Kansas Health Foundation and Its Back-to-Basics Approach to Public Health

The Kansas Health Foundation: heard of it? We didn’t think so. Though it’s in a state not exactly known for a progressive health reform agenda, the KHF is worth knowing about. It was established in 1985, after the closing of Wesley Medical Center, and it started out with a $200 million endowment. Now that endowment has swelled to more than $475 million, making it the biggest philanthropic body in the entire state. And though establishing health foundations in the aftermath of big health center knock-downs is fairly commonplace these days, in 1985 it was nothing short of revolutionary.

In short, this quiet foundation has been shaping public health grantmaking across four decades, and it’s time we all took more notice of their actions.

KHF caught our eye last week when it shipped out nearly $2 million to 22 community organizations across the state, all in the name of public health. And rather than giving to big general organizations, or state branches of national organizations, most of the money it gave went to groups working in Kansas, for Kansas. Groups that are actually working with people in communities, like the City of Wichita, for healthy eating programs, and Thrive Allen County, which helps expand access to physical activity and good food in disadvantaged neighborhood. It’s a roots-up approach to public health.

Digging a little deeper, we found the source of this proud, back-to-basics approach: In 1988, the KHF held a series of 40 town hall-style meetings throughout its home state convened to take the pulse of Kansas residents and figure out the best approach to the state’s public health hurdles.

Neat, no? Apparently, these meetings happened after the foundation’s initial research-based approach didn’t seem to be working. They changed gears to focus on prevention, and have given away over $500 million since 1985.