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Blogging the Grantmakers in Health Conference -- San Diego, CA (March 9-11, 2016)

2016-May 5
by Nick Randell, Program Officer












This March, I escaped blustery Buffalo for a few days for the Grantmakers in Health Conference in San Diego. As I did last year when this conference was in Austin, TX, I've put together a summary of selected conference programming, particularly plenary sessions and some of the breakout sessions I attended.


The conference's opening plenary showcased The Bigger Picture Campaign, a collaboration between the University of California's (San Francisco) Center for Vulnerable Populations and Youth Speaks.   Youth Speaks is a non-profit that uses documentary film making and other art forms to harness the voice of youth for positive social change.  The Bigger Picture Campaign takes on the Type-2 diabetes epidemic with a social media-driven mix of poetry and storytelling. It's pretty inventive, powerful stuff.


Here are links to youth-produced videos screened at the conference:


Lots more are available here:


Following, in no particular order, are summaries of other sessions. 

  • Veteran and activist Paul Rieckoff spoke about getting more attention from philanthropy for veteran's issues.  In a typical year, less than  of 1% of philanthropic dollars go to towards supporting veterans.   The single-most alarming issue: 22 veterans die from suicide every day.  Rieckoff urged that foundations consider grants for veterans to be investments in a talented and vital subset of the workforce/population, not "charity." 
  • Representatives of Mount Sinai Hospital in NY and several LGBT-serving agencies  spoke about the need for improved clinical and cultural competency when dealing with the physical and mental health of the LGBT community.  Speakers advocated for a higher profile for this community in philanthropic giving, specifically mentioning the need for more data about how the LGBT population engages the healthcare system.  More data could bolster the business case that would convince hospitals and providers to learn more about the needs of LGBT patients. Estimates put the percentage of homeless teens in San Diego County that are LGBT youth at 40%.  One of the speakers held a full time position within a hospital network that is dedicated to understanding the needs and transforming care quality for LGBT patients.  She knew of no other institution with a similar position.
  • Staff from the Orton Family Fund and the Colorado Trust Foundation spoke about the need for foundations to work differently when engaging community-based approaches.  Plenty of interesting examples and takeaways. One example involved placing all grant related decision-making in the hands of community residents.  This made a lot of folks uneasy, including local providers who felt that they had been responding effectively to the voice of the community. The existing foundation staff were not comfortable with this model either and new staff that was brought on was valued more for experience as community organizers than for experience in philanthropy.  Another example did not push grantmaking control down quite so far, put delegated grantmaking decisions to the non-profit provider members of the stakeholder team.  A third case concluded with the recommendation that the local community foundation makes a valuable partner when doing community-based work.  They will still be there when you exit the field.
  • David Hemenway from the Harvard School of Public Health gave a plenary presentation on gun violence in America.  This was, not surprisingly, sobering.  The thrust of his talk was the paucity of research on firearms and gun violence and the appalling lack of accurate data.  Gun industry lobbies have succeeded in suppressing even basic research.  The best data comes from the National Violent Death Reporting System, a resource that was launched with philanthropic support.
  • At a Behavioral Health Funders Breakfast, foundations were encouraged to network with regional directors of SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).  Inspired, I have already had a very productive meeting with Region 1 leadership in Boston.  SAMHSA priorities are well aligned with many of ours at Tower.  They are interested in the future of the behavioral health workforce, would like to see prevention more fully integrated within the medical model of care, and more attention paid to the mental health of very young children.

This was my first trip to the San Diego area, and I was able to squeeze in a little time for exploration.  The highlight was a drive up the coast to La Jolla and close encounters with the sea lions (see photo). 


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