The Stew BLOG

Insight Spotlight Series: Amplifying Stewardship Together Project

Jane Erickson, Project Director and Bobby Milstein, Director, System Strategy | 11/23/2020

What is the Amplifying Stewardship Together Project?

This month, ReThink Health is sharing what we are learning across our projects through an Insight Spotlight series. This week, the spotlight is on the Amplifying Stewardship Together (AST) project, which is clarifying stewardship mindsets and practices and helping them develop into widespread norms across the country. Stewards share the idea that purpose must be larger than oneself and one’s organization, power must be built and distributed with others, and wealth must be invested to create long-term value as well as to alleviate short-term urgent needs. They are also natural boundary spanners because they are informed by place-based, interdisciplinary, multisector, and multicultural perspectives. These and other characteristics of stewards are profiled in a recent report by ReThink Health and RAND.

The Amplifying Stewardship Together project operates with the recognition that those who work toward equitable health and well-being remain largely disparate, disconnected, and outmatched by the forces of injustice and systemic crises. The level to which communities can engage in shared stewardship will likely determine whether or not society sinks deeper into an adversity spiral or finds pragmatic ways to create the vital conditions that all people need to thrive.

The Amplifying Stewardship Together project seeks to strengthen society’s commitment to and capacity for shared stewardship through several strategies, including:

  • Making a compelling case that it is possible for all people and places to thrive together in a system that is designed for justice;
  • Sharing stories of impressive stewards in many walks of life who may also inspire and draw others into the work;
  • Fostering an understanding of stewardship norms and practices through nationwide research; and
  • Engaging with and learning alongside diverse stewards about the ways they are seeding stewardship norms and practices across the country.

Through this project, we have engaged in a number of learning activities, including:

  • Conducting a nationwide study to understand trends and characteristics stewards consider when expanding equitable well-being, the results of which are published in this Amplifying Stewardship Report;
  • Conducting an ongoing Tracking Poll for Stewards of Well-Being to learn how stewards are navigating their efforts for equitable system change during this time of layered, systemic crises; and
  • Learning alongside national and local stewards through a Virtual Meeting Series to explore questions that can help us to actively strengthen the field of system stewardship in real time.

What is ReThink Health trying to learn through this project?

Through Amplifying Stewardship Together, ReThink Health seeks to learn alongside a growing cadre of savvy system stewards. We hope to surface and spread the most catalytic stewardship mindsets and practices that will influence the course of equitable systems change. We don’t assume it’s possible, or helpful, to create a rigid infrastructure or process for working together across the massive ecosystem that affects well-being in communities across the country. But we do believe that a core set of stewardship mindsets and practices can take hold as nationwide norms. When more and more people step into roles as shared stewards of the systems that shape lives and livelihoods, America’s untapped potential for health, wealth, and prosperity will emerge. By amplifying stewardship together, we can each do our part to advance a thriving movement for well-being and justice.

What patterns are emerging so far?

As mentioned in our first Insight Spotlight blog, ReThink Health’s approach to learning and evaluation focuses on surfacing patterns within complex adaptive systems. By looking at patterns across multiple, intertwined scales—at the individual human level, the organizational level, and the network level—we can start to paint a picture showing what works, for whom, how, and under what conditions.

Notable patterns that have emerged from the Amplifying Stewardship Together project include the following.

Navigating efforts for equitable systems change during 2020 systemic crises

The dysfunction of existing systems has been laid bare as a result of the systemic crises that came together so conspicuously in 2020, including Covid-19, racial injustice, and economic recession. As people across the country navigate the fraying systems, more and more people appreciate the need for long overdue structural change. Stewards, however, know that the pull of “business as usual” is strong and crises can cause some organizations and people to retreat into short-sighted, individualistic behaviors that do not serve common interests. While some feel stifled, the most exemplary stewards appreciate the need to lift up and sift through the tensions inherent in letting go of tired ways of working and embracing new mindsets and actions. Stewards note that we must all let go of certain norms, practices, and structures while working to help new ones emerge. Some of the most needed shifts include what we must let go of and what we must work toward.

As one steward noted, “Crisis calls us to our muscle memory or to find new ways forward.” To propel sustainable progress, stewards appreciate the need to lean into the many characteristic “superpowers” they have built throughout their lives. Stewards especially value the importance of helping others to make sense of all that is going on so they can more clearly see their own roles and chart a path forward. And, perhaps most importantly, they fuel hope based on a pragmatic belief that an expanding network of stewards, each with their own superpowers, can in fact create a future with all people and places thriving—no exceptions.

Driving equitable system change through established institutions

While many stewards are optimistic about the prospects for equitable systems change in the face of 2020’s systemic crises, many also note that certain actions on the part of large, established institutions are a significant barrier. These actions include reducing or reneging on prior community-focused investments due to budgetary constraints as well as a tendency to demonstrate token gestures of commitment rather than authentic reflection and action. Nonetheless, stewards are using their assets and navigating institutional change in creative ways to make progress in the midst of resistance.

Many stewards look for unexplored spaces within and between organizations that are often not formally established. They must figure out how to nurture systems change by moving inside and around existing organizational structures without becoming “boxed into a corner.” Few organizations encourage this sort of exploration. However, when done well, stewards who usher organizations toward new frontiers can gain respect as pioneers.

Additionally, stewards in large, established organizations often look for like-minded innovators elsewhere in the enterprise. Over time, those internal bonds help them to think more creatively and carve out new kinds of work precisely because there is a stronger base of support across their own organization. Of course, it is not always easy to know who one’s true allies are, and missteps can have harsh consequences.

Balancing tensions, emphasizing agility, and leading with vulnerability

Stewards engage in many notable practices to surpass sticking points and propel progress toward equitable systems change for health and well-being. We’ve noticed that exemplary stewards are leveraging several especially catalytic practices during this time of uncertainty, opportunity, and change. They include the following:

  • Emphasizing agility in their strategies and actions. Stewards appreciate the emergent nature of systems change, where unexpected shifts may occur either before or after moments of decisive action. They expect the unexpected when planning for organizations and initiatives, building plans but holding them lightly.
  • Holding tensions and differences as opportunities to create new understanding and possibilities, not as problems to solve. Stewards are often willing to struggle through experiences of disagreement, confusion, and tension whenever language fails to convey things that really matter.
  • Leading with vulnerability. Exemplary stewards are aware of what is known and not known, and understand the importance of leading with honesty, vulnerability, and transparency to build relationships with new allies and foster shared trust. Especially during times of heightened uncertainty, we’ve observed that stewards are staying in touch with their emotional intelligence and humility—leveraging both as essential assets.

Want to keep up with what we are learning?

Up next in our Insight Spotlight blog series is what we’re learning in the Portfolio Design for Healthier Regions project.

You can also follow our learnings on our blog, The Stew, where you can find practical tools and ideas for stewards.