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Charting a New Course: Reflections from Grantmakers in Health

By Sarah Strunk on March 18th, 2016

Dean Schillinger, a primary care physician by training and co-founder of, is now empowering minority youth to change the conversation about diabetes and become agents of positive social change. Amy Berman, a senior program officer at The John A. Hartford Foundation, was diagnosed with advanced inflammatory breast cancer five years ago. Now she is improving the healthcare system by advocating for access to palliative care services with providers, patients, policymakers and other funders. And Paul Rieckhoff was an Army First Lieutenant and an infantry rifle platoon leader from 2003 to 2004. As founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), today he is addressing critical issues facing new veterans and their families, including mental health injuries, an over-burdened VA system, inadequate health care for female veterans and equitable access to GI Bill educational benefits.

Schillinger, Berman and Rieckhoff are inspiring examples of change agents and adaptive leaders. They are also three of many passionate advocates who shared their personal journeys—stories of roadblocks, breakthroughs and discoveries—at the 2016 Grantmakers in Health (GIH) Annual Conference on Health Philanthropy held recently in San Diego, CA. GIH’s mission is to foster communication and collaboration among grantmakers and others, and to help strengthen the grantmaking community’s knowledge, skills and effectiveness.

Active Living By Design (ALBD) is neither a grantmaker nor a traditional nonprofit organization. Rather, we are a connector between grantmakers and the communities in which they invest—serving as a strategic thought partner for funders, community coalitions and healthy community leaders. So I was eager and honored to attend the meeting. As a participant, I hoped to hear what excites and concerns grantmakers these days. As a breakout session presenter, I hoped to share some useful reflections from ALBD.

Executive Director Risa Wilkerson and I collaborated with long-time colleagues Margo Pedroso from the Safe Routes to School National Partnership (SRTSNP) and Jamie Bussel from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) in a candid, interactive session. We addressed some of the ways in which our own organizations have leveraged RWJF funding to chart new courses and challenging yet rewarding paths toward sustainability. While we discussed fundraising through economic downturns, staying relevant in rapidly changing fields, and the importance of a broad definition of sustainability, the theme that surfaced again and again was adaptive leadership, and the importance of this attribute in our own professional journeys. Adaptive leaders are proactive, yet flexible, in planning for the future. They identify creative, sometimes unconventional solutions. They seek to engage a diverse cadre of stakeholders before making important decisions. They understand the importance of building an organization’s competencies as the field changes, and ensuring that its culture evolves accordingly. Adaptive leaders admit when they’re wrong and strive to make course corrections. And finally, adaptive leaders are committed to lifelong learning.

I returned from the meeting with all I had sought, plus a few bonuses. A renewed commitment to public health, in its broadest expression. Gratitude for the opportunity to work at the intersection of philanthropy and community health. And validation of one of the things I’ve known all along: Adaptive leadership isn’t a skill set that is reserved for physicians, grantmakers, military veterans or even for nonprofit professionals like Risa, Margo or me. They are community organizers and youth; they are pastors and PTA moms. Adaptive leaders are everywhere. Whether in the clinic or on Capitol Hill, in the boardroom or on the battlefield, at the pulpit or on the playground, each of us has the ability to transform ourselves, our organizations and our communities. Let’s continue to chart new courses, together.

Sarah Strunk

Strategic Advisor

Healthy communities networker, integrator and distance runner on the go.