Making Change By Working Together

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Guest Post: Chris Palmedo, Northwest Health Foundation 

One of the common refrains among members of the Communications Network is the need to  seamlessly integrate communications with program work. We’ve talked about Kumbaya. We’ve encouraged ourselves to develop “closer working relationships” with program staff, to “shift the culture toward one of mutual respect” and to “get people to care enough” about communications. And we’ve been warned not to be to paternalistic in converting program staff who don’t “get it.”

Fortunately, my organization does “get it,” and I’ve been thinking that, perhaps, some views from Northwest Health Foundation’s perspective can provide some insight for my colleagues at other foundations. My experience working with program staff at our foundation goes beyond “mutual respect.” It’s more like “mutual challenge,” where program and communications push each other – and the organization – toward a common vision of social change.

Over the past decade or so, Northwest Health Foundation – board and staff included – has been working very hard to move “upstream” as forcefully and as deliberately as possible, to make the most of every philanthropic dollar it spends, and to apply each of those dollars toward efforts that most effectively reach social justice and health equity.

This is not about making sure program staff “loops us in” on their work. It’s about working in partnership on meaningful social change platforms. These platforms involve making sure our public health system is adequately funded (it is not), working so everyone in our state has access to a basic level of health care (they do not), reducing racial and ethnic health disparities (we have a long way to go), etc.

Your foundation may not be quite as outspoken about policy change, but isn’t all philanthropy about social change? And how can an organization be committed to social change without being fully committed to communications, media relations, and messaging your point of view everywhere it can?

What this means for me is not an environment where I am asking program staff to take communications seriously, but where I am constantly challenged – not only by program staff but even by many of our grantees – to take full advantage of every communications vehicle necessary to seek the broad policy and institutional changes that continue to elude us.

And the challenge goes both ways. More and more, my challenge to staff is to write op-eds, blog entries, and letters to editors. And because they take social change seriously, they take these challenges seriously. Some of our staff’s opinions on institutional racism, health care reform, junk food marketing to children and soda taxation can be found in our relatively new blog, and in newspaper opinion pages over the past couple of years.

Not long ago, two of our staff approached me with a challenge to tell our story around our work to promote health equity. What does health equity mean? What does a health equity grant look like? How to we talk about equity in a policy setting? Program dollars were applied to this project, which resulted in a series of videos and messages called “Perspectives on Equity,” which can be found here.

Local advocates have already started sharing the videos and using the messages, and it wouldn’t have happened if these two staff from the program and strategic planning side of our organization hadn’t provided me with the resources, the time and insight on their part, and mostly, the challenge, to get it done.

All this can make for a full plate of work. But that’s the way it is at a foundation that has more than money to offer, but also technical and strategic assistance, and yes, communications, all geared to help us all achieve a more just and equitable society.

When we’re aligned on that goal, or any goal for that matter, the communications-program issues evolve quickly from mere “respect” to the mutual challenge of getting “there” together.


Chris Palmedo is Director of Public Affairs for the Northwest Health Foundation in Portland, Ore.

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