Heather Flaherty, Executive Director, Chuckanut Health Foundation
… And 1,000 flowers bloom. Maybe you have heard this phrase? Many use it when suggesting that if you spread your investments across many issues and organizations you aren’t really making a measurable impact, but it sure does look pretty out there when those flowers bloom.
As a small foundation with 36 years of history in our community, plus a legacy of over 100 years before that as the second and only alternative choice for a hospital in Whatcom County, it is safe to say we have planted, cultivated, fertilized, and nourished at least 1,000 beautiful flowers. And I would venture to say we have made an impact by doing so. How do we measure the difference that has been made and the “healthier tomorrows” we have created?
It is easy to overlook opportunities for impact that do not rely on a large grant. But we know that making a dent in deep societal issues and in drivers of health outcomes and health equity—like systemic oppression, institutionalized racism, and generational poverty—takes a lot more than writing a check. While the number of zeros you are able to put behind the dollar amount may bring attention and certainly does make an impact, smaller foundations have a different opportunity and even an advantage to making a difference in their communities too.
Here are some of the lessons we at the Chuckanut Health Foundation have learned along the way:
Build a movement: If you have helped 1,000 flowers bloom, that means you have 1,000 relationships, organizations, and seeds that when planted together, can create momentum, energy, and collective impact. Bring your investments and grantees together. Look for commonalities in cause and issue. Leverage that.
Embrace the tension: There is an inherent tension between investing in upstream prevention efforts and investing in downstream treatment efforts. Building a re-entry program for people coming out of incarceration is important, and so is working within the judicial and legal system to eliminate bias and historically racist practices that have created the need for that re-entry program. Don’t be afraid to invest in both. They are interrelated.
Focus on your ground game: Take a page out of the workbooks of our partners in policy who make change with tools of a campaign. Are you building authentic relationships with the individuals who are working on the issues you are focused on? Even better, are you working with the communities closest to and most impacted by the issue? Elevate those voices and listen to the solutions coming from those communities. Be willing to be bold in your relationships and in your strategies. Build the partnerships you need and remember that lasting systemic change is a long game.
Scale your impact: If the meaningful contribution your foundation can make is $5,000, then try to find the organizations and causes where that $5,000 makes a big difference. As a small foundation, your contribution may be a drop in the bucket to nonprofits with sizable budgets and multiple funding streams. But for other organizations, it can mean the difference of 1,200 community meals, helping 13 families stay safe and sheltered, or simply keeping the lights on for two more months to serve a harder to reach population. Investing in the vibrancy of your community through the lens that no grant or project is too small to consider can contribute as much to a community of health as do federally qualified health centers and community action agencies. All are important.
Deep and Wide: Focus becomes critical for smaller foundations and this is an incredible gift and opportunity. You have the choice of going wide and spreading resources, energy, and dollars across many issues, or going deep. When you go deep, you are able to build meaningful relationships in that issue area. You discover the strategies that make sense for your foundation to invest in to make change. Those investments are deeply meaningful, and the impact is more likely to be direct and measurable.
When choosing where to go deep, do not be afraid to go in a different direction from some of your funding colleagues or to find the “cold-spots” where data says change is needed but that have lacked community or funder-driven energy. Be the energy that catalyzes an issue. A favorite quote I heard recently from James Clear: “When you say no, you are only saying no to one option. When you say yes, you are saying no to every other option. No is a choice. Yes is a responsibility.” Take the time to say “yes” with discernment.
Use size to your advantage: Never undervalue what you bring to the table, especially when you have gone deep on an issue, have a spirit of humility, are willing to listen and learn, and bring institutional history and a network of community partners. Impact is not measured by the dollars we give—some projects take minimal funding but have outsized impact. And when you are small, you might fly under the radar, but use that to your advantage! Keep quietly moving the work forward without detractors until you are prepared and ready to engage.
Put on your oxygen mask: The potential for burnout is real. We have a team of 2.25. In any given day, we are switching gears and checking things off the list in all of the areas it takes to run an organization— board relationships and meetings, operations, marketing, human resources, finance, fundraising, learning and development, grants management, networking and community relations, scholarships, events, funds and projects—and figuring out ways to drive strategic results. I am certain that for many smaller foundations, this is what an average day looks like.
Do not be afraid of investing in your organization to avoid burnout and to sustain operations. Invest in your team. Invest in specialties as you need to. Invest in your board development. And invest in your culture. These investments will pay dividends.
Another strategy to manage it all is to develop processes that ensure quality results and help create routines and systems to automate some of the work. Much of our personal success comes from habits we build and practices that become part of our subconscious routines. I would argue much of our organizational success does too.
And lastly, do not forget that constraints create innovation: We are all hungry for impact. We all want to know our work made a difference. When you cannot rely on creating impact with dollar amounts, you are free and even compelled to use all the other tools in the toolbox to do the good work, in partnership, of creating our healthier tomorrows. Embrace the constraints. They can serve as a limiting factor, or they can serve to make you more effective. It is your choice.