Transparency Talk

Category: "Advocacy" (13 posts)

Part 1: Aha Moments on the Road to Building Healthy Communities
June 24, 2013

(Robert K. Ross, M.D. is President and CEO of The California Endowment.)

Ross-100We are now two-plus years into the implementation of The California Endowment’s 10-Year Building Healthy Communities plan, and I can safely say that it has been the two most exciting years of my career in community and public health. It has already been quite a ride.

This is the first of periodic reports we will produce to share our progress, observations, mistakes, and lessons along the way as we support the efforts of community leaders to create healthier environments for young people in distressed and underserved communities.

Building Healthy Communities – we call it BHC for short – is a commitment of our Board of Directors to a two-pronged strategy. We have “dropped anchor” in fourteen distressed California communities for a 10-year period to work in partnership with community leaders to improve the health and life chances of young people. In addition, we are supporting change at the regional and state levels through funding advocacy, organizational capacity building, and communications on our key health issues.

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It is our intent to have these place-based and "bigger than place" strategies complement one another, and for the moving parts to develop a powerful synergy. At the local level, the BHC communities are engaging multiple sectors to develop innovative efforts to advance health. As these innovative strategies emerge, we’re looking for ways to scale the ideas up through policy change and communications at the state and regional levels. Through acting on multiple levels with complementary strategies, we expect to make a greater contribution than if we were to work only at the place level or only through supporting statewide advocacy. This is central to our theory of change. In a sense, it is fair to consider BHC as a “place-based plus” community change campaign.

In the spirit of the knowledge sharing that is one of the central aspects of Glasspockets and Transparency Talk, I will lift up three “aha” moments we’ve had so far, followed tomorrow by a second post listing key lessons for philanthropy.

Aha #1: The message matters
As we all know, when one talks about the “social determinants” -- the roles that poverty, education, and housing play in health status -- outside the public health world, eyes glaze over. We experienced this communication gap early as local communities strived to decipher our jargon-laden list of 10 targeted outcomes and 4 Big Results. Our communications team, inspired by the engagement of community leaders and residents in the planning process, took this obstacle head-on, and have created what I believe is one of the first successful decodings of the social determinants research: Health Happens Here.

Health-happens-here-250Health doesn’t just happen in a doctor’s office; health happens where we live, work, learn and play.

If you put the phrase Health Happens Here on a photo of a healthy school lunch, or a bike path, or a father and daughter hugging each other, we immediately communicate the norms change we are promoting. We took this message a step further by incorporating it into our internal structures. In looking at our grant-making, we found that 80% of our grants were focused around three areas: neighborhoods, schools and prevention. This led us to create three themes – Health Happens in Neighborhoods, Health Happens in Schools and Health Happens with Prevention – that have become the essential building blocks for our work. In fact, we call them campaigns, another use of language that communicates our intent as a foundation to use our brand to push for policy and systems change. And we are investing in aggressive media strategies to promote this message—through television, radio, print and social networking and through partnerships with influential messengers including First Lady Michelle Obama, Dr. Oz, and Jamie Oliver. A simple, compelling message carried by influential messengers, can shape a new narrative of change.

Aha #2: Trust young people to lead
Early in our BHC process, we chose to bring young people into leadership roles in BHC. Little did I know that this decision would not only impact community efforts but would impact how we view our work. Young people and adults view health issues differently, and it makes perfect sense to engage young people directly in developing strategies to improve their health. It makes sense but in the past, we didn’t. We operated like most adult organizations and didn’t engage young people in our thinking.

We’ve seen first hand that young people can be powerful leaders for social change. When they tell their stories through the arts, spoken word, social networking and journalism, they compel action. They are not only about our future; they are leaders of today.

Now that we have taken this step, we’re learning a lot. Young people brought to our attention the scandalous epidemic of suspensions and expulsions in our schools, and helped us understand how this issue connects to their health. Young men of color led us to a greater understanding of the role of trauma in the lives of youth growing up in homes and neighborhoods plagued with violence and gangs, and lifted up the need for social/emotional health and healing. And we’ve seen first hand that young people can be powerful leaders for social change. When they tell their stories through the arts, spoken word, social networking and journalism, they compel action. They are not only about our future; they are leaders of today. We’re evolving into an organization informed by adult and youth perspectives.

In addition to the numerous youth organizing and development efforts in the sites, I’ve created a “President’s Youth Council,” consisting of 14 youth leaders across the state, who meet with me at least twice annually in my role as President & CEO. In this way, I have the privilege of  hearing directly from youth leaders themselves about the progress and struggles of BHC, and how our foundation can be more responsive to and supportive of young people’s distressed neighborhoods. I believe this represents a fundamental culture change that will influence our work in the years to come.

As of this writing, BHC youth leaders, working in coalitions with the organizations that support them, have begun to rack up a series of policy victories that will put a check on the epidemic numbers of school suspensions, calling for alternative, common-sense discipline practices (like restorative justice approaches) that keep kids in school. This was an issue, by the way, that was nowhere on our radar screen in the early planning of BHC. It emerged from the youth voices in the BHC sites.

Aha #3: Build power, not just knowledge and innovation  
Frederick Douglass said that power concedes nothing without demand. The world doesn’t change because of the release of new data. It responds or concedes when people demand change.

Institutional philanthropy tends to worship at one of two altars: new knowledge, and innovation. Both are overrated, over-hyped, and over-subscribed to in our field.

Institutional philanthropy tends to worship at one of two altars: new knowledge, and innovation. Both are overrated, over-hyped, and over-subscribed to in our field. It can be argued that the primary value of philanthropy to civic society is the issue of problem-solving at scale. In a wonderfully linear, logical, and intellectually-driven world, good data, research, and new knowledge would be king. But that is not the world we live in. Recently, I noted that the state legislature in North Carolina effectively banned the use of scientific projections on global warming-induced tidal changes because they stand to impede the path of business development. More recently, the NRA-led prohibition against gun violence research by the CDC was recently challenged by President Obama after Newtown. I wish these represented isolated events, but history has shown that good science is frequently set aside by political and economic forces to the detriment of civic society.

The best public health example of this issue is the 80-year-plus war against big tobacco. The medical and public health communities have had the science about the detrimental effects of tobacco use since the 1920’s; but big tobacco had the power. We lost the battle decade after decade, and it was not until we discovered the merits of political and grassroots advocacy which, in combination with the science, led to a strategy where we began to rack up some victories.

On a related front, philanthropy seems hopelessly in love with “innovation” as well.  In the corporate, for-profit world, innovation quickly scales through profit – the I-phone being a classic example. In the social sectors, innovation rarely paves the way towards scale on its own merits. Too many politically powerful forces are in play. Power, voice, and advocacy matter, and matter greatly. Data and innovation, without the recognition of political power and advocacy, is in vain. The school suspensions battle was a perfect illustration of this point, as youth leaders and youth advocacy organizations utilized suspension data that demonstrated a disproportionate impact on African-American and Latino young men as a result of the practices.

In Building Healthy Communities we’ve decided to be clear; we want to help community leaders and residents build the power they need to promote healthier places for young people. We want to support people and organizations that think power, act with power and demand change. Power concedes nothing without demand, and as Douglass added, it never has and it never will.

Tomorrow, in part 2 of this series, Dr. Robert Ross discusses 10 lessons learned on the path to community engagement.

--Robert K. Ross, M.D.

Ants in the Kitchen: The Role of Data in Human Rights Funding
June 19, 2013

(Caitlin Stanton is the Director of Learning & Partnerships at Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights. Previously, she was the Senior Program Officer for Learning & Evaluation at the Global Fund for Women.)

Stanton-100A professor at Vanderbilt University, Brooke Ackerly, once told me, “Numbers matter. If someone tells you there are ants in your kitchen, you will want to know whether there are two ants in your kitchen or whether there are TWO MILLION ANTS IN YOUR KITCHEN.” And if there are anywhere near two million ants in your kitchen, then your neighbors will also want to know about it. Transparently sharing quantitative data helps us understand the scope of a problem, decide how to gauge the scale of our response, and allows others to learn from our efforts.

Transparently sharing quantitative data helps us understand the scope of a problem, decide how to gauge the scale of our response, and allows others to learn from our efforts.

In Advancing Human Rights: The State of Global Foundation Grantmaking, the Foundation Center and the International Human Rights Funder’s Group collect, analyze, and publicly share quantitative data that tell us about the scale of our response to human rights violations. The report finds that foundation grantmaking to address these issues occurs on a global scale and is a widespread practice, with 703 foundations giving a total of $1.2 billion in grants for human rights causes in 2010.

For many of us in the field of human rights grantmaking, and particularly within foundations that work to advance the rights of women and girls, the startlingly low amount of funding going to address the issue of freedom from violence stands out as an important finding from the report.

Funding to secure freedom from violence accounts for just 4 percent of the total grantmaking by human rights funders included in the study. Even within that issue, the largest chunk of grant money goes to addressing freedom from torture, a significant issue to be sure, but one that impacts a relatively small number of individuals compared to the one billion women and girls who face violence based on their gender. In fact, the report finds that in 2010, just $5.3 million was directed to the issue of domestic violence and another $8.6 million to the issue of gender or identity-based violence. Combined, these would account for only about 1 percent of all of the $1.2 billion in grants included in the study.

This data helps us identify issues, like that of gender-based violence, where the scope of the problem may not align with the scale of the response. In terms of the scope of the problem, we know that approximately one out of every three women and girls around the world have their right to freedom from violence violated because of their gender – they experience assault, rape, abuse, and even murder. We know that beyond being a human rights violation, this violence costs societies billions ($5.8 billion annually in the US alone, according to the CDC) in lost worker productivity, public health implications, and costs associated with legal and social services.

Any way you look at it, violence against women is a major roadblock to economic and social progress and a human rights violation. When we compare the scope of the problem to the scale of the response, this data is telling us that we are responding to a two million ant problem with a two ant solution.

However, where grantmaking on freedom from violence is happening, there are innovative efforts to integrate grantmaking, field-building and advocacy strategies for greater impact. Recently, three examples stood out to me:

In the city of Chicago, one-third of all crimes reported are domestic violence related. The Chicago Foundation for Women’s Freedom from Violence initiative includes grantmaking, policy advocacy and capacity building strategies. An Advocacy Academy and Executive Directors Roundtable also support local nonprofits working for the right to live free from violence.

Global Fund for Women has funded organizations that helped to achieve stronger legislation on violence against women and girls in 25 countries, including the Philippines, Bulgaria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mongolia, and Georgia among others. Last fall it looked for ways to raise its own voice on this issue, and worked with a coalition of 17 other women’s funds to bring a petition to the Council of Europe in support of the ratification of the Istanbul Convention - a framework to prevent, stop, and sanction the crime of violence against women.

The Open Society Foundations have directed grantmaking toward freedom from violence but also used their website as a platform to share grantee’s stories and to raise awareness of campaigns on this issue. Most recently, the OSF Moving Walls exhibit has included the stories of domestic violence survivors from South Africa

Data can tell us a lot; revealing challenges and the action we’ve taken -- or failed to take -- to solve those problems. Stories from funders that work to secure freedom from violence adds another layer. A sense of what might be possible. Hopefully, these examples are just a beginning. A beginning of a wave of grantmakers, ready not only to fund but to raise our own voices on this issue.

--Caitlin Stanton

Transparency, Trends, and Tools for Change
December 2, 2011

(Sara Gould, former president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, joined the Foundation Center in February 2011 in the role of The Atlantic Philanthropies Senior Fellow.)

Sara Gould"Unless the field sees five years of above-average investment returns, social justice grantmaking levels in 2015 will remain below 2008 levels." This key finding of Diminishing Dollars: The Impact of the 2008 Financial Crisis on the Field of Social Justice Philanthropy, a new report from the Foundation Center, may be startling, but it's hardly surprising given the slow recovery of the economy since 2008 and the recent volatility and uncertainty in financial markets. And yet, without the Cricket Island Foundation (CIF) taking the initiative to "do the math” necessary to bring greater transparency to the lingering effects of the downturn, this information – so vital to foundations, donors and advocates in the social justice arena – would not have come to light.

Diminishing Dollars: The Impact of the 2008 Financial Crisis on the Field of Social Justice PhilanthropyAmong other trends, the study illuminates both the importance, and the plight, of foundations with endowments of $50 million or less – the "small but mighty” foundations that very often form the bedrock of support for local and regional nonprofit organizations engaged in social justice work. These foundations put their money where their hearts are for social justice. In each of the years from 2005 to 2009, their social justice giving exceeded 70 percent of their total giving, rising to 80 percent immediately following the 2008 downturn. In those same years, the giving of their larger counterparts in the study hovered around 40 percent.

At the same time, small foundations are in an intense struggle to recover economically. Unlike larger foundations, their assets continued to fall from 2008-2009. Because of this, at an average (7 percent) rate of return, grantmaking levels of six small foundations in the study are projected to be 17 percent less in 2015 than in 2008. Although the number of foundations is small, the trend of diminishing dollars available for social justice work in communities across the country is real. And, smaller endowments will not be the only pressure felt by foundations in the social justice arena over the next few years. At a time when high unemployment and cutbacks in public funds mean that so many individuals and families are struggling to meet basic human needs, these foundations will face difficult decisions between funding service provision and investing in advocacy aimed at lasting policy and systems change.

Making difficult and controversial decisions requires trusted research and information, resources that are also invaluable assets in transparent communications with the wide variety of stakeholders in the philanthropic arena. The discouraging economic realities holding sway now in much of philanthropy are not going away any time soon, and they impact every major issue funders are trying to address. Let's continue to increase transparency for both grantmakers and grantseekers, by undertaking research that focuses on a wider group of foundations and making sure those findings are shared with stakeholders. With such efforts, transparency can drive strategy and, ultimately, positive social change.

What impact has the economic downturn had on your grantmaking? Has your cause or organization suffered from cutbacks in social justice grantmaking? Share your experience with us in the comments below.

-- Sara Gould

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  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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