What is that shared purpose? Simply put, shared purpose becomes a reality when stewards transition from a traditional siloed investment approach to one in which they coordinate their investments, viewing them as a single, regional portfolio. It is a tall order that requires honest assessments of each organization’s capabilities. In this universe, philanthropy’s unique role positions foundations to assume and encourage a higher tolerance for risk, uncertainty, vulnerability, and flexibility, and to act as a force for encouraging greater intentional interdependence.
Philanthropies as Catalysts
In their respective regions, both Palm Health Foundation and 5 Healthy Towns Foundation have emerged as “stewards of the stewards” with characteristic superpowers. ReThink Health’s “Amplifying Stewardship” report describes stewards with superpowers as being comfortable with uncertainty and having a willingness to struggle through disagreement, confusion, and tension. They nudge complex systems toward equitable well-being. And they recognize that “place” as the center of community and cultural identity holds special and specific meaning for residents.
These characteristics are evident in how 5 Healthy Towns Foundation CEO Amy Heydlauff sees the Foundation’s responsibility as a catalyst in an interdependent health system that includes every community member. “Our role as philanthropists is to empower people to solve their own problems,” she said. “That is really messy. We provide guidance so they have some structure and connection across our five regions.”
Abby Goodwin, vice president of grants and community investments at Palm Health Foundation, agrees that foundations, given their proximity to residents, can help connect the dots and become the conscience of the collective group if stewards revert to a more comfortable status quo. “The whole premise is being adaptive to respond to what’s happening in our communities, not just through a transactional grant,” she said. “Palm Health Foundation has a ton of flexibility with how we show up in the world. We’re in a better position to influence change because of this flexibility. My role is to protect the spaces where new things can happen and ward off the snapback where people go about business as usual.”
Catalysts for Thinking Differently
Heydlauff and Goodwin have come to appreciate their unique roles and embrace the authenticity of how they practice and influence interdependence.
For Heydlauff, the project inspired her board to transform 5 Healthy Towns Foundation’s funding model to drive greater interdependence among the five Michigan communities the foundation serves. Rather than each town submitting its own separate plan, the foundation challenged the five towns to come together and submit one regional plan. “They are used to thinking of their own towns individually, not as a region,” she said. “Regional thinking is where stewardship comes in.”
Palm Health’s Goodwin was surprised to discover that her stewardship challenge was internal, not external. “We realized there was a disconnect in the spirit of our work and cultivating a collective stewardship mentality among our employees, our committees, and our board,” she said. “Our own culture wasn’t mirroring the same intentional interdependence we asked from others.”
Goodwin and the foundation’s president and CEO, Patrick McNamara, are working on a deeply reflective letter to the foundation’s team, board, and committees translating lived human experiences to their roles as stewards and catalysts for interdependence. “It’s a story of the connection,” said Goodwin. “What are the forces of change that we believe in? The project is helping us put our cards on the table about where we are as individuals and where we intentionally roll that up as an organization. We’re trying to use a common vernacular to think differently.”
A Catalyst for Creating Belonging
Goodwin’s and Heydlauff’s deeper explorations as catalysts within interdependent relationships revealed two additional stewardship superpowers: humility and empathy. They are now owning and modeling these behaviors to coax greater comfort with uncertainty and vulnerability among their fellow stewards to create a greater sense of belonging.
“There is an element of coming at things without judgment. We had to commit to understanding each other’s reality before working together effectively,” said Heydlauff. “Before we can reorder the puzzle pieces to form better systems, there has to be a willingness to say there is a way to prevent our most challenging problems. It requires a level of humility because what we’re really saying is, ‘We don’t know everything.’ The systems we’re currently invested in are inadequate.”
Goodwin recognizes the challenge for partners in other kinds of organizations who don’t share the same capacity for vulnerability and institutional flexibility. “We appreciate how hard this shift is for health care systems,” she said. “We want to know how we can help. Not in a condescending way. But philanthropic foundations are in a better position to influence change. How can we be that really strong partner who has that ambition?”
Goodwin has found that perhaps the ultimate value they bring is to be a catalyst for greater interdependence among a community network by drawing others into the work. “This is not a book that you can take off the shelf,” she said. “It comes back to people power and finding people who are genuinely interested in working together to do great things.”
Next in the blog series: How Palm Health County stewards are cultivating belonging and civic muscle to advance equity.
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