“If ice cream trucks can come into our community, why can’t produce trucks?” That provocative question was posed during a series of neighborhood meetings in the Northside community of Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 2010. It crystalized the desires of residents in the low-income neighborhood—a place with few markets and limited access to fresh food—to make their community a healthier place to eat and live.
Within a few months, a mobile market was bringing fresh peppers, peaches, green beans and watermelons to Northside and today, three years later, construction is underway on the new Northside Community Food Hub. With its opening, scheduled for May, the hub will provide a permanent home for a farmers’ market, community gardens, a catering kitchen and cafe, retail space, and even chicken coops. It also will create 23 permanent jobs, 17 of them slated for residents of Northside.
The community meetings were organized by the Mary Black Foundation, with the support of the Convergence Partnership, a collaborative of national funders and healthcare organizations. The goal was to enable community residents and leaders to assume a role in helping the foundation make funding decisions.The process gave rise to the Northside Leadership Council, whose 15 residents now advise the foundation on funding priorities and help lead new initiatives. The grants awarded by the foundation also stimulated other funding from private and government sources to support the efforts in Spartanburg.
These are exactly the kinds of place-based environmental and policy changes that the Convergence Partnership hoped to catalyze when it was founded in 2007. Its members—Kaiser Permanente, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Nemours, the California Endowment, Kresge Foundation, Ascension Health and the Rockefeller Foundation—were interested in building a new type of collaboration and collective action as they worked to advance their vision of healthy people and healthy places.
“We thought there was a big opportunity to more intentionally collaborate,” says Loel Solomon, vice president for community health at Kaiser Permanente. The partnership developed a new kind of philanthropy—one now being replicated by regional foundations across the country— that asked the organizations and advocates on the receiving end of grants to work together, and placed similar expectations on its own members. By making grants from a shared pool and coordinating advocacy efforts, the partners speak with one voice, take risks that an individual institution might not take alone, and advance a shared agenda.
Since its founding, the Convergence Partnership has granted more than $22 million to a diverse group of nonprofit organizations and advocates to support policy and environmental change at the local, regional, state, and national levels. The partners also work as advocates and network developers, using the stature and organizational savvy of its member organizations to advance a vision of a nation in which every community fosters health, prosperity, and wellbeing for all residents. This vision rests on three key principles:
1. Equity as the means to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate and prosper.
2. Policies and practices to create conditions that sustain healthy people and healthy places.
3. Connections among people across multiple fields and sectors that catalyze and accelerate the work.
From the beginning, the partnership has also played an active role in pushing for national policies that advance its vision.
For instance, it helped create the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which has leveraged more than $1 billion to help grocery stores, co-ops and farmers’ markets sell fresh food in low-income communities. It pushed for changes in the farm bill that promote food security and sustainable agriculture and supported transportation policies that protect public transit and active transportation. It backed pilot projects that merge violence-prevention activities with efforts to promote physical activity, parks, and transit. And it champions funding streams in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act that promote coordination between community-based organizations and local governments working to promote health and wellness.
The partnership also created an Innovation Fund to help local and regional foundations broaden access to healthy food and improve the built environment in a way that helps low-income communities and communities of color. One partner, the Northwest Health Foundation, made seven grants to organizations working in Portland, Oregon’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Grantees used the funds to ensure that the Portland Plan, the city’s plan for future development, benefits disadvantaged communities. They also built a new park in one of the most diverse low-income neighborhoods in the city and opened a community garden now being worked by 30 African immigrant families.
Convergence Partnership’s model has now been replicated in 14 regions across the country in collaborations involving more than 70 foundations. A new philanthropic model is making its mark.
Judith Bell is president of Policy Link, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity by Lifting Up What Works®.
Larry Cohen is executive director of Prevention Institute, a policy and action center that works to create healthier, safer, and more equitable communities. The two organizations provide programmatic and strategic assistance to Convergence Partnership.