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Putting the ‘Community’ Back in Community Health

January 2018

Nupur Chaudhury, Program Officer, New York State Health Foundation
Liz Ward, Senior Program Assistant, New York State Health Foundation

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” - Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

We all know them: volunteers at your child’s school, owners of the local corner store, leaders at your church or temple—they are the pulse that keeps the community running. In the foundation world, we call them community leaders, even if they do not label themselves that way. They are the people that spur participation in park cleanups, the people that organize the bake sales, the people that get business owners to join in at local fairs. They are the individuals that make sure that our communities, spaces, and places are healthy and livable.

When the New York State Health Foundation (NYSHealth) launched the Healthy Neighborhoods Fund, the flagship program of our Building Healthy Communities priority area, we knew access to healthy and affordable food, opportunities for physical activity, and the overall built environment of neighborhoods greatly influenced health outcomes. But we also knew that community leaders were the key to making any real change. 

In January 2015, we funded six communities across the state using a neighborhood-level approach. Since then, NYSHealth has provided these neighborhoods with coordinated health education and public health programming, embarked on policy work, and supported activities to improve overall health by investing in complementary grants and encouraging other funders, such as the New York Community Trust and Altman Foundation, to do the same.

A Missed Opportunity

Community residents have great ideas to make their communities healthier—such as building new urban farms in food deserts, making streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians of all ages, and activating public spaces for recreation. Although policymakers and city planners may recognize the health disparities that a community faces, they are typically not directly tied to these neighborhoods the way residents are. Far too often, however, the residents of communities are the ones left out of important decisions that shape their neighborhoods. This is a huge missed opportunity—who better to say what a community needs most than the residents themselves?

But here also lies the problem. Even when community members do take steps to organize, develop action plans, and engage policymakers, their ideas have traditionally been underfunded or overlooked.

Leveraging Leaders to Create Neighborhood Change

The lead grantees of each Healthy Neighborhoods Fund community are charged with engaging residents to help inform the direction and content of their work. This charge is not solely limited to implementing projects; it also includes engaging and teaching residents in a way that seeds, activates, and sustains emerging leaders in the community.

We know that to effectively engage the residents of and improve the health of a neighborhood, all community-minded organizations—like the ones working in the six neighborhoods we have invested in—need to be skilled at coalition-building, civic engagement, and participating in community life. Fostering community engagement and leadership development not only helps shape the neighborhood’s future, but also ensures that improvements are sustainable beyond the project’s funding period.

Out of the Comfort Zone

Recognizing that any efforts to engage communities needs to be done with communities rather than to communities, NYSHealth decided to step out of our traditional grantmaking comfort zone and provide resources at the hyper-local, neighborhood scale. NYSHealth partnered with ioby (which stands for “in our backyards,” the positive opposite of NIMBY) to provide resources through a matching grants program for resident leaders to tackle some of their most pressing community health concerns. ioby focuses on deepening community engagement by supporting residents in leading service projects in their neighborhoods. ioby helps residents cultivate creative project ideas and provides expertise in community organizing. Its online platform can be used for crowdfunding resources such as small online cash donations, in-kind donations, and volunteer time. ioby is designed to provide a grassroots complement to top-down policy solutions, and works from within a neighborhood and with community residents to make it a better place to live.

NYSHealth’s grant to ioby provided resources for resident leaders in our funded neighborhoods to tackle some of their most pressing community health concerns. Through this grant, ioby recruited, trained, and supported residents to plan and carry out projects to improve access to food and nutrition education, create opportunities for physical activity in safe public spaces, and foster community engagement. Most of our $160,000 investment was used to leverage an additional $100,000 in citizen philanthropy through a 1:1 matching campaign.

Over the course of 12 months, ioby supported more than 120 resident leaders in eight communities in New York State, successfully fundraising more than $228,500 in matched funding to implement 44 resident-driven projects. ioby recently published a report detailing its methods, approach, and success, as well as each of the projects and their outcomes to date.

Taking a Chance on a New Approach

Encouraging neighborhood-level, resident-led activities directly supported our goal to build healthier communities by improving opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity. We considered this investment so successful that we recently issued ioby another grant to conduct a second round of their program across the state to lead change in the six Healthy Neighborhoods Fund sites.

What was unique and risky about our work with ioby was that we had no direct control over the resident-led projects. We did not ask the residents to submit letters of inquiry and detail their plans or deliverables. We knew that our role in this project would mean not knowing every organization, every resident, and every stakeholder involved. But as individuals that live and work in spaces and places and communities, we, the project staff, knew that this separation of funder and resident was essential to the success of the work.

Community leaders have earned the respect of their fellow residents. But how could we, as a foundation, find, support and fund those natural leaders? This was an important question to answer. Though Program Officers spend a lot of time in the field with grantees, we are not necessarily embedded in the neighborhoods we fund and therefore may not have the connections needed to identify resident leaders. We took a chance and invested in an organization that had a track record of identifying and elevating residents working to improve communities from within communities. Placing full trust and power into the hands of an impactful, on-the-ground intermediary like ioby helped us further our goals. Through ioby, we were able to help community-minded organizations find and connect with residents who are both capable and eager to be involved in making their communities healthier. Without the support of these resident leaders, our Building Healthy Communities priority area would have completely missed a key aspect of what makes communities safer, healthier, and more prosperous—the residents themselves.