Mid-Iowa Health Foundation created the HealthConnect Fellowship with the understanding that programs and strategies cannot fully address the social determinants of health on the scale that’s needed to improve children’s health. To build a sustainable movement, we need the leadership and vision of dedicated individuals within a responsive network that leverages collective experiences, knowledge, and resources.
Elevating a network of advocates has required a balance between creating the space and structure for the fellows to develop as leaders and allowing the fellows to guide their own journey. Important actions from the Foundation included providing funding to cover time for fellows to participate, setting up meetings, and identifying topics for meetings. Mid-Iowa Health Foundation staff spent significant time listening to and supporting fellows in group sessions and on an individual basis to help them solve problems, make new connections, and identify opportunities.
“Our role was to make introductions and to help elevate the spaces where people were working and their expertise,” said Suzanne Mineck, President of Mid-Iowa Health Foundation. “Then it was up to the fellows to know where they needed one another.”
The Foundation found these approaches to be especially effective:
The leadership team put certain structures in place but then joined sessions and listened to fellows. The Foundation rarely planned more than a couple sessions at a time, and plans often shifted as the upheaval of the past year created a need for different conversations. This approach required an element of trust in the fellows, as well as discomfort at times, since staff didn’t always have control over where the conversation was going.
“To be in partnership with others requires both a sense of strength and humility,” said Mineck.
Being responsive also meant allowing the fellows to pivot their plans or tactics. Foundation staff and mentors even encouraged it, recognizing that the work often required changing directions and would extend beyond the 18-month time frame. The Foundation still asked for regular reporting from fellows to reflect on their journey.
The leadership team developed a core learning series to introduce fellows to key concepts related to systems change. Staff, mentors, and other fellows also shared tools along the way. Providing resources, especially funding, allowed the fellows to dedicate time to their campaigns or to invest in specific strategies, such as hiring consultants, launching public awareness campaigns, or conducting studies.
“It’s not going to happen on its own,” said Denise Swartz, Senior Program Officer at Mid-Iowa Health Foundation. “It needs time and space, and maybe money.”
The combination of tools and relationships was critical. “They need access to each other to build trusting, authentic, transparent relationships,” said Lead Mentor Rick Kozin. “But relationships without the tools won’t create change either.”
Mid-Iowa Health Foundation offered fellows two mentors to guide discussions and provide individual support as needed.
Kozin served as lead mentor for the fellowship from the beginning. He brought extensive experience leading the Polk County Health Department, as well as insights from a career in community organizing and advocacy. At times, he referred to himself as “lead agitator,” challenging the fellows with questions to reflect on during one-on-one coaching sessions. Many fellows noted that these questions led them to big-picture thinking and important insights that shaped their campaigns.
Sarah Welch came to the fellowship with a background in writing and nonprofit communications. She helped the fellows develop messages and implement communications strategies. The fellows noted that Welch helped them to communicate about their issues with greater confidence and to share their expertise and perspectives through blogs and op-eds. Many fellows wrote these pieces for the first time.
“The last four years of being executive director, I did not have anyone to guide or mentor me in ways I needed,” said Fellow Christine Her. “I had my work family to encourage, inspire, and support me, but it’s not the same. Every time I get on a call with Sarah or Rick, I am reminded that there are other people out there who want me to succeed and will share their expertise with me.”
The turmoil of the past year especially created a need for the fellows to cognitively and emotionally process what was happening to the well-being of children. The Foundation fostered a safe space to have difficult conversations by prioritizing relationship building among the cohort and offering time for the fellows to talk about what was on their mind.
“As passionate advocates for children’s health, we felt the heavy impact of so many forces converging to threaten child well-being and reaffirm inequities in Iowa,” said Fellow Chaney Yeast. “Having the space to vent, grieve, recover, and brainstorm new paths forward was critical restore our energy to continue the work.”
The Foundation was often a cheerleader as the fellows achieved victories in their campaigns or were recognized for their leadership. Successes were shared in blogs, on social media, with reporters and community leaders, and among the cohort. Staff also invited fellows to share their work with the Foundation’s Board of Directors.
Additionally, the Foundation shared learnings with the philanthropic sector to inform funding strategies and encourage similar approaches with a focus on systems change.
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