By Dennis Archambault
As the biblical story goes, it is better to teach someone to fish rather than give them some fish. Some leaders in the philanthropic sector are beginning to channel their support addressing the root causes of the social symptoms they would otherwise try to mitigate. With population health there are a lot of areas where philanthropic leadership could be beneficial.
In his commentary, “Why Giving Back Isn’t Enough” published in The New York Times on Dec. 17 (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/18/opinion/why-giving-back-isnt-enough.html?_r=0), Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation (https://www.fordfoundation.org/), reminds us of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s cautionary words: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
Indeed, Crain’s Detroit Business within the past week published an article that harkens back to the “Walking Man” saga of earlier in 2015: “Making it work for workers: Employers aim to retain low income employees, improve bottom line” (http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20151213/NEWS/312139982/making-it-work-for-workers-employers-aim-to-retain-low-income). Transportation, housing, child care, mental health — these are among the factors that undercut the efforts by low income people to work, which in itself is a critical determinant of health.
Walker’s comments challenge philanthropists to adopt a new “Gospel of Wealth,” which addresses “the underlying causes that perpetuate human suffering. In other words, philanthropy can no longer grapple simply with what is happening in the world, but also with how and why.
The Kellogg Foundation has certainly been in the forefront of this by exploring the impact of structural racism on the well-being of America’s poor. By supporting programs such as the Nurse-Family Partnership, which helps build strong character traits in first time mothers while contributing to healthy birth outcomes, and the Population Health Council, sponsored by Authority Health, in its efforts to generate local health policy solutions.
Walker advocates for the philanthropist to assume the role of activist, or at least support activists: “We, as foundations and individuals, should fund people, their ideas and organizations that are capable of addressing deep-rooted injustice. We should ensure that the voices of those most affected by injustice — women, racial minorities, the poor, religious and ethnic minorities and L.G.B.T. individuals — help decide where and what philanthropy puts money behind, not in simply receiving whatever philanthropy decides to give them.”
The idea of a safety net may be passé — or at least not the objective. People shouldn’t fall, to begin with. Funders, through strategic investment in the social and health infrastructure, are in a position to create a healthier environment, on all levels.
Dennis Archambault is director, Public Affairs, of Authority Health, which sponsors the Population Health Council.