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How New Jersey Health Initiatives keeps relationships at the heart of its investments

By Joanne Lee on November 26th, 2019

For better or worse; for richer, for poorer; through sickness and health. You may not associate this phrase with working with funders—unless you’ve had the privilege of partnering with New Jersey Health Initiatives (NJHI).

Before Healthy Places by Design entered into a formal partnership with NJHI in 2018 to provide collaborative learning and networking support for the Upstream Action Acceleration grantee coalitions, I had crossed paths with Bob Atkins (NJHI’s Director) and Diane Hagerman (Deputy Director, Programs) at meetings and conferences. From our early encounters, I knew that our values around supporting community-led health improvement efforts were aligned. I recall us bonding over how we described our shared views of the relationship between funders and grantees as similar to a healthy marriage or mutually-supportive and trusting partnership centered on an equitable relationship. Over time, I’ve seen how NJHI puts this into practice. Among the many qualities that make NJHI unique as a funder are: the high value they place on shifting power to communities; making longer-term commitments on par with the time it takes to achieve community transformation; and forming authentic relationships with grantees and partners.

New Jersey Health Initiatives was established in 1987 as a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). In their home state of New Jersey, NJHI plays a lead role in serving RWJF’s interest in building healthier communities through grantmaking and investments. Since its inception, NJHI has supported more than 40 initiatives across 21 counties in the state. Their grantmaking has impacted youth-led initiatives, health factors and focus areas including mental health and healthcare, and community capacity development through leadership and coalition supports.

Recognizing that the communities NJHI supports have the power to create the most impactful and sustainable changes, the organization strives to be flexible, nimble, and innovative. “We allow community partners to determine the best use of grant funds based on their specific community needs,” says Bob Atkins. “We have focused our grantmaking on engaging more voices and sectors in communities, and to have them inform our thinking and approaches to help make their communities healthier and more equitable.” NJHI not only listens, but they also actively seek opportunities to be influenced by communities. For example, as pressing community needs shifted in 2015, NJHI changed their grantmaking from being issue-specific to community-focused and community-designed.

As a community-led funder and partner focused in one state, NJHI has the ability to make multiple investments in the same communities in ways that are strategic and complementary, rather than duplicative. “It has been exciting to see past and current grantees weave in elements of what they had been funded for five or 10 or 15 years ago,” shares Diane Hagerman. “We know that changes to health outcomes may not be seen for five or even 10 years, so seeing work that was funded in the past resurface with new and current context lends itself to the strength and commitment of communities to make lasting changes.”

NJHI also recognizes that the needs and contexts are not the same across communities in New Jersey. They avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to grantmaking. “We’ve analyzed our approach and become increasingly aware that some of our more distressed communities want help to build their own organizational and collaborative capacity,” Diane explains. To address this, NJHI revised a call for proposals to increase the amount of technical assistance that applicants from more distressed communities, many which don’t have dedicated or paid grant writers, receive as they develop their applications.

A more recent reimagining of NJHI’s approach put more focus on how they work with communities rather than for communities. Bob notes, “One of the most valuable roles we can play is to set the table for grantees and community partners while they decide and opt-in about what will help them achieve their goals.” As such, NJHI leverages their influential roles as a connector and convener to help community partners expand their networks and access resources. Grantees recognize that they receive so much more than funding when they partner with NJHI and appreciate the additional technical assistance, coaching, and collaborative learning and networking support that they receive. These investments provide great returns in building sustainable capacity at the community level.

"NJHI not only invests in communities, they invest in leaders and have built a movement across the state of people passionate about health equity. Being a part of the NJHI family means that you always have thought leaders to problem solve with and learn from, and that is invaluable.”

Mary Celis, Director of Health Initiatives, United Way of Passaic County

NJHI engages partner organizations such as Healthy Places by Design and Equal Measure to provide complementary and tailored expertise and guidance, and to increase collective capacity to nimbly address community needs. NJHI saw the partnership as an opportunity to leverage Healthy Places by Design’s unique strengths, which include our national perspective; expertise in policy, systems, and environmental strategies for community-led change; and our history of collaboration with RWJF. Healthy Places by Design is supporting the efforts of the 12 Upstream Action Acceleration coalitions as they strive to adopt and implement upstream policy and systems changes to address identified priorities for improving health in their communities. Specific services that we provide to complement NJHI’s overall investment include program design and management; collaborative learning and networking development, facilitation, and support (including in-person convenings and web-based sessions); content contribution for the initiative’s webpage, which serves as a resource hub for grantees; field building with local, state, and national partners; and product and results dissemination.

NJHI’s view and practice of developing meaningful partnerships are vital to creating sustainable healthy communities. “This work cannot be done alone. To be most effective in what we are trying to achieve requires partnering with our communities and other organizations,” Bob explains. “We don’t want to simply be seen as ‘the funder’—we are their partners, committed to learning from and alongside them.”

Joanne Lee

Senior Project Director

Adventurous strategist, cross-cultural explorer, and human and animal welfare champion.