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PEAK Grantmaking

How The California Endowment Addresses Inequity by Building Power

This week, we continue to celebrate the release of our Narrow the Power Gap resources – the second suite of Action Planners, How-To Guides, and more in our five Principles for Peak Grantmaking series. Included in these resources are two case stories about grantmakers who are leading the way in narrowing the power gap with their grantees through process improvement, transparency, community engagement, and more.

Today, we highlight The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities program and its exceptional work building power and voice in underserved communities. The mission of this nonprofit, statewide foundation is to expand access to affordable, quality health care for underserved individuals and communities and to promote fundamental improvements in the health status of all Californians. The Endowment holds more than $3 billion in assets and deploys a wide array of health improvement programs, including the Building Healthy Communities (BHC) program.

BHC’s premise is simple: In low-income communities and communities of color, health outcomes fall far below those for other communities “because of a legacy of racial and economic segregation, anti-immigrant policy and a host of other historical ‘isms’.” To achieve health equity, BHC has worked to create healthier communities by investing $1 billion in the social, political, and economic power of community residents to change health policies and systems over time.

Through Building Healthy Communities, The California Endowment holds at its core the value of narrowing the power gap with grantees and communities to achieve true long-term impact. Here’s how. 

BHC supports organizations building community resident voice and power and makes space for authentic engagement and shared learning with grantseekers and grantees.

The program was founded on the principle that meaningful, sustained and truly transformative change requires engaging the voices, and supporting organizations that build the power and capacity of, the communities it seeks to help. The 14 communities that are part of the BHC were asked to identify the policy and systems changes most critical to improving health in their own communities.

Then, The California Endowment’s senior staff empowered BHC program officers to set their grantmaking priorities not from the top down, but from the bottom up. Program Manager Alexandra Desautels has worked with the program for five years. She says, “We’re really talking to grassroots community organizations about what they need and working collaboratively with grantees to think about the different grants we can make to amplify this work. I focus my grantmaking on grants to organizations that build power and voice on the issues that they care about.”

To enhance transparency and maintain accountability, BHC also publicly acknowledges that as partners in working towards social change, foundations, along with government and system leaders, must listen to and strive to be co-leaders and co-learners with adult and youth residents.

Desautels emphasizes, “We have to be conscious about power dynamics. Our role is not to be the movement or drive it or center ourselves but to listen to our partners and help them be successful.”

BHC structures their grant awards to be responsive to the needs of their nonprofit partners.

This deep engagement of individuals, communities and organizations in the work of systems change has also pushed the Endowment to develop new strategies and more nuanced approaches to complex and controversial situations.

Supporting organizations that build power and voices of people not historically in the public debate, movement-building and social justice work require listening deeply to partner organizations and rethinking traditional definitions, paradigms and funding strategies. As BHC community partners identified things like criminal justice and policy work as integral to their efforts, the Endowment worked to develop a better understanding of and deeper strategy around funding this kind of work.

Desautels says that program staff had to lean into the tension to emphasize that following the direction of those closest to the pain, as well as supporting advocacy and policy work in this context really was part of the program’s larger strategy to improve health outcomes in partner communities. They argued that it was worth the organization’s time and effort to better understand the work and develop a more nuanced approach to supporting it.

What’s Next for the California Endowment

The successful work of the BHC program has underscored the significance of authentic engagement, responsiveness and power sharing in achieving true long-term change. However, the Endowment recognizes that the work of narrowing the power gap between grantmakers and grantees is never done.

As Desautels says, “It’s not enough to say we’re up to 1000 policy changes. If they don’t result in a real shift in the power dynamics of any place, then we’re not going to see the transformative change we desire. My grantmaking has been influenced by my focus on narrative and power as core to how change happens… How do I find and exercise my power in this sector that doesn’t center me or the foundation but continues to center the grantee?”

How you can lead the way 

To learn more about the Building Healthy Communities journey toward health equity, RSVP for our March 20 webinar where we’ll be joined by California Endowment Program Manager Alexandra Desautels. Then, help your organization understand how power shows up in grantmaking practice, by exploring our new suite of Narrow the Power Gap resources. Start by downloading our Action Planner: Strategies for Narrowing the Power Gap.

PEAK Grantmaking members have access to two new case stories of organizations who are doing this work well; and, exclusive to our Organization Members, we’ve developed five how-to guides providing roadmaps to put this principle into practice. (Not a member? Join us!)

Many of our colleagues in philanthropy-serving organizations across the country have demonstrated exceptional thought leadership around power in the philanthropic sector. We encourage you to engage with this work by visiting our Sector Resources page.