A Reimagined World: Walking with Community

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A Reimagined World: Walking with Community

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” –Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” Financial Times.

This quote guided the Healthy Communities Foundation staff as we gathered to plan our response to COVID-19. This time is indeed a gateway moment for philanthropy that demands that we imagine our world anew. COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement together have revealed, in the most vivid and intense ways, how systemic inequities and racism disproportionately harm Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and immigrant communities.

At Healthy Communities Foundation, our reimagining of a new world started three years ago with restructuring our relationship with communities in our service region and applying a health and racial/ethnic equity lens to our grantmaking, policies, and organizational culture. These actions positioned us to respond quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic and act boldly towards a renewed vision of community health.

We know that many foundations are reevaluating their structures and relationships as we meet the challenges before us. As a philanthropic community, we must share our learnings. Here are our guiding practices that continue to light our way.

Focus on nuance through hyper-local, community-led, and -informed strategies

Early COVID-19 data in Illinois came primarily from hospitals, which typically do not collect accurate ethnicity data. COVID-19 testing was also not widely accessible, particularly in BIPOC communities. Because we were aware of the health disparities in our region, which has the third-largest Latinx community in the United States, we knew the public health data we were closely monitoring did not tell the full story of the developing crisis. We immediately reached out to grantee partners across the region whose community-specific knowledge about COVID-19’s impact helped build a comprehensive picture of what was happening. It informed a rapid response strategy that addressed urgent, basic needs for residents and organizations alike. As we work towards an equitable recovery, we will continue to support communities and follow their lead towards shaping solutions that address the challenges before us.

“COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have revealed, in the most vivid and intense ways, how systemic inequities and racism disproportionately harm Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and immigrant communities.”

Recruit staff and board rooted in the community

Three years ago, our board and staff underwent a complete transformation. Now, all ten board members live in or have a connection with communities in our region. Our team, many of whom are women of color, mirrors this as well. 

The in-depth knowledge of community and lived experience means that board and staff draw on personal and community insights, along with data, to understand the region’s health challenges, especially in this moment.

For example, after developing a rapid response fund that funded the immediate needs of current grantee partners and those they serve, the staff knew that more needed to be done. Our board encouraged us to think more boldly after hearing from staff–the “rainy day” that philanthropy was waiting for was here. While we have given more than 5% of our total assets every year, our board unanimously approved to give out significantly more in total giving this year compared to 2019. Our streamlined board approval process, implemented pre-pandemic, also facilitated rapid approval to put our vision into motion.

“The in-depth knowledge of community and lived experience means that Board and Staff draw on personal and community insights, along with data, to understand the region’s health challenges, especially in this moment.”

Build influence, leverage, and knowledge through collaboration

When the pandemic hit, we joined several funding collaboratives to ensure that rapid response funds, which often stop at the city border, would be allocated to communities in need, especially in Chicago’s western suburbs. We used the power of our influence at decision-making tables to lift grantee and community partners’ stories, alert our funding colleagues to emerging issues and locally-driven solutions, and maximize funding to hard-hit communities in our region. By leveraging and knowing about response funding in the area, we also have clarity on approaching this year’s grantmaking through an equity lens.

Invest boldly—there is no better time than now

By listening closely to our grantee and community partners, the board and staff knew that our current times demanded bold changes in grantmaking that address health disparities from a racial and ethnic equity lens. Nonprofit organizations may not survive the next few years, and there are new and expanded areas of need, especially in BIPOC and immigrant communities. 

Our first step is to dramatically increase total grant funding for this year—an effort made possible by our belief that a ceiling on annual giving should not exist in order to protect our endowment. 

Secondly, while we have always directed most of our funding towards general operating support, we made a few changes this year. Fueled by our board’s approval, we simplified our application process, renewed general operating grants for the vast majority of our current grantee partners and accelerated funds disbursement to support them in their financial planning and projections. This action will allow our grantee partners to focus on communities’ needs and rebuild efforts towards community health and wellness. 

“Can we do more and, if so, what needs to change within the (virtual) walls of our organizations to embody authenticity to communities and organizations we fund?” 

Finally, we prioritized funding to communities without access to the safety net. The zip codes in our region most impacted by COVID-19 are in Latinx communities, who experienced high unemployment rates and where immigrant and mixed-status families were denied access to federal stimulus dollars. Due to the public charge rule, many in these communities fear accessing health care services and benefits, which only exacerbated COVID-19’s impact.   

In the last few months, COVID-19 has shown us that efforts towards systemic change can happen overnight. So, we must ask ourselves—can we do more and, if so, what needs to change within the (virtual) walls of our organizations to embody authenticity to communities and organizations we fund? What investments or strategies will aptly address what will come? How can we bring the voice of the community inside our decision-making? Are we prepared as a funding community to walk through “a gateway from one world to the next”?

As we ponder these questions, we can find the answers if we commit to walking through that gateway, along with and led by our communities.

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