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Opening Up the Good and Bad Leads to Stronger Communities and Better Grantmaking
September 28, 2017

Hanh Cao Yu is Chief Learning Officer at The California Endowment.  She has been researcher and evaluator of equity and philanthropy for more than two decades. 

This post is part of the Glasspockets #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new research and tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood.

Hanh-Cao-Yu-photoMore than a year ago when I began my tenure at The California Endowment (TCE), I reflected deeply about the opportunities and challenges ahead as the new Chief Learning Officer.  We were six years into a complex, 10-year policy/systems change initiative called Building Healthy Communities (BHC).  This initiative was launched in 2010 to advance statewide policy, change the narrative, and transform 14 of California’s communities most devastated by health inequities into places where all people—particular our youth—have an opportunity to thrive.  This is the boldest bet in the foundation’s history at $1 billion and the stakes are high.  It is not surprising, then, that despite the emphasis on learning, the evaluation of BHC is seen as a winning or losing proposition. 

“By acknowledging our mistakes, our focus has sharpened and our dual roles as changemakers and grantmakers have continued to evolve.”

As I thought about the role of learning and evaluation in deepening BHC’s impact, I became inspired by the words of Nelson Mandela: “I never lose.  I either win or I learn.”  His encouragement to shift our mindset from “Win/Lose” to “Win/Learn” is crucial to continuous improvement and success.  

I also drew from the insights of Amy Edmondson who reminds us that if we experience failure, not all failures are bad.  According to Edmondson, mistakes can be preventable, unavoidable due to complexity, or even intelligent failures.  So, despite careful planning and learning from decades of research on comprehensive community initiatives and bold systems change efforts, in an initiative as complex as BHC, mistakes can and will occur. By spurring change at community, regional and state levels, and linking community mobilization with sophisticated policy advocacy, TCE was truly venturing into new territory when we launched BHC.

BHC's Big Wins and Lessons 

At the mid-point of BHC, TCE staff and Board paused to assess where we have been successful and where we could do better in improving the conditions under which young people could be healthy and thrive in our underserved communities.  The results were widely shared in the 2016 report, A New Power Grid:  Building Healthy Communities at Year 5.

As a result of taking the time to assess overall progress, we identified some of BHC's biggest impacts to date. In the first five years, TCE and partners contributed to significant policy/system wins:

  • Improved health coverage for the underserved;
  • Strengthened health coverage policy for the undocumented;
  • Improved school climate, wellness and equity;
  • Prevention and reform within the justice system;
  • Public-private investment and policy changes on behalf of boys and young men of color; and
  • Local & regional progress in adoption of “Health In All Policies,” a collaborative approach incorporating health considerations into decision-making across all policy areas

Our Board and team are very pleased with the results and impact of BHC to date, but we have been committed to learning from our share of mistakes. 

Along with the victories, we acknowledged in the report some hard lessons.  Most notable among our mistakes were more attention to:

  • Putting Community in “Community-Driven” Change.  Armed with lessons on having clarity about results to achieve results, we over thought the early process.  This resulted in prescriptiveness in the planning phase that was not only unnecessary, but also harmful. We entered the community planning process with multiple outcomes frameworks and a planning process that struck many partners as philanthropic arrogance. The smarter move was to engage community leaders with the clarity of a shared vision and operating principles, and create the space for community leaders and residents to incubate goals, results, and strategy. Fortunately, we course corrected, and our partners were patient while we did so.
  • Revisiting assumptions about local realities and systems dynamics.  In the report, we discussed our assumption about creating a single locus of inside-out, outside-in activity where community residents, leaders and systems leaders could collaborate on defined goals. It was readily apparent that community leaders distrusted many “systems” insiders, and systems leaders viewed outsider/activists as unreasonable. We underestimated the importance of the roles of historical structural inequalities, context, and dynamics of relationships at the local level.  Local collaboratives or “hubs” were reorganized and customized to meet local realities, and we threw the concept of a single model of collaboration across all the sites out the window.

Some course corrections we made included adjusting and sharpening our underlying assumptions and theory of change and taking on new community-driven priorities that we never anticipated early on; examples include school discipline reform, dismantling the prison pipeline in communities of color through prevention, and work that is taking place in TCE’s Boys & Young Men of Color portfolio.  By acknowledging our mistakes, our focus has sharpened and our dual roles as changemakers and grantmakers have continued to evolve. 

“Some partner feedback was difficult to hear, but all of it was useful and is making our work with partners stronger.”

Further, significant developments have occurred since the report:

Positioning “Power Building” as central to improving complex systems and policies.  In defining key performance indicators, we know the policy milestones achieved thus far represent only surface manifestations of the ultimate success we are seeking.  We had a breakthrough when we positioned “building the power and voice” of the adults and youth in our communities and “health equity” at the center of our BHC North Star Goals and Indicators.  Ultimately, we’ll know we are successful when the power dynamics in our partner communities have shifted so that adult and youth residents know how to hold local officials accountable for full, ongoing implementation of these policies.

Continuing to listen to our partners.  In addition to clarifying our North Stars, we sought further mid-point advice from our partners, reaching out to 175 stakeholders, including 68 youth and adult residents of BHC communities, for feedback to shape the remainder of BHC’s implementation and to inform our transition planning for the next decade.  Some of what our partners told us was difficult to hear, but all of it was useful and is making our work with partners stronger.    

From these lessons, I challenge our philanthropic colleagues to consider:

  • How can we learn to detect complex failures early to help us go beyond lessons that are superficial? As Amy Edmonson states, “The job of leaders is to see that their organizations don’t just move on after a failure but stop to dig in and discover the wisdom contained in it.”
  • In complex initiatives and complex organizations, what does it take to design a learning culture to capitalize successfully on mistakes? How do we truly engage in “trial and error” and stay open to experimentation and midcourse corrections?  How can we focus internally on our own operations and ways of work, as well as being willing to change our strategies and relationships with external partners?  Further, how do we, as grantmakers responsible for serving the public good, take responsibility for making these lessons #OpenForGood so others can learn from them as well?

It is worth noting that a key action that TCE took at the board level as we embarked on BHC was to dissolve the Board Program Committee and replace it with Learning and Performance Committee.  This set-up offered consistent opportunity for learning from evaluation reports between the Board, the CEO, and the management team and for sharing our learnings publicly to build the philanthropic field.  Now, even as we enter the final phase of BHC, we continue to look for ways to structure opportunities to learn, and I can say, “We are well into a journey to learn intelligently from our successes as well as our mistakes to make meaningful, positive impacts.”

--Hanh Cao Yu

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