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Local Health Funders are Key Players in Local Policy

September 2016

by Faith Mitchell and Eileen Salinsky

Policies made at the local level have a tremendous influence on people’s health. Whether it’s the quality of foods served in schools, water fluoridation, urban zoning, or minimum-wage requirements, the list of health-related policies determined or regulated at the local level is nearly endless. Because of their in-depth understanding of community health needs and relationships with local policymakers, local health funders are uniquely positioned to inform and influence these policy decisions that can strongly shape community health and well-being.

GIH’s newest report, Policy Engagement by Local Health Funders, is a scan of the field that explores how local health funders are engaging in health policy issues, particularly those made at the local level. The report is based on Program Advisor Eileen Salinsky’s interviews with a random sample of 20 local foundations, which were the starting point for a qualitative analysis of the field’s engagement in local policy issues.

The report’s conclusions include the following:

  • Many local health funders are actively engaged in public policy, typically focusing on local policy issues. Most prevalent is collaborative work with public schools, school districts, and local government agencies. Engagement with elected officials—mayors, county executives, city council members, county commissioners, and school board members—is also widespread.
  • Local health funders have identified a diverse range of policy priorities, including access to health care services, healthy eating/active living, social and environmental determinants of health, and health insurance coverage.
  • Local health funders use a variety of strategies to inform and influence public policy. Most common are coalition building, policymaker education, advocacy capacity development, public education, and public awareness campaigns.
  • Most funders’ local policy efforts are fluid and involve an evolving combination of financial and in-kind support to multiple organizations, including government agencies, grassroots advocacy organizations, “backbone” organizations, and service organizations. Local funders frequently mix and match implementation strategies depending on changing circumstances, political dynamics, grantee capabilities, and levels of community engagement.

The interviews generated several important lessons learned that the report describes in detail. If policy engagement interests you, it will be the focus of the upcoming Fall Forum, Strength in Numbers: Building Coalitions to Advance Policy Change, taking place November 15th at the Westin Washington, D.C. City Center. Registration is open now!