What Happens When Philanthropy Works Together?

November 8, 2011

What happens when health funders with diverse missions and priorities come together? Could they create an accurate picture of the health of Connecticut residents that would inform their individual grant-making and health policy more broadly? The Connecticut Health Foundation (CT Health), the Aetna Foundation, the Donaghue Foundation, Foundation for Community Health , and the Universal  Health Care Foundation have rallied around conducting a survey that will lead to good, solid data on the performance of health and health care systems in Connecticut.

Who Are We?

These five foundations are a subset of the Health Funders Affinity Group (HFAG). According to the Council on Foundations, an affinity group is a group of funders with common interests.

The Connecticut Council for Philanthropy, a statewide association of grantmakers and the hub of philanthropy in Connecticut, has been fostering these affinity groups for the last 12-15 years. “Our affinity groups are learning communities, really,” said Nancy Roberts, president of the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy. “We try to create a space where funders can learn from one another, discuss state and federal issues they’re facing collectively, and work together on a chosen issue.”

While the members of the HFAG all have “health” in common, that doesn’t mean they have the same set of objectives. On the contrary, they’re all approaching health from a variety of angles. Bringing these funders together did not automatically result in a clear path to work together.

A New Direction

In January 2010, the HFAG started thinking about data. National foundations, such as the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Commonwealth Fund, were able to conduct large-scale surveys that became important sources of data for many organizations, not just their own. And, armed with that data, these foundations were better able to demonstrate the impact of their work.

If the HFAG pooled their resources, could they do the same for themselves and for the state of Connecticut?

A subset of the HFAG, the five foundations named above, formed a collaborative to design and ultimately conduct such a survey. Since that time, the collaborative put out a Request for Qualifications and then a Request for Proposal, ultimately selecting the University of Massachusetts to conduct the Connecticut-based study.

What makes this study interesting is that it will use each resident’s self-report of their own health to measure the health of the state. Four thousand residents will be surveyed as part of this in-the-field study. The survey will also ensure appropriate over sampling of underserved populations, including minorities, people with low income, and the uninsured. The resulting data will be used to create a report, “The State of Health for the State of Connecticut” in which the collaborative will be able to benchmark and compare the state against itself, and the rest of the country.

Project Sustainability

The work, however, continues. Not only is the collaborative determining which questions to include in the survey, they’re also having to think hard about the sustainability of the project.

“When we first started discussing the project, we envisioned repeating the survey post – health care reform implementation,” said Patricia Baker, CT Health president & CEO, and chair of the HFAG. “We also hoped that the Department of Public Health could sustain it going forward.  However, given the department’s competing priorities and our lingering state budget deficit, we had to take a hard look at the survey and determine if we wanted to proceed, even if there would be no follow-up. And ultimately, we decided this was worth doing. We believe the data is of value to the state.”

Working Together

Foundations working together in such a collaborative is not an easy arrangement, which largely has to do with financial resources. Who would hold and distribute these funds? And, perhaps more delicately, who would contribute what amount? The collaborative selected the CT Council for Philanthropy to act as the fiscal agent for this particular grant, which resulted in a single contract. According to Patricia, this represents true partnering and collaborating on the part of the collaborative members.

“I’m very impressed by how my colleagues came together for this initiative,” said Patricia. “By pooling our resources this way, we’ll be able to get data that will inform us all, exceeding the bounds of what any one foundation could do. I truly believe we all approached this as partners, which it made it possible for us to agree on and fund the work to be done.”


Photo by ePublicist used under the Creative Commons license.

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