff members’ attention, but we are happy to make the effort because convening health philanthropy’s far-flung practitioners in one place at one time continues to be vitally important. With rich content that comes from many sources and covers both established and emerging issues in health philanthropy, the conference advances knowledge, encourages peer-to-peer exchanges, and strengthens the learnings of trustees and staff. It breaks down complex health issues to show their relevance to funders’ work, reduces isolation by creating a sense of community, and introduces new perspectives.

In 2008, at my first GIH annual conference, there were preconference sessions on trustee leadership, health information technology, and understanding poverty. Breakout sessions included obesity prevention, health disparities, health in the criminal justice system, healthy aging, gun violence, and health reform. The broad range of topics reflected GIH’s longstanding understanding that health is more than health care, as well as our enduring interest in encouraging funders to work across sectors. The session topics were nationally relevant, complex issues that health philanthropy continues to wrestle with in one form or another.

At this year’s annual conference, major session topics included:

  • access,
  • advocacy strategies,
  • behavioral health,
  • children and families,
  • governance and operations,
  • health equity,
  • healthy eating/active living,
  • integrative health,
  • older adults,
  • oral health,
  • population health, and
  • quality

Clearly, the field’s definition of health continues to be broad. Since my first annual conference in 2008, I have observed increasing interest in behavioral health, integrative health, and oral health. Conversations about health disparities have evolved into conversations about health equity, and discussions about obesity prevention into discussions about healthy eating/active living. In addition, an increasing numbers of funders have become interested in affecting public policy by supporting advocacy. This year, we were especially pleased that several of the sessions involved foundation operations, because the need for content that addresses foundation governance and other organizational issues has become increasingly clear.

GIH’s family of Funding Partners clearly encompasses an enormous range of experiences and points of view. This is a strength of the organization that can also be a challenge—a challenge that we encounter specifically at the annual conference, where all of the wonderful mix of priorities and outlooks comes together. Funders share a commitment to health, but beyond that there is no way everyone can agree on everything, and we don’t expect that. What we have always encouraged at the annual conference is a spirit of openness that recognizes and respects the range of views encompassed by the field and that takes advantage of being in a space where funders can feel safe sharing diverse, sometimes conflicting, perspectives. Through debate and discussion, the field moves forward!

If you missed this year’s Annual Conference on Health Philanthropy, or would like to revisit the presentations, all materials are available, including podcasts of the plenary sessions. And it’s not too late to contribute to next year’s meeting! Submit your proposal here—the deadline is Thursday, September 26.