Advancing The Mental Health And Well-Being Movement Through Grant Making: Engaged Philanthropy


Investing in the health of a nation requires thoughtful deliberation and vision. Grantmakers, especially those with a focus on health, play a unique role in helping support community innovation that can advance health. However, without a clear focus on what they are trying to effect, the direction they want to go with their investment, and how to accomplish their goals, how will the grant-making community ever know if it is making a difference and if it is improving health?

The United States, now more than ever, needs clear direction to create more comprehensive solutions to fragmented problems. Grantmakers play an essential role in this space and have a responsibility to further the movement currently under way to address mental health and wellness. However, without proper alignment with the community as well as other foundations, grantmakers may add to the cacophony rather than advance the movement.

Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and is not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Health is the foundation of achievement. In our journey to address health through policy, we have too often ignored mental health and substance use, which remain some of the most pressing health issues in our nation. Whole-person well-being requires foundations to use new clinical, financial, policy, and investment strategies that better incorporate and integrate mental health.

Mental health is a highly prevalent health need. However, people with mental health needs often do not get the care they need, and when they do not get that care, they end up costing more to society, the system, their community, and most importantly, their families. This is not to say that individuals with physical health needs always get their needs met, but more that mental health is often not addressed in larger policy and investment deliberations.

Delaying treatment when people need it most can often cause a series of unintended consequences. For example, consider that suicide in the United States has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years, with a nearly 25 percent increase just from 1999 to 2014, according to an April 2016 article in the New York Times that describes a 2016 National Center for Health Statistics study. And, to compound this problem, the United States woefully lacks the mental health workforce needed to help. And what about the opioid epidemic?

While each of these issues has its own root causes, the fact that we do not have a more responsive and comprehensive strategy is troubling.

Simply funding more programs is not the answer. More systemic solutions for these larger community problems need to be created, and our foundations can help lead the way. Health foundations can lay the groundwork to advance community innovation around mental health and wellness through their leadership, funding, and ongoing understanding of matching their investments with community need and ultimately connecting to policy that allows for scalability and sustainability.

It is within this context that a new foundation emerges to help advance mental health and well-being in collaboration with other foundation and community partners. An independent 501(c)(3) public foundation, Well Being Trust was created in 2016 by an investment from the Providence/St. Joseph Health System. A national funder, Well Being Trust is based in Oakland, California. Well Being Trust’s mission is to improve the mental, social, and spiritual health of the nation. We aim to do this through thoughtful partnerships, strategic grant making, and alignment of the two in an attempt to advance health and wellness through policy.

Aligning with the belief that language changes culture, we at Well Being Trust are progressive with our language, making it reflective of our understanding of health and wellness. For us, mental health is essential to whole health. Whole health is essential to well-being, and to accelerate the adoption of strategies that help support health and wellness, we want our language to guide our discussions in the community, our policy work, and our grant making.

Alongside many of our grantmaker colleagues, we believe that health care has become too fragmented – that those in communities who need care the most must work harder than they should to get the care they need. We also believe that health care is not the most important factor contributing to improved health and well-being. We see the role of community and of social factors as critical in achieving population health and broader well-being. This is the context in which our foundation finds its unique foothold.

Guiding Principles

To separate ourselves from other health foundations and to look for possibilities within partnerships and complementariness, we have established principles and philosophies that we will use to approach our work. We also see these as being applicable for other foundations looking to make an impact and advance mental health and wellness.

Engaged philanthropy: Created to bring together people who can tackle some of the most critical health issues our country is facing, Well Being Trust plans to serve as a funder that partners and engages with communities and leaders to advance mental health and wellness. Building upon our grant-making capacity, we will invest in community initiatives that can make a difference in people’s lives. Like many foundations, we believe that these investments should be partnerships. Further, being aware of community context and strategically connecting innovators and investors across the country with an eye to changing the culture of health (a term coined by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), we can make health more integrated, complete, whole, and responsive to the needs of the community. We believe, in doing this, we can help change the health of the nation-making well-being a priority.

Furthering a movement: Recognizing that no movement can be owned, Well Being Trust aims to catalyze and crystallize the innovations that are out there as it attempts to organize and advance the movement of mental health and wellness. Facilitation by a foundation can help by bringing people and organizations together to tackle some of the most critical challenges facing America, such as mental health. As we are driven to serve the poor and vulnerable, our mission when combined with this movement will have the opportunity to help transform communities, change public policy to put people first, and build a bank of hard evidence around what works to make people healthy and well. Change of this magnitude will take time and persistence, but together we can build a future where stereotypes are broken down, communities are stronger and more supportive, and hope is restored.

Have a vision: Transforming health and health care requires thoughtful partnerships and strategic investments, but most importantly, an understanding that health is whole and in need of integrating. Despite so much uncertainty around the future of health care, foundations should commit to have a vision and advance this vision by playing a leadership role in transforming the health of the nation, partnering with those who best know what they need: our communities and our grantees.

To truly advance the mental health and wellness agenda for the country, and to make this work successful, grantmakers will have to be creative with their investments. For example, recently Well Being Trust initiated a partnership with iHeartMedia to bring attention, through radio, to mental health and wellness. Partnering with media to help bring the message that mental health is essential to whole health can help expand and elevate the national dialogue on mental health and wellness. At its core, how we think, feel, and act are basic elements that contribute to our overall well-being. Using the medium of radio to bring attention to mental health and wellness can help lead to conversations in the car, café, community, and, ultimately, Congress.

As foundations like Well Being Trust launch more innovative programs around mental health and wellness, it is important that we all join up in partnerships on this journey. Today, that journey could begin with a hashtag – a hashtag that can help accelerate a national dialogue on mental health and wellness. Tomorrow, that hashtag could turn into broader change that brings a community together. Together, let us #BeWell, and together let us partner to change the health of our nation one community at a time.

Health foundations: it is time to come together and transform mental health in this country.

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