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A Southern Foundation’s Journey towards Equity

January 2019

Gabriela Alcalde, Managing Director for Equity and Health, Richmond Memorial Health Foundation
Mark Constantine, President and CEO, Richmond Memorial Health Foundation

Richmond Memorial Health Foundation (RMHF) has been on an arc of change for many years, accelerating integration of an equity approach over the past three. As a health legacy foundation, RMHF has always been committed to improving the health of our community. As our understanding of the importance of equity in creating healthy communities has evolved, so has our approach. Moving toward health equity with a focus on racial and ethnic equity is a complex undertaking for a funder. Our work to date can be summarized in three overlapping phases.

Phase One: Start from Within

Over his 17-year tenure, RMHF’s first President and CEO, Jeffrey S. Cribbs, transitioned RMHF’s board from purely responsive grantmaking to more strategic funding and a commitment to learning. Exploring equity was, in many ways, a logical next step. Our learning about health disparities, social determinants of health, and population health made clear the connection between a more equitable society and better health outcomes. Persistent and growing disparities instilled a sense of urgency. We knew that “philanthropy as usual” would not achieve the healthy community we envisioned.


During the past three years, our trustees have learned—and continue to learn—from people whose work focuses on equity in philanthropy. We have benefited from engagements with Glenn Harris of Race Forward, Gita Gulati-Partee of Open Source Leadership Strategies, Gladys Washington of Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Corey Anderson of Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and Ambassador James Joseph. Our trustees have explored what equity means to RMHF, established an equity taskforce of the Board, and sought new opportunities to further an equity agenda.

In 2017, the trustees adopted a new mission: to foster an equitable and healthy Richmond region. The trustees and CEO have worked to diversify the board and staff, bringing in voices and perspectives that have greatly expanded the foundation’s traditional knowledge, understanding, and capacity to do philanthropy in a more equitable way.


Phase Two: Learn from Community

The pursuit of equity necessitates community voice as a central guide in assessing and responding to community challenges and opportunities. As RMHF trustees recognized the need for community voices at the table, we developed three equity learning initiatives to inform the foundation’s strategy.

  • The Equity + Health Fellowship provided an interdisciplinary opportunity for 18 individuals to learn with us and become strategic advisors to the foundation, informing our equity and health agenda. Over a nine-month period, the fellows shared knowledge and ideas about addressing social, economic, and structural challenges and achieving equity and health. The fellows developed four recommendations that guide our work and hold us accountable:
    1. Model and support practices across sectors that explicitly promote racial equity and improve health outcomes.
    2. Invest in the development and participation of traditionally underrepresented community members to be decision-makers and leaders in fostering equity.
    3. Be a catalyst for greater racial equity and inclusion in nonprofit hiring and governance in the region.
    4. Advocate for federal, state, regional, and local public policies that foster health and equity in the region.

    Many of the 2017 fellows have joined RMHF’s board committees and task forces as non-voting members. In May 2018, a second class of Fellows—12 grassroots leaders working to promote equity and improve health outcomes through built environment efforts in the Richmond region—joined the program.

  • In 2017, our Health, Equity and Arts (HEArts) initiative engaged six local artists and artist collectives to create art that communicates what equity is to the residents of the Richmond Region. With the goal to inspire and motivate change that embraces equity by tapping into the many forms of creative expression that are alive and thriving in the Richmond Region, artists met and shared insights and progress with each other and foundation staff over the year. Completed projects were shared at a summer-long exhibition in 2018. We recently released a second HEArts RFP inviting nonprofit organizations to partner with artists on equity-focused projects at the intersections of art and the built environment.
  • Through a Co-learning and Equity Initiative created in 2017, RMHF issued an RFP for grantees. The goals of the initiative are: 1) to develop and nurture cross-sector collaborations that meaningfully include community members while working to promote health equity; 2) to advance health equity using an intersectional approach that acknowledges race and racism; and 3) to inform RMHF’s learning and grantmaking. Eight collaboratives, which include resident leaders, bring diverse perspectives and experiences in equity to projects addressing issues such as oral health, housing, trauma-informed care, youth organizing, intimate partner violence, immigrant health, and medical-legal partnership. Grantees worked with Race Forward on racial equity, power, collaboration, and applying a racial equity impact assessment tool to their project. Each team received two hours of technical assistance from Race Forward. To assist our learning, we work with an external evaluator at Community Science, who also facilitated two peer learning sessions.


Phase Three: Redesign Grantmaking

Philanthropy can only achieve its mission through others’ work, and therefore must develop inclusive, creative, and respectful strategies to engage and support grantees and partners in adopting equitable processes and seeking equitable outcomes. To this end, RMHF redesigned its grantmaking programs and processes in 2018.

We applied an equity lens to our application, review, and reporting processes and re-thought how to provide resources beyond grantmaking. Some of our new practices include: 

  • using webinars and information sessions (some in community spaces and after regular work hours) to share funding opportunities;
  • using RFPs to explain our approach and assumptions as well as share resources and research;
  • posting funding opportunities in multiple languages;
  • launching a rolling application funding opportunity;
  • being transparent about the review criteria used for assessing proposals; and
  • offering racial equity training to all grantees.

Along with how we fund, we have explored what we fund. We have incorporated funding of policy and advocacy into our work, and created programmatic spaces for the intersection of housing and health, impact investment, and art as a tool for engagement and change.

Changes in funding practices require clear and ongoing communication with grantees. Inevitably, some organizations will feel left behind, while others enter into relationships with the foundation for the first time. Being mindful of this shift, and knowing that we have had and will again have missteps, we have attempted to move intentionally, incrementally, and as transparently as possible.

We still have much to do—and know that equity is not so much an “end game” as it is a way of being in the work of philanthropy.