A Recipe for Better Health: Advocacy and Collaboration

We’ve been watching these folks. The Colorado Health Foundation has been ramping up in an impressive way over the past eight years. Back in 2006, it made grants totaling $20 million and now gives out around $85 million annually. That's big money for a state that only has 5 million people, and it goes mostly to school districts to fund exercise and nutrition initiatives, or to community organizations like the Boys and Girls Club or the ARC, to fund expanded programming.

But don't mistake CHF for another narrow direct service funder failing to look upstream: This organization understands that if you want to make change, you need to have power, and that means organizing citizens and pressuring decisionmakers. Which is why CHF seeded a c4 arm in 2013, Healthier Colorado, and last May selected a veteran organizer and political operative, Jake Williams, to run that shop.

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Meanwhile, the foundation is also embracing cutting-edge approaches to healthcare. For example, last month it announced that it was joining up with the de Beaumont Foundation and others to participate in BUILD Health, a national funders collaborative. 

The acronym stands for Bold, Upstream, Integrated, Local, Data-driven, and its goal is getting people out of their silos to make vital connections—across disciplines, sectors, and institutions. That's never easy, but there's some real firepower behind this thing: RWJF and Kresge are the other foundation partners, and a giant consulting firm, the Advisory Company, is also in the mix. 

I wrote about BUILD Health back in November, when the initiative launched, and talked to Brian Castrucci, Chief Program and Strategy Officer at the de Beaumont Foundation about the the collaborative's ambitions. "We need to change the health curve of this country not just the healthcare curve," Castrucci said, in a nod to the limits of cost-containment strategies in a country where so many people are seriously unhealthy. 

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BUILD Health has $7.5 million to spend, and it's seeking collaborative projects that can get at the “upstream” causes of things like asthma, diabetes, access to good food, clean air, and safe places to be outside. If those sound like the ingredients of the "culture of health" that RWJF is always talking up, you're exactly right. And BUILD is an example of how health funders are becoming savvier in addressing these issues.  

Initially, BUILD Health planned to divvy up its support to fund 14 community-driven projects, but with CHF’s new $1 million pledge it’s bumped that number up to 17. Three projects will be located in Colorado. BUILD will also provide "access to a comprehensive package of technical assistance and support services that will guide them in their planning and implementation efforts." To even be in the running, a collaborative needs to include a hospital, a local health department, and a nonprofit community group. (Note how this funders' collaborative is insisting that its grantees also be collaborative, something we're seeing more of these days.) 

“Joining this national health initiative is a unique opportunity for Colorado communities to contribute to and learn from other innovative projects occurring across the nation,” said Kelly Dunkin, vice president of philanthropy for the Colorado Health Foundation. “This increases our state’s ability to lead in the national movement of community collaborations working to prevent disease and improve population health.” 

Of course, the jury is still out on BUILD, since the thing just launched. Our point here is not that CHF has found the magic formula for improving health. Rather, it's that this funder is looking in the right places.