It’s rare that nonprofit staff have an opportunity to experience the inner workings of a healthcare foundation, let alone four of them. So when I was chosen last year to staff and serve as the eyes and ears, scribe and shepherd for a one-year peer learning journey, I knew I was in for a treat. Twelve months later, what surprises me the most is the spirit of professional respect, transparency, and trust that developed among the participants in a very short period of time. The experience confirmed for me the value of one of Active Living By Design’s six Essential Practices: Facilitative Leadership. This is a capacity-building and management approach that shares power and influence among engaged partners in order to produce actions and outcomes that are generated by and best serve a group rather than one or two strong or vocal leaders.
In late 2016, four health legacy foundations partnered in response to a national funding opportunity. PATH Foundation, in Warrenton, VA, served as the initial convener and was soon joined by Danville Regional Foundation in Danville, VA, Interact for Health in Cincinnati, OH, and Paso del Norte Health Foundation in El Paso, TX. The initial vision was to create opportunities for learning across similar organizations around the country to 1) test and expand assumptions about promising strategies for addressing common population health challenges; 2) explore organizational best practices related to programming and operations; and 3) understand the roles and impacts that health legacy foundations have in their communities.
These four foundations partnered based on their similar sizes, desire to learn from and with each other, and approaches to community action and multi-sector collaboration. Yet despite their similarities, there were some important and beneficial differences. The HLCLC partner organizations ranged from histories of three years to more than 20. The HLCLC partners themselves were a combination of “friends” and “strangers;” and while each had worked with at least one other member in the past, no one had worked with all of them. Finally, the partners had similar organizational roles (as program staff) but wide-ranging years of experience.
With funding secured, the HLCLC then partnered with Active Living By Design to facilitate collaborative learning activities as well as document, synthesize, and help disseminate lessons learned through activities such as monthly conference calls and site visits to each foundation’s community. Each foundation identified at least one major challenge for which another partner had special knowledge or experience they were willing to share. In addition, the group explored how to strengthen their organizations’ “connective tissue” related to practices such as evaluation and engagement of backbone organizations. HLCLC proactively identified specific topics of interest yet maintained a spirit of flexibility to absorb new ideas that emerged during the process. As relationships and trust grew, complex issues like capacity-building, program and portfolio exit strategies, grantee and board relations, program staff roles, succession planning, and change management were also addressed.
While HLCLC’s grant funding has ended, the learning continues. Individually, each of the foundations are starting to adapt and implement best practices shared by their peers, and many have experienced personal “aha’s” that will guide their work as grantmakers for years to come. Collectively, we are reflecting together on key takeaways. This spring, we’ll publish an HLCLC case study and resource guide so others can learn more about the process. And this summer, we’ll be sharing our experience more broadly with foundations and investors in healthy, equitable communities at the Grantmakers in Health Annual Conference, Navigating Currents of Change.
One of my biggest takeaways is that facilitative leadership really does work. Facilitative leadership created an environment in which my pages and pages of notes, observations, and quotes were used to help catalyze new insights rather than relegated to a dusty binder. Facilitative leadership provided a platform for authentically engaging seasoned and junior foundation staff alongside community partners and grantees as co-leaders and co-learners rather than privileging the voices of the most experienced grantmakers. Most importantly, facilitative leadership helped foster trust, a pre-condition for any community to effectively identify and address shared goals and leverage opportunities for greater social impact. While many lessons from the HLCLC are still evolving, this important reminder is one I won’t forget.