Article contributed by: Brittany Giles-Cantrell, Edward Meehan, Jessi LaRose, Talore Gray-Peel, and Matthew Broad
In an effort to give voice to the unsaid, lend an ear to the unheard, and strengthen partnerships across sectors, The BUILD Health Challenge® (BUILD) hosted a conversation between awardee representatives (from all three BUILD cohorts) and funder representatives (from the third cohort and upcoming fourth cohort) during our recent All BUILD convening held June 14-15, 2022.
In bringing together this group of leaders in community health, we recognize the dynamics between funders and awardees can at times be rewarding, complex, and challenging. Bound together as awardee and funder by the traditional system of philanthropy, we see in this relationship both the opportunity to strengthen partnerships and shared impact, as well as a fundamental imbalance of power. As we have seen in BUILD, effective and collaboration and impact is possible only when stakeholders first acknowledge and address the challenges inherent in the relationship.
The reality is, it’s often much easier to share what’s working well or what you like about the relationship than it is to discuss what’s difficult—especially when concerns are grounded in fundamental inequities that run throughout the partnership. For example, if you’re an awardee, when was the last time you spoke freely and transparently with any of your funders about issues that negatively impacted your work? Such conversations, whether they be related to grant management and how the funding is structured or programmatic challenges related to strategy and implementation, may result in barriers to transparency, learning, and ultimately progress. And for those in a position to support community efforts through grants or other resources, what perspective or insight into your strategy are you not sharing with awardees that might help them better understand decisions related to resources or partnerships? What would you celebrate with and about one another? What would you want to try and inform or change for the other?
Creating space for this type of face-to-face dialogue has become a staple at each BUILD convening for the last five years and offers participants a chance to explore their shared goals, identify opportunities for alignment, and confront imbalances in power. It is a platform for partners to offer constructive feedback to one another, validate concerns of their peers, and hold ourselves accountable. In doing so, we strive to strengthen our trust and ties to one another.
While such conversations were encouraged throughout the convening (and lifespan of the relationship), there is always at least one dedicated session designed to facilitate conversation between funders and community awardees. This year’s panel featured:
- Brittany Giles-Cantrell, MPH – Program Director, de Beaumont Foundation
- Edward Meehan, MPH – Executive Director, Leonard Parker Pool Institute for Health
- Jessi LaRose, MPH – Senior Strategist-Initiatives, Missouri Foundation for Health
- Talore Gray-Peel, MPH – Program Officer, ProMedica Social Determinants of Health Institute
- Moderating the conversation: Former BUILD awardee, Matthew Broad, MPH – Senior Program Manager, Trenton Health Team.
The conversation highlighted four key actions that are broadly applicable for awardees and funders alike:
1. Invest in the people, organizations, and policies that represent the change we want to see.
Changemakers—community leaders, healthcare providers, funders—all want to see resources invested in people and communities closest to the issues, rather than the organizations and leaders that have traditionally received resources but may not actually represent or be led by the people at the heart of the issues. There was a general consensus among attendees that there is a need to foster more community-centered investments that will offer meaningful opportunities for systems level change. Such shifts may include offering operational or unrestricted grants, structuring funding and programs with a long-term mindset, and involving communities in decisions around funding and resource allocations.
As the conversation continued, many in attendance agreed that actors in this space need to walk the talk–whether it be operationalizing the changes in the form of grant policies and awards or expanding one’s organizational capacity to receive funds. There is a sense of urgency to not only embrace this strategy, but also to act on it in tangible ways. Suggestions offered during the session included investing in BIPOC-owned businesses and community-driven organizations versus continuing to resource the broken policies and practices that changemakers are trying to break away from, and making grant screening and application processes more community-centered and asset based (rather than deficit based).
2. Stop leaving community experience and expertise on the table.
When it comes to program design, implementation, and evaluation it was clear that stakeholders, and in particular funders, are encouraged to diversify their thinking. For example, when it comes to the role of data, many agreed that qualitative data and community voices are underrepresented and undervalued when assessing funding opportunities. How might this imbalance perpetuate inequality in community experience representation? In trying to change this structure, a key follow up question is where and how does compensation for communities’ time and contributions come into play?
3. Recognize that we all have a role to play in shifting policy.
In order to make our impact as changemakers more sustainable and long term, policy shifts must be part of the conversation. In thinking about how communities and funders can work together on this front, it will require us to examine elevating a policy agenda that includes both local and national considerations. For example, how might we leverage local declarations of racism as a public health crisis into a larger more galvanized movement that advances racial justice? Another community leader raised the concern that their voices are being minimized by professional lobbying organizations that are spending much more than they can due to grant restrictions. How can funders work together to support a change in rules around the use of grant funding related to lobbying?
If successful in implementing policy changes that support community health, how might that change the role of—and need for—philanthropic organizations to support social change moving forward?
4. Acknowledge that everyone, people and organizations alike, are on a learning journey that does not end.
Funders expressed that they hear what is being said to and about them and the philanthropic sector. This includes the critiques that the philanthropic system must address its legacy of systemic oppression and the imbalance of power that continues to this day.
To that end, we talked about how BUILD has much to do in terms of its own evolution and growth. BUILD is listening, learning, and making changes to its own policies and practices with the guidance of both the funding collaborative and awardees. For example, in preparation for BUILD 4.0, we are shifting to operational grants to give awardees more flexibility in their program implementation and budgets; past awardees from BUILD communities now serve on the application review committee; and BUILD is investing in past awardees (with compensation) as mentors who are now part of our technical assistance programming and will support the incoming cohort.
These changes are the direct result of our ongoing conversations with community leaders and funders. It is this type of open dialogue that we hope becomes the norm among partners across sectors and in particular helps awardees and funders work together to strengthen their partnerships; improve their organizational policies and practices; and ultimately center communities in their work.
There is much more to come in terms of this dialogue, as we create spaces for this conversation to continue learning. We welcome your own take on the conversations you and your partners are having – or not having. What can we do as a field to help facilitate necessary conversations so that we can tackle the difficult problems we all face together? Please email BUILD with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.