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The First Five Years of Advancing Wellness: A Midpoint Assessment

In 2014, we embarked on a decade-long grantmaking strategy called Advancing Wellness. We set out to support organizations that are increasing access to health care, advocating for quality education, fighting for good jobs with fair wages and benefits, and working to make our streets and neighborhoods safe. So far, we have invested more than $150 million in organizations and social justice strategies that advance and defend the health and wellness of Californians.

In 2019, we partnered with social justice strategy firm Informing Change to conduct a midpoint assessment of our Advancing Wellness strategy. We asked them to collect and analyze feedback related to our performance as a funder and to identify areas of promise and improvement in our Advancing Wellness strategies and tactics going forward. And then 2020 happened. We have found that the lessons learned through the midpoint assessment have served us well as we continue to pivot our strategies when needed: 2020 has taught us that there is much at stake, as the nation fights the COVID-19 pandemic, fights for racial justice, and fights to be heard in our upcoming election.

We’re excited to share a summary of insights from our first five years and opportunities we see for the next five years of Advancing Wellness.

Learning #1: Our grantees are making a difference in driving social change and impact

An important goal of the midpoint assessment was to understand what kind of change Advancing Wellness is supporting. We’re encouraged to learn that change is happening both at the individual and systems levels, across both informal and formal settings. (Learn more about Informing Change’s tools to measure impact.)

  • Changes to grantees and communities: Our grantees report that real change is happening as a direct result of our grants. Through focus groups, surveys and interviews with our grantees, we learned that our grants are having a near-equal individual and systemic outcomes. Our Advancing Wellness focuses on both direct service and advocacy efforts, and this insight affirms the importance of this combined approach.
  • Changes to organizations’ capacity and sustainability: Our grants, the majority of which provide core operating support, enabled our grantees to make internal improvements. Grantees described how investments in additional staff expanded their ability to provide services, engage community members, execute core organizational functions, and build more effective organizational cultures.
  • Changes resulting from leadership support and staff development: Grants for leadership and staff development helped prevent staff burnout and build organizational resilience. As an example, our sabbatical grant recipients unanimously reported having stronger leadership and staff development as a result of our grants.

Key Takeaways

  • We’ll continue to use our Advancing Wellness strategy, which has stood the test of time and allowed us to be flexible and responsive when we needed it the most.
  • We’ll continue to support organizations doing policy advocacy, direct service, and the combination of the two.

We’ll continue to support organizational leaders through capacity grants and sabbaticals. We’ll also consider leadership investments that fall outside of the traditional executive director/CEO positions.

Learning #2: Our grantees value responsiveness, flexibility, access and courage

At the midpoint of Advancing Wellness, we wanted to understand how our approaches to grantmaking are received and perceived by our grantees and others. We were heartened to learn that our grantees deeply appreciate the responsive and accessible way in which we make our grants. The findings also affirm the importance of core operating support grants, flexible funding and investments in the social determinants of health.

  • Flexible, multi-year funding: Multi-year, flexible funding is a core strategy of Advancing Wellness. Time and again, we saw evidence that core operating support ensured that organizations remained stable. Furthermore, consistent and sustained funding over long periods of time enabled our grantees to respond quickly to the needs emerging in their community and to take advantage of unexpected opportunities for policy change.
  • Relationships with grantees: Grantees deeply value being able to engage directly with our Programs staff. What’s more, they reported seeing their relationships with Cal Wellness as a partnership. These relationships have also opened doors to new opportunities, networks, and community connections for our grantees and for us.
  • Using Cal Wellness’ voice and platform: When asked to select a non-grantmaking aspect of our work they valued the most, more grantees (37%) selected our use of voice than any other aspect. They encouraged us to continue raising our voice, cultivating relationships, standing with our community partners, and influencing cross-sector partners in timely ways.
  • Responsiveness to the external environment: We were not afraid to adjust the Advancing Wellness portfolio and approach in response to external events, namely, the 2015 San Bernardino shooting and the 2016 election. Our grantees took notice and appreciated it. In response to the San Bernardino shooting, we produced the #Enough! Summit to Prevent Gun Violence and drove the launch of the multi-funder collaborative, Hope and Heal: The Fund to End Gun Violence. Following the 2016 election, we launched Advance and Defend ; this grantmaking and communications campaign awarded $16 million to address the threats and challenges posed to Californians by federal attacks on immigrants and attempts to undermine and roll back the Affordable Care Act, and it raised the voices of our staff, board and grantees driving this work in communities across the state.

Key Takeaways

  • We’ll continue to provide flexible funding.
  • We’ll ensure staff are adequately equipped to maintain a high level of engagement with grantees.
  • We’ll continue to leverage our voice and platform to influence peers and amplify issues that matter to our grantees.
  • We’ll support our staff to continue spotting issues and trends in the environment and developing mechanisms to rapidly deploy resources to meet immediate and emerging needs.

  • 83%

    of Advancing Wellness grants are reaching underserved communities

  • 56%

    of grants are going to organizations that work for communities of color and are led by POC

  • $150 million

    invested in organizations and social justice strategies that advance and defend the health and wellness of Californians

Learning #3: Our focus on advancing equity is making a difference

At the end of our first five years of Advancing Wellness, we wanted to understand if we are effectively prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion in our grantmaking. We also wanted to know how we might refine and adapt the Advancing Wellness strategy to continue to deliver on these principles and values over the next five years.

Informing Change’s analysis showed that we’re leading peers in philanthropy on diversity, equity, and inclusion metrics. Currently, 83% of our grants are reaching underserved communities. (We defined underserved communities as low-income communities; communities of color; immigrants; formerly incarcerated youth, homeless youth and foster youth; rural communities; and women and girls of color). That places us among the top 20 foundations nationally in terms of grant dollars allocated for underserved communities. Additionally, over half (56%) of our grants are going to organizations that work for communities of color and are led by people of color. Finally, we learned that we equitably fund rural and urban communities across the state. On a per capita basis, our funding is distributed proportionately.

These findings affirm our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and to supporting organizations led by people of color. We understand more progress is needed in philanthropy to achieve equity, and we are committed to continuing to raise the bar for ourselves and others in this area.

Key Takeaways

  • We’ll continue to fund organizations that address systemic causes of inequities.
  • We’ll define the particular disparities we seek to address and set equity-related goals to advance our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

What We Can Do Better

Additionally, we’ve identified areas in which we can and will do better.

  • In the future, we’re committed to funding more organizations led by leaders of color, while increasing the level and duration of our funding so as to build and sustain their leadership and organizations.
  • The findings affirmed that we should use various lenses to think about and see the multiple dimensions of change we’re supporting. That means looking at change on both individual and system levels, and the ways in which organizations use formal and informal structures to change everything from mindsets and behaviors to laws and policies.
  • Grantees are encouraging us to use all the tools in our toolbox, which includes our influence. To that end, we’re strengthening our governmental relations muscle to develop relationships with leaders so that the issues we and our grantees care about can be brought to their attention. This is especially important during a time when nonprofits are trying to fill gaps that should rightfully be met by governmental resources.
  • We want to invest more in California’s rural communities, Native tribal communities, and BIPOC-led organizations. It’s important for us to reach communities and geographies that don’t traditionally have a direct relationship to philanthropy.
  • Grantees’ value our voice in amplifying their work & expressing solidarity with them, and encourage us to do more. We will be more intentional in using our voice to influence policy and other funders.
  • We’re collecting more data than we use. We aim to reduce our data collection by using our refined equity goals to help us collect more targeted data that will help better inform our learning and actions.

Looking ahead: The next five years

We learned a lot from the midpoint assessment process and report. And in 2020, we know that already-vulnerable populations are becoming more so, so we are integrating that knowledge into the report takeaways. But what comes next for Advancing Wellness? The assessment surfaced two potential refinements to our strategy over the next five years.

Opportunity: Leverage opportunities for cross-grantee engagement

In this process, we saw clearly that our grantees are increasingly doing overlapping and complementary work. We see that there are opportunities to bring organizations together and help them make connections, especially within a tumultuous year like 2020, when many organizations are focused on mutual aid.

We also learned that there are important, mutual feedback loops between organizations delivering direct services and those doing policy advocacy work. Their efforts mutually reinforce one another. Services directly fulfill short-term needs created by gaps in government support, while policy improvements tackle those gaps in services in a more sustained way. Underlying this approach is a theory that many of our grantees agree with: Reducing the immediate suffering caused by systemic injustice is just as important as addressing the conditions that produce it.

Therefore, to reinforce opportunities for cross-grantee engagement, we’ve decided to organize our work at the “portfolio” level, rather than by program issue area.

Our refined portfolios are: Community Well-beingEquity and AccessEconomic Security and Dignity, and Leading for Power and Change.

Opportunity: Continue working across issues while highlighting inequities

We spoke with influential peer funders and other experts and asked them to tell us what they think are the most pressing issues affecting the health and wellness of Californians in the next five years. The following issues come up time and again:

  • Rising economic inequality in California
  • Effects of the climate crisis on community wellness
  • The importance of—and threats to—immigrant communities

We’re now exploring ways to better understand, integrate and articulate these three issues more explicitly and strategically into the next five years of Advancing Wellness. For exampleeven though we clear among ourselves that economic inequality and immigration an important part of our work, the assessment made it clear that some external stakeholders do not perceive these issues to be integrated into our work, which limits our opportunities for collaboration and greater impact.

These midpoint assessment findings have both sustained us and challenged us to continue learning and continue improving. We are encouraged to know that our flexible, responsive model has benefited hundreds of vital, community-oriented nonprofits. We’re also excited to continue prioritizing areas that show promise of even greater impact—centering equity, supporting grantees to self-organize and collaborate and selecting grantees who embody and encourage community-driven change, racial justice and power-building.

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