Engaged Philanthropy: Putting Ourselves On The Line

By Tyler Norris, MDiv, and  Janaya L. Nichols, MSc

When we opened our doors in January 2017, Well Being Trust sought to be a different kind of foundation – a full partner with our grantees and co-investors, on the line for impact. With a mission to advance the mental, social, and spiritual health of the nation, our work is rooted in three guiding principles:

  1.  Further the mental health and well-being movement in the nation, recognizing that we are not creating anything from scratch, but instead supporting rising momentum and catalyzing distributed action everywhere (i.e., people and organizations across sectors leading from where they stand);
  2.  Provide a vision for whole-person health across the spectrum of care, focusing on the mind-body-spirit connection from clinic to community; and
  3.  Be an engaged philanthropy that holds itself accountable to addressing the critical needs in mental health and well-being — taking risks, especially for the most vulnerable, and investing in and incubating partnerships to spread what works for impact at scale.

Yet, in spite of decades of good programs and initiatives fueled by billions of dollars and best intent, life expectancy in the U.S. continues to drop. From our Pain in the Nation work, we found that in 2016 142,000 Americans – the highest number ever recorded –  died from alcohol- and drug-induced fatalities and suicide. Current trends point to a doubling of these numbers in the decade to come.

Quite simply, as a field, we haven’t moved the needle enough, and the nation is losing ground. Embracing this reality creates an ethical imperative to be responsible for creating outcomes that will impact generations and drive an authentic social compact. This moves us from “doing good things” to being accountable for results.

To reverse these troubling trends, we need to be bold and more engaged on the ground, and hold ourselves accountable to standards of practice that move beyond the conventional, by:

  • Recognizing our work is interconnected. Unless we take a population-wide approach, we’re not going to make population-level change. The conditions that generate well-being are primarily outside the traditional health care sector. So, as a philanthropy, especially one born from the health sector, we must connect ourselves and partners with work that’s happening across other sectors such as the built environment, racial equity, food justice, child development etc. And, we need to seek out new partners across fields that may not traditionally think of themselves as impacting health. Finally, we must find ways to nimbly insert ourselves in non-traditional spaces, knit together initiatives and progress, and provide meaningful support where needed.
  • Taking risks and being willing to fail. We must be alongside and in full support of our grantees to encourage them to take risks. In so doing, we must fund the gap that ensures innovative practices that work can become evidence-based practices. Government cooperation (and funding) is, in most cases, critical to having the population-level impacts we seek. However, government funders are often required to fund models with an evidence base, which can slow the path to scaling innovation. Philanthropy has more leeway to take risks. We can put ourselves on the line to “de-risk” initiatives for government and smaller foundations. And, if we misstep or under-deliver, we learn from our mistakes and move forward.
  • Being active partners and making full use of our assets. In addition to making solid investments, we must advocate for healthy policies and practices. We can also harness the power of our endowments through impact investing – using our knowledge of financial systems, enacting local and regional purchasing and hiring policies, advancing healthy public policy and pursuing alternative community investments to truly have the population-level impacts we seek, with a focus on social justice and equity.

At Well Being Trust, we are committed to holding ourselves to these principles and will dedicate our leadership and resources to support this approach. For instance, we are currently incubating Well Being Legacy, a multi-year initiative focused on reimagining the health and well-being of the nation, rooted in community learning. We are travelling across the country, listening to local and national leaders about their experience of what creates the conditions for community well-being. In synch with our guiding principles, we see our role as helping coalesce a living agenda for intergenerational well-being that identifies the organizational practices, public policies, and private sector investments that can assure these conditions in communities.

Intentionally, Well Being Legacy forces us to practice what we preach. We are now working across related fields, with leaders in the equity, environmental, and civic engagement movements, among others. Necessarily, we are also placing ourselves at risk by not shying away from advancing bold policy priorities that promote well-being. The greater risk is to be overly cautious.

Through our partnerships and investments, Well Being Trust aims to challenge ourselves to live up to the engaged philanthropy principles we’ve laid out. We seek to partner and co-invest with others who believe engaged philanthropies can do more. Perhaps that includes you.

  •  Please challenge us.   
  • Please grow with us. 
  • And definitely walk (or run) with us on this journey. 

Tyler Norris, MDiv, is chief executive, Well Being Trust, an impact philanthropy with a mission to advance the mental, social and spiritual health of the nation. Over the past three decades, Tyler has shaped health and development initiatives in hundreds of communities in the US and around the world. He has an extensive background as a social entrepreneur, animateur, and trusted advisor to philanthropies, health systems, government agencies and collaborative partnerships working to improve the health of people and places. Follow Tyler on Twitter: @TylerNorrisMDiv.

Janaya L. Nichols, MSc, oversees Well Being Trust’s grantmaking strategy, including seeding new initiatives and building institutional partnerships in the philanthropic space. To this work she brings a blend of experience around policy, healthcare delivery systems and grantmaking practice. Janaya has more than 10 years of experience developing programs and supporting systems change efforts in the areas of maternal child health, HIV, trauma-informed care, homelessness, community advocacy, and population health.