During my time as President of Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, I have had the privilege of working alongside many people who are challenging us, inspiring us, and leading incredible efforts to improve the well-being of everyone in our community. The relationships I’ve formed throughout my decade-long journey have been among the greatest joys of my lifetime.
As I prepare to transition from the organization this month, I have been reflecting on the critical conversations I’ve shared. I remain deeply humbled to be part of an organization that embraces listening and learning, asking hard questions of ourselves and our community, and working alongside many partners in a collective effort to improve the lives of kids and families.
In that spirit, I shared this first blog with reflections for leaders in philanthropy. This blog offers nonprofit and community partners four questions to think about as we continue to work collaboratively to address complex issues. Thank you to those who have inspired these thoughts. I hope my reflections continue to spark new ideas for you, so together, we can make a meaningful impact.
A colleague once shared this quote by Robert Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’”
This quote has reminded me to be relentless. I believe we must continue to ask why, so that we can peel back the layers to understand root causes for the issues we are working to address. As a Foundation, this has meant digging deeper in our understanding of what causes childhood trauma and what can drive change around the social determinants of children’s health. But equally essential is the question: Why not? This question moves us from listening, learning, and building authentic compassion to taking action—and inviting others to respond. Our actions must still come from a place of love and humility that is built by asking why, but by asking why not, we can all learn to be unafraid in driving toward what can be.
In philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, we value evidence-based best practices, but we also must be willing to pivot based on what is truly needed by those experiencing the issues we are working to address. Often those who have given Mid-Iowa Health Foundation the greatest expertise are individuals willing to have raw conversations about what they are hearing, seeing, and experiencing. We especially have had the honor of sitting with students and listening as they discussed the reality of trauma and racism in their lives.
A few years ago, the Foundation invested in facilitation to develop a community plan that would address youth homelessness. Young people with experiences of homelessness led much of that planning process. I especially remember a comment from the young person who presented the plan at the end. He had one request for all of us in that room: That when we saw him on the sidewalk, we did not pretend he didn’t exist.
He showed us that the heart of our work is about valuing the dignity of people. It matters to be seen. When we lose sight of that as we work on changing systems or implementing new practices, we lose the power of what our work is about: Looking at an 18-year-old in the eyes so he doesn’t feel invisible to the world.
Going back to asking why and why not, when we keep asking why, we keep peeling back the layers to arrive at a few foundational, almost universal causes for the issues we’re working on. When we ask why not, we see an opportunity to respond to those root causes, not by helping people on an individual basis, but at a more comprehensive level. Working with individuals through programs is important and helps us see the systems that need to change, and then we must work at a systems level to remove barriers and prevent people from experiencing those challenges in the first place.
First, there needs to be enough trust and understanding established. As leaders, we need to surround ourselves with people who have knowledge, expertise, experiences, and connections. Then we need to make sure our conversations together are creating the vision. Often a leader’s job is to support the board or group in finding alignment behind an organization’s mission and to see where their purpose can work toward that vision. But a vision is not something that you can impose; it must come from the collective.
Teenagers in jumpsuits lying on yoga mats, their eyes closed, their bodies still. This is the image Megan Hoxhalli describes as remarkable for juvenile detention, a place where youth arrive shaken, dysregulated, and scared about their future.