Cultivating Healthy Communities

Aetna Foundation



Since January 2018, Healthy Places by Design has supported Aetna Foundation’s Cultivating Healthy Communities (CHC) grant program by co-developing, coordinating, and facilitating a peer learning network connecting several dozen local nonprofit and government organizations in 18 states. We helped set the “virtual table” for lively conversations to exchange ideas, solve problems, share best practices, and allow community coordinators to support each other. Topics included building capacity, engaging young people and adults in neighborhood-level solutions, evaluating progress, and sustaining their important work in communities.

Our Support

Over the course of our partnership with Aetna Foundation, we have:

  • Held strategic planning sessions with the foundation’s staff;
  • Conducted bimonthly learning webinars for its grantees;
  • Facilitated bimonthly peer affinity group exchange sessions; and
  • Hosted peer-led, ad-hoc learning and exchange sessions that increased CHC grantees’ capacity to accelerate health equity.

These learning sessions laid a foundation for grantees’ leadership as well as the sustainability of their efforts, with an emphasis on equitable strategies for improving community health. By serving as host and facilitator, Healthy Places by Design was able to create the space needed to work around power dynamics and have honest conversations. During the learning sessions, our team posed questions that allowed grantees to openly share with each other about specific challenges that they’ve encountered while working toward equity. Grantees also exchanged examples of inspiring action happening where they live, including the successes of local leaders and GIS maps and Photovoice stories that were created with young people in their communities.

Phil Bors, Technical Assistance Director at Healthy Places by Design, explains, “At the beginning of each Zoom call, we ask specific questions before starting the conversation so that we have a real-time understanding of the things that work and challenges participants are facing. We also ask about what’s working well. This abundance-thinking mindset leads to participants sharing about their work, and people love hearing what other grantees are doing for their projects.”



“I have been involved in a number of other peer learning and engagement efforts in the past. It has been surprising to see just how much and how quickly this Peer Learning Network experience has deepened as a direct result of Healthy Places by Design’s authentic and skillful facilitation of conversations around systemic, root-cause health challenges in communities and nonprofits. I think our partners value the Network’s explicit and candid focus and the opportunity to engage with their peers to share effective practices that address these challenges. The deliberate process, which was responsive to participants’ questions and requests, has cultivated a sense of ownership and has made the Network feel meaningful in a surprisingly short time frame.”

Project Officer, Community Impact and Strategy, Aetna Foundation


“[During the CHC initiative] I was surprised to learn how many people are genuinely afraid of interacting with the natural environment. I am also seeing first-hand how race affects where people feel comfortable, and that young people of color experience this differently than I, as a white adult woman, experience the same environments.”

Executive Director, The Health Foundation, Wilkes County, NC

“Our partners value the Network’s explicit and candid focus and the opportunity to engage with their peers to share effective practices that address these challenges.”