In 2021, FSG partnered with Natrona Collective Health Trust (NCHT), a new health conversion foundation in Casper, Wyoming, to develop its strategy to improve community health, and to do so in partnership with community members.
Place-based foundations have a unique opportunity to co-create strategies with the people they aim to serve. Community members must play an integral role in helping to identify and prioritize their most pressing needs, developing strategies to address them, and serving as advisors in the implementation of those strategies.
We spoke with Meredith Benton, CEO of NCHT, to learn more about how the foundation partnered with parents, youth, and beneficiaries to design their inaugural strategy to advance health equity in the county.
What were your intentions for the role of community members in the strategic planning process?
As a brand new foundation trying to create a new identity and reputation—and with a CEO who was new to the community—the board and the staff recognized that we had a unique opportunity to develop community ownership of the foundation’s work. We wanted to communicate that the foundation’s assets are the community’s assets, and that they have control and power over how those assets are deployed.
Who outside of the foundation was involved in your strategy process, and how were they involved?
Through this experience, we learned that the strategic planning process is as important as the strategic plan itself. It was the board’s role to ensure there was a thoughtful plan in place that is informed by community members, but it is the community’s role to inform and make decisions about how to execute it. At the end of the day, we want the community to feel like this is their foundation and not just the board’s or the staff’s.
With FSG’s support as intermediaries, we were able to interview community leaders, both those who were formally recognized and those who have informal leadership roles. We also held focus groups with individuals who had lived experience: parents of small children, nonprofit leaders, youth, and advocacy and policy leaders. We prioritized listening to the voices we knew were most proximate to the issues. We tried to reach out to populations who have been most historically marginalized in our community, including LGBTQ+-identifying individuals, Black, indigenous, people of color, and those at the intersection of those identities.
Can you give some examples of some of the things you and your staff learned from community conversations that shaped how you think about the issues and your work?
We learned what we didn’t know by engaging community voices. As a board and staff, we did not have the answers, but we knew the community did. Once we dug into the data about the Natrona County community, we found there was a lot we did not know about the community. The board was surprised to learn that it could take someone hours to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy using the public transportation system. Board and staff members recognized that they did not understand our community’s challenges as deeply as they may have thought. The willingness to admit you need to learn more, especially about a place you have lived your whole life, takes humility.
How did you think about incorporating equity into your community engagement efforts?
We made an effort to center the diverse experiences in our community, especially historically marginalized populations. We are working on increasing board diversity, bringing on Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ board members and staff who can speak to the experiences of those we aim to serve. We created a program advisory committee to guide our work that includes a 15-year-old Latina, an LBGTQ+ social worker, and a child therapist—and we intentionally compensate participants as we value their experience as expertise. For our first round of grantmaking, we focused on serving those populations who, according to the insights surfaced in our newly-collected data, are most in need. We also adopted an inclusion policy for our grantmaking, with the goal of concentrating funding on organizations actively serving these communities.
What steps have you taken to partner with community members as you implement your strategic plan?
Everything that we implement can be directly related back to a piece of input or feedback we received from the community. Initially, we had to overcome the perception of being just a check-writing entity. It was important to us to develop relationships in a way that invited the community into a long-term partnership. For example, we partnered with local nonprofits whose demographics overlapped with what we were trying to do. We convened focus groups and paid both the organizations and the individual participants because their lived experience is worthy of being compensated. We continue to follow-up with partners and grantees to ask them what they need, and we are exploring participatory grantmaking programs; we want to become the “go-to” entity when community needs arise.
What advice do you have for other place-based foundations looking to involve their communities more in their strategic planning processes or other work?
Other foundations might consider asking themselves the following questions about their own resources: Are you engaging those voices and those people in your strategy? Are you stewarding those resources in a way that meets their needs, as they would describe them? Whose assets are they, really?