When we decided to shake up our role as a funder four years ago, the concept of philanthropy took on new meaning at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. Our message was clear: "We are moving from grantmaking to changemaking. We will spend less time identifying fundable projects and more time immersing ourselves in the communities we serve." To that end, we charged our program officers with thinking and acting differently — with going beyond the usual partners and funding requests, listening to communities in our state, and exploring new relationships and ideas.
It was a seismic shift, and we experienced some program staff turnover because of it. But those who stayed — as well as those who have joined us since — remain steadfast in their belief that this model is an essential part of how we can impact entrenched, community-wide problems. It also played a crucial role in the 2012 launch of Healthy Places NC, a ten-year, $100 million investment that put the responsibility for improving community health and quality of life squarely in the hands of the communities themselves.
Here are five lessons we have learned in the course of that journey:
1. Give Up Control. At its heart, Healthy Places is about a large regional funder giving up control of its processes in favor of outcomes. The trust works with communities to identify high-level goals but takes a back seat in the discussions of how best to achieve them. There are no specific models and no prescribed solutions. Instead, our program officers focus on helping communities convene discussions; align disconnected efforts; connect with statewide, regional, and national experts and services; and supply funding for many — but not all — projects a community wishes to undertake. The trust is willing to take risks, learning continuously from our successes and from the places where we have stumbled.
2. Invest in Unusual Relationships. A hallmark of Healthy Places is that it reaches beyond the network of "usual suspects" with regard to health. Trust program officers recruit new voices to the conversation and encourage diverse perspectives on community successes and challenges. There are health centers and hospitals engaged in this work, but the vast majority of those working under the Healthy Places umbrella are community organizers, faith leaders, nonprofit organizations, child care centers, housing authorities, local government officials, recreation enthusiasts, school systems, and a wide variety of people from outside the traditional health arena.
3. Communicate Openly, Honestly, and Frequently. Healthy Places counties are often geographically isolated, and the trust’s historical presence in them, in many cases, has been transactional at best. Bringing a new level of engagement and a new “back-seat” approach was confusing to many, especially those who had been grantees before the change occurred. Unlike the traditional model of simply responding to a funder, Healthy Places puts the onus for action on the community. It took a great deal of communication and dialogue between the trust and communities in the state to fully flesh out what this new approach and relationship would look like — and that communication is ongoing.
4. Emphasize the Long Haul. We have heard from residents that it has been easier to feel their efforts will pay off when program officers are clear about their long-term commitment. They know that building relationships and trust is not a short-term prospect. "The early wins are very important, but I think what is helpful for the long-term is to really invest in that much deeper sense of how one person feels connected to another," said one community member.
5. Just Be There. Our program staff makes a concerted effort to be physically present in Healthy Places communities. Asking one program officer to be continually on the ground in a rural community that's three hours from home is a lot to ask, however. To supplement their efforts and maintain a constant presence, the trust leverages other partners, such as Catalysts for Healthy Eating and Active Living (funded by the trust in partnership with the state's public health department), who work in the communities we serve. Like program staff, "catalysts" work to build connections in the community but don't try to lead. And always, they serve as a reminder that "we can do this together."
Our work is far from finished, and we will continue to share the hard-fought lessons we have learned as our journey continues. You can get to know the people who are reshaping their communities thanks to Healthy Places, as well as find out more about what the trust has learned thus far, by reading The Beginning of Change: The Voices and Faces of Healthy Places NC.
Allen Smart, the visionary behind the Healthy Places NC initiative and Innovations in Rural Health Award, is the vice president of programs and director of the health care division at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. Effective September 1, Smart became interim president of the trust. He joined the trust in 2006 as the senior program officer in the health care division for the eastern region of North Carolina and, before that, was tvice president of programs at the Rapides Foundation in Louisiana, where he led the implementation of the foundation’s first generation of strategic grantmaking.