Reflections on PFF’s Lunch and Learn with The California Endowment
In April, PFF hosted a funder lunch and learn with Albert Maldonado, Manger of Youth Initiatives for The California Endowment (TCE). With assets of more than $3 billion, TCE is one of the nation’s largest health conversion foundations – and has also become one of the nation’s largest funders of youth organizing. While it would be easy to look at TCE’s asset base and dismiss their model as untenable for any single foundation in Connecticut to replicate, the thought-provoking presentation and ensuing discussion surfaced recommendations that foundations – through their independent strategies and in collaborative partnerships with other funders and practitioners – can implement in order to build a healthier Connecticut for all our young people.
Transcend silos of issue and geography
TCE’s Building Healthy Communities initiative, seeks to create “healthy, fair, and just communities for all people who call California home.” Underlying all Building Healthy Communities activities, Albert explained, is a fundamental belief in the power of a functioning democracy in which all people are valued and included. The Building Healthy Communities initiative takes a strategic approach that intentionally weaves connections between a myriad of issues – schools, the justice system, access to health care, housing, transportation, violence – through a silo-shattering lens of community health and equity. Albert also highlighted the dearth of resources – and need for targeted investment – in California’s “inland empire” – areas in the state’s central valley which were often isolated and lacked the depth of philanthropic investment and nonprofit infrastructure found in Los Angeles or the Bay Area.
Many funders in Connecticut – and by extension, the organizations we fund – find themselves working in silos of issue or geography, and this narrow approach not only limits our ability to understand the dynamic, varied, and intersectional ways that an “issue” like health or education shows up in people’s lives, it also limits some foundations’ ability to address deeper, statewide policies and practices that inform local realities.
TCE’s average grant to youth organizations is $75,000-$85,000, and each funded youth site engages approximately 20-22 young people in youth organizing work. TCE’s approach differs starkly from that of many funders in Connecticut, where a grant of $25,000 to a youth organization or program is considered “large” and where there is often a great deal of pressure to demonstrate large numbers of youth served or a program model that is “scalable.” TCE’s approach, Albert explained, focuses on depth over breadth. The young people engaged in organizing move beyond participating in a “program,” becoming deeply engaged in developing and implementing campaigns as well as broader organizational strategy and decision-making. Because these youth leaders are engaged in systemic and structural change efforts, the impact of TCE funding extends far beyond the individual youth served – it also drives policy change and shifts the public narrative on how “health” is understood.
Invest in Infrastructure
Another critical component of TCE’s approach to “scale” is that it has intentionally invested in technical assistance, networks and convening spaces that bring together the staff and youth leaders from across California to engage in shared learning, agenda-setting, and advocacy. TCE has done this by:
•engaging the Movement Strategy Center, a California-based movement-building intermediary to provide training and technical assistance to youth organizations across the twelve Building Healthy Communities sites;
•convening youth organizations to explore and engage in statewide policy change efforts in order to build and enhance shared youth power across the state; and
•advancing local work by providing in-house support on research and communications strategy, such as publishing ads on local billboards to build public will and create a climate that will help advance the policy change goals youth identify. Connecticut lacks local infrastructure equivalents – there is no intermediary dedicated exclusively to building social change capacity of youth and grassroots organizations, and there is not yet a statewide, youth-centered network where young people are setting and pursuing a change agenda.
The Perrin Family Foundation is looking forward to continued conversation with our philanthropic and practitioner partners across Connecticut in order to identify opportunities to shift practices and address gaps in order to build a healthier Connecticut for our youth. We can start by:
•Remembering that while all foundation’s face internal limitations on where and what we can fund, the individuals that we hope to ultimately impact through our grantmaking do not live single issue lives, and we must be intentional about building a shared analysis and collaborative strategies that transcend the narrow limits of issue or geographic niches.
•Exploring whether programs that serve a high volume of youth in time-limited program cycles are effective at delivering the long-term impacts and outcomes that foundations’ hope to achieve and considering the ways in which investing in a youth-led change strategies could advance your mission and priorities.
•Investing in “connective tissue” infrastructure – such as youth-led networks, coalitions, and capacity building for social change organizations – that will build the collective capacity and power of youth organizations seeking to advance community and systems change.