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Community-Focused Health Philanthropy

September 2016

Louis J. Beccaria, Ph.D., President and CEO, Phoenixville Community Health Foundation

Community-focused health philanthropy is a philanthropic style that enables you to tackle important local health issues, has a sense of mission and urgency about it, has some reasonable prospect of making a difference, and creates a practical effect on a defined geographical area.

In a broad sense, philanthropy has always been about helping people and organizations in their communities. But community-focused health philanthropy is packaged in a different way. It is a strategy, with several distinguishing characteristics.

First, as the term implies, it is concentrated on a defined geographical area. This area has a sense of geo-political continuity about it; has specific, pressing health issues which need to be addressed; and is of such manageable size as to hold the promise of realizing visible, concrete change in return for philanthropy’s social investment.

Second, this strategy has a sense of mission and urgency about it. It may be aimed at community health improvement in one or two small rural areas or in a large urban neighborhood. For example, the chosen target may be a neighborhood that has fallen on hard times and needs a new beginning. In this light the strategy may involve addressing a host of critical health and health-related issues such as health care access, correcting blighted housing, addressing affordable housing access, and improving public safety.

For Phoenixville Community Health Foundation, opening up access to health care for the under-insured or uninsured is the top priority. We have tackled this issue by developing program initiatives to deal with transportation barriers (such as our Ride for Health Initiative); economic barriers (through major grants to a number of medical and behavioral health care providers such as free clinics); information barriers (with The Help Book, available in hard copy and online, and provided to almost every household and many agencies in our catchment area with information on over 275 health and human service agencies servicing the greater Phoenixville area); and language barriers (such as the Language Access Program which provides trained volunteer interpreters for health and human service providers serving our ever-growing Latino population).

Third, community-focused health philanthropy is distinguished by the motivation to realize concrete, positive results that directly and tangibly affect people’s daily lives. Generally speaking, smaller geographical areas lend themselves to dealing with people’s needs and issues in a more workable and informal way. When size is manageable, the cooperation required among separate constituencies to solve an issue is a bit easier. The major community players are generally known to each other and trust each other because they rub shoulders so frequently. There is often the sense, in other words, that “we are all in this together.” Consequently, the prospects for issue resolution, service enhancement, and funder success—while not guaranteed, tend to be greater.

In 2006, when a new behavioral health provider came to town under contract with the county to provide adult behavioral health services in northern Chester County, that agency, had some efficiency issues that prevented clients-in-crisis from getting appointments in a timely fashion. Our foundation gathered together a number of local service providers also serving these clients in other areas and formed the Greater Phoenixville Mental Health Advisory Council, comprised of approximately 20 different agencies, including the local police. With cooperation and much deliberation, the issue was largely solved. The advisory council has since gone on to address other service-delivery issues over the past 10 years, such as sponsoring two research studies dealing with crisis intervention services in the Northern Chester County and creating a collaborative network of groups who now know and talk to each other.

Fourth, such a strategy provides a foundation with the opportunity to employ all of its resources – not just its money – in addressing the community’s health issues at hand. The resources are the time, talent, influence, connections, creative ideas, political clout, and expertise of the board and staff which can be brought to bear on the community’s needs. In this sense, the foundation becomes more than a uni-dimensional funder. It practices “total immersion” into the community by playing such roles, at varying times, as a broker, partner, advocate, catalyst, or capacity-builder. One example of this has been our foundation’s role in the revitalization of the downtown Phoenixville area by being the local match for the Pennsylvania Main Street Program. This state-sponsored initiative is geared toward bringing former industrial towns in the Commonwealth back to prosperity. In addition to our funding, several of our board members and I have devoted time and expertise behind the scenes to help get the rebirth going. We believe this speaks to our role in helping improve the economic health of our community.

The community-focused funder sometimes uses his or her influence as a broker in promoting collaborations among disparate business, civic, educational, health care, social service, and cultural groups. Often such groups need an impartial entity to bring them together to create a community solution they could not achieve working separately from one another. One example of this is our newly-funded Safe Homes Initiative, which is a collaboration between the local school district, Bethany Christian Services, some local churches, and our foundation to help solve the problem of homeless students in the school district. Trained, volunteer host families are being recruited through local churches to provide short to medium term housing for children who are homeless by virtue of some form of family dysfunction.

Practitioners of the art of community-focused health philanthropy sometimes act as advocates or ambassadors for the chosen community. Such “missionary” work can be employed to promote the community and its health needs and cultivate the interest of other funders, venture capitalists, other business people, and government officials regarding the community’s assets and its positive future outlook. One example of this is our hosting of periodic “show and tell” sessions for other funders to make them aware of agencies in the community who are addressing critical needs, having significant success, and can use additional funding.

Being a catalyst can also take the form of highlighting a specific community health issue that no one else has seen fit to publicly address in a major way, such as smoking cessation among teens or questionable environmental conditions. In addition, the funder/catalyst can take the proactive step, for example, of marshaling resources and initiating a service delivery program long-needed to satisfy a local health access concern. The possibilities are virtually limitless. In this light, we have championed the future development of a Phoenixville Multi-Service Center – a place for co-located health and human services that will promote inter-agency cooperation and is walkable and close to public transportation for low-income people who need services and lack their own private transportation.

Lastly, community-focused health philanthropy, besides being a unique strategic style, also can be a very satisfying venture with considerable psychological income benefit for the funder. If your recipe for rewarding philanthropy includes a dash of focus on important health issues in a manageable-sized locale, a goodly measure of opportunity for making a difference, a large pinch of practical impact, and a generous portion of total funder immersion in the philanthropic process, then I recommend that community-focused health philanthropy be on your menu.