Carla Gibson, Vice President of Programs, REACH Healthcare Foundation
Brenda Sharpe, CEO, REACH Healthcare Foundation

Originally published by Grant Makers in Health

The REACH Healthcare Foundation’s mission is to advance health equity through coverage and care for underserved people. A regional foundation granting about $4.5 million annually, REACH recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. To mark this milestone, Board and staff leadership reflected on the foundation’s evolution from a highly politicized health care conversion foundation at its inception to a philanthropy striving to reshape its actions and practices to reflect a more reparative approach focused squarely on health equity.

The journey has been long and, at times, tenuous, and continues to evolve. It has been joyful, inspiring, messy, painful, and exhausting. As the CEO and Vice President of Programs, we would like to share some of the lessons learned along the way and the internal and external changes made in the hopes of becoming a better partner to our grantees.

Since its earliest grantmaking days, REACH has prided itself on being transparent and “fair.” At the time, this meant having firm rules that applied to all, exhaustive guidelines, lengthy applications and review processes, specific eligibility requirements, and a high rating on  GlassPockets. We engaged in rigorous strategic planning, implemented philanthropic “best practices,” and were upfront and unapologetic about our funding priorities and the strategies we advanced. The Board and staff generally felt positively about our efforts to be accessible and approachable while demystifying the grantmaking process.

Like most funders, we always received far more requests than we could possibly fund but were relatively satisfied we were “doing good where we could.” What we were not paying attention to was who was not seeking us out as a funding partner, particularly those preemptively excluded from consideration due to onerous funder practices.

Our reckoning began in 2018 with a portfolio review and the resulting realization that Black-led, Black-serving organizations were embarrassingly absent from our investments. Our Senior Program Officer sought to understand why and what could be done to rectify this wrong. Through a series of interviews with Black leaders, the path forward became clearer. First, she needed to build internal champions amongst her staff colleagues, making the case that this disparity required serious attention, and that the foundation needed to reconsider the structure of its Community Investment Framework – REACH’s grantmaking guide.

This meant persuading the Board that it was appropriate to allocate additional resources to technical assistance contracts, which in turn would impact the percentage of funding distributed via traditional grantmaking strategies. This shift, although justifiable, had implications for the foundation’s annually reported grant expenditures to the IRS and the public, a key fiduciary responsibility of the Board. Their understanding of the pilot’s design and associated activities was critical in garnering this support.

Further, the Board would need to be brought along in its understanding that REACH had fallen short in investing and partnering with leaders in the Black community within our service area. REACH had to come to terms with, and publicly acknowledge, the role implicit biases played in the development and execution of its grantmaking philosophy.

Just as we were envisioning a new approach to repair the funding relationship with Black-led and Black-serving nonprofits, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Like most foundations, REACH quickly pivoted to provide a pandemic response. A tumultuous summer of anger and public outcries quickly followed across the nation in response to the murder of George Floyd and other Black community members whose lives were needlessly lost. Those senseless tragedies gave an even greater sense of purpose and urgency to our reparative journey.

A key development was the advancement of the Senior Program Officer to the position of Vice President of Programs. This staffing change elevated the examination of how financial resources were being allocated and informed a series of discussions with the REACH Board on systemic racism and philanthropy’s role.

The first significant initiative that ensued was a focused grantmaking and technical assistance pilot titled Centering Black Voices (CBV). Paramount to the launch and implementation of the CBV pilot was top-down buy-in, and engendering trust at every level of our organization to forge ahead.

REACH’s movement toward transformation—both successes and missteps—is captured in the first of several Black Papers we are releasing this year. We’re pleased to share a few highlights:

  • The critical importance of ongoing listening sessions with Black nonprofit leaders to understand their barriers to achieving their mission and the ways in which funders and their philanthropic practices have done real harm;
  • The value of building internal champions and incorporating authentic community feedback by enlisting Black leaders on the REACH Board to serve as advisors for the CBV pilot;
  • The trust with community that can be built by engaging passionate, and most importantly, local Black consultant(s) with deep experience and expertise in helping organizations dismantle practices grounded in racial bias and exclusion;
  • The rewards of pursuing an intensive year of Board and staff learning on topics including the Trust-based Philanthropy Project, the impact of implicit bias, and the ensuing consequences of philanthropic redlining;
  • Taking a first step toward repairing harm by identifying Black-led, Black-serving nonprofit organizations with which REACH had no prior funding relationship to receive unrestricted core operating support and technical assistance;
  • Making substantive changes to REACH’s grantmaking processes and policies in real time as we learned from CBV pilot partners—including modifications to grant applications and eligibility and reporting requirements;
  • The purposeful engagement of the REACH Board to develop a Racial Equity Narrative statement to articulate the foundation’s prior actions and policies which disadvantaged the Black community, as well as REACH’s express commitment to change; and
  • Incorporating new learnings and new partners in REACH’s grantmaking portfolio, including expansion and diversification of core operating partners, the introduction of a diverse Core Consultants resource, and the establishment of a Rapid REACH Equity Fund, along with additional unrestricted funding in rural parts of our service area.

These changes are still relatively new, so it’s up to a determined Board and staff to uphold a commitment to continuous growth and adaptation as a racial/health equity funder. To help us meet our promise, REACH has adopted internal tools, processes, and a dashboard to monitor and report to the Board. Our expanded investments in the Black community, an equity approach to asset allocation and portfolio management, and intentional engagement of diverse consultants and vendors bring new perspectives to the foundation’s work.

Our most recent results from the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report, which included participants from the CBV pilot, also give us encouragement that we are moving in the right direction. Of greatest satisfaction is the substantial increase in inquiries and interactions with new organizations and word-of-mouth referrals from organizations that now trust REACH to show up, follow up, and pony up to authentically address inequity.