Twenty years ago, a small group of grantmakers launched a Health and Environmental Funders Network (HEFN), seeking to bridge health and environmental philanthropy and to focus more attention on links between human, wildlife, and ecosystem health. One of my first tasks as HEFN’s first staffer was to try to engage health funders in this enterprise.
Fast forward two decades: philanthropy is investing hundreds of millions annually in environmental health and justice work, with varied clusters of collaboration across health and other portfolios. Grantmakers In Health (GIH) and HEFN have built a deep partnership with each other and with other philanthropy-serving organizations (PSOs).
Our partnerships over the past twenty years have given us a lot to celebrate, and a lot to build on in tackling the challenges ahead.
One of PSOs’ most central, visible roles is to strengthen grantmaking by providing funders with information and learning opportunities. For years, GIH and HEFN have jointly sponsored calls, webinars, and meetings to help funders understand the environmental and social conditions shaping health and equity outcomes. Our joint programming has covered numerous areas of concern – including air and water pollution, toxics in consumer products, healthy housing, climate change, and antibiotic resistance. We’ve helped funders follow science explaining pathways through which environmental exposures or social stressors affect health, and research documenting how reducing hazards improves health outcomes.
GIH and HEFN also have coproduced or exchanged publications to promote cross-learning. GIH’s President Faith Mitchell and I distilled ideas from our communities in a 2011 Health Affairs article on philanthropy addressing health disparities. HEFN’s Giving InSight blog regularly features guest posts from health philanthropy leaders on environmental health issues. GIH’s Views from the Field and annual conference essays have included environmental health perspectives, like a 2012 conference commentary that Marni Rosen (then with the Jenifer Altman Foundation) and I wrote on “Finding Solutions Upstream.”
Our PSOs have intentionally facilitated the flow of ideas and information across organizational boundaries, offering each other reciprocal access to knowledge and resources. GIH, HEFN, and other PSO staff periodically meet, both in small partnership groups and through the United Philanthropy Forum, to pool knowledge and distill ideas to bring back into philanthropic learning.
Our joint efforts to distill and share ideas often have played double duty by spreading creative approaches to critical problems. The Heinz Endowments’ Philip Johnson, then a HEFN co-chair, contributed a 2015 GIH conference essay on trailblazing work to improve air quality in Pittsburgh. GIH’s 2017 annual conference included a HEFN breakout on cutting-edge approaches for promoting healthy environments for children.
Representatives of both PSOs participated in an emerging Lead Funders Action Network, a group now collaborating through HEFN and sharing developments with health colleagues in a breakout session at the GIH 2019 meeting.
With concerns rising about health and community implications of climate change, HEFN and GIH drew early innovators into sharing their experiences at 2016 and 2018 GIH sessions. With other PSO partners we hosted a 2017 meeting on investing in those most impacted by climate change.
Values shape the innovations we have sought to seed. The GIH-HEFN partnership has reflected our shared conviction that everyone deserves the opportunity to live a healthy life, and our shared interest in mobilizing philanthropy to improve health and equity outcomes. These values infuse joint programming highlighting dynamic work in low-income communities, communities of color, and indigenous communities. HEFN’s workshops at the 2018 GIH and Exponent Philanthropy conferences shared funder strategies for how to make the case for advancing racial and gender equity through grantmaking. Our PSO exchanges have helped accelerate investments in building the power of impacted communities and the health sector to promote health in all decisions affecting health outcomes.
PSOs often use programming and communications as a platform for funders to share stories from their grantmaking and to showcase grantees’ success. Seeing how peers have responded and made impact can inspire others to invest.
This can be particularly important when foundations and the communities they support are challenged to change, for example in responding to more frequent intense weather events, or bringing more diversity into giving and leadership.
PSOs have the opportunity to help inform and spread good work across many foundations. They can pull many stories from across those individual dots on the map, documenting and describing collective impacts in the sector.
Another avenue of PSO impact is by fostering collaboration among funders and documenting results. This can enable philanthropy to pool financial and human capital, coming much closer to scale in addressing major, complex social problems. HEFN has incubated or sustained several funder collaboratives, such as a decade-plus initiative on chemicals policy that helped change federal legislation.
Increasingly we and other PSOs are supporting collaboratives that bring varied skills and resources of multiple foundations and sectors into ambitious initiatives, such as to reduce and eliminate lead exposures, and to prepare communities to survive and thrive through climate change. PSO partnerships can help enable these cross-sectoral collaborations and lift up results and lessons that could strengthen successive efforts.
The experience and relationships built through years of PSO partnerships offer groundwork to build on from here. One challenge facing PSOs is how to actively contribute to collective efforts while simultaneously demonstrating their own value to members and supporters. One opportunity for PSOs, going beyond informal collaborative relationships, is to jointly develop strategic workplans and fundraise around them. Foundations interested in capitalizing on the potential of PSOs could help by providing both financial resources for collaboration and leadership that affirms the value of PSOS’ collective initiatives alongside their unique work.
Another challenge, as PSOs seek to address complex issues, is that each is likely to approach the problem from different angles. That also creates the opportunity to benefit from what each partner can do best.
To address climate change, for instance, health funders are particularly well-placed to help the health care sector and local communities prepare for changes, build resilience in delivery of services, attend to the most vulnerable, and bring powerful health voices into advocacy for health-protective climate action. Environmental health and food funders may focus on protecting essential resources for healthy living, such as food systems, drinking water, and air quality. Environmental funders may advance climate and energy policies and market shifts. Funders focused on urban or rural communities may support local planning, broad stakeholder engagement, and economic development.
Just as individual foundations may be at their best by working within a funder community, so may PSO partnerships help philanthropy be at its best, connecting many puzzle pieces into fuller support of people and places through challenging times.