When we think about who funds efforts to build healthy communities, we typically think of philanthropy, government, or health care organizations. It's true, community health improvement efforts tend to rely on grants from such groups. But the field of funders is broader than grantmakers. It extends to Community Development Financial Institutions, investors who fund social impact bonds, and businesses.

How are funders related to health?

Many funders are mission-driven to improve local communities. They are in the business of making changes in the community. They know that making changes to create healthier communities takes resources, but their impact goes beyond writing a check.

Funders exist in many sectors and touch health in a variety of ways. They bring:

  • A broad view of the community and where groups are focused, as well as what others are supporting.
  • Experience partnering with different sectors. They know how to build relationships that are based on mutual trust and respect.
  • A focus on evaluation and learning. They help to build the evidence base and replicate promising practices.

Community changemakers rely on funders to support their efforts with dollars and in-kind resources. A recent survey found that three-quarters of respondents rely on some form of grant or contract to fund their efforts. Typically, these dollars came from philanthropy, government, or health care groups.1

What can funders do to build healthy communities?

Focus on equity

Over the past several decades health foundations and corporate funding programs have invested millions of dollars toward reducing disparities in health care and health status. In more recent years, these funders have expanded their language and focus to achieving equity.  Funders are thinking about how to extend their impact to the root causes of disparities.2 Think education, income, community safety, housing, and discrimination.

Health Equity

In 2017, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation introduced its definition of health equity: “Health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. This requires removing obstacles to health such as poverty, discrimination, and their consequences, including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education and housing, safe environments, and health care. For the purposes of measurement, health equity means reducing and ultimately eliminating disparities in health and its determinants that adversely affect excluded or marginalized groups.”3

Use data to drive decisions

Data provides important context for funders. The County Health Rankings provide a snapshot of a community’s health and a starting point for investigating and discussing ways to improve health. The Rankings model provides a broad picture of health and some funders have adopted it as a framework for assessing and improving community health.

Funders can also lead work on data and assessment by:  

  • Taking the lead in collecting and disseminating data.
  • Analyzing data to understand what disparities exist and why.  
  • Building community capacity to gather and use data.
  • Encouraging partners to share their data with each other (and provide financial support for a shared measurement system).

Build capacity

Support grantees and other community partners in building their skills, knowledge, and connections. Funders can help create forums for conversations across the community and serve as an effective convener. Through funding requirements and incentives, funders can serve as a catalyst for cross-sector partnerships.

Point to evidence. Funders can build capacity for using evidence by encouraging communities to use What Works for Health to explore strategies that might work for them. 

Philanthropists and investors are also key decision makers for several strategies listed in What Works for Health. 

Leverage funds for greater reach and impact. Funders are exploring structural changes in how they support communities by:

  • Providing multi-year grants.
  • Engaging the community in identifying funding priorities and grant recipients.
  • Creating more flexible funding structures.
  • Developing public-private partnerships that can lead to big wins.
  • Investing in large-scale, place-based efforts.2

Funders are also taking steps to educate their boards of directors about these structural changes and the impact they can have on communities. Boards also play a key role in advancing equity work in communities.

Reflect your community

BoardSource’s 2017 Leading with Intent report found that nonprofit boards do not reflect the growing diversity of the U.S. population. The report includes responses from a broad cross-section of the nonprofit sector — including public charities, foundations, and other types of nonprofits.

Respondents say they are not satisfied with current board demographics — particularly racial and ethnic diversity. Yet, boards are not prioritizing demographics in their recruitment practices.4

This is important because diverse groups make better decisions. Diverse groups are those that vary in race, ethnicity, gender, experience, sexual orientation, and in other ways.5 Groups of people who look the same or have the same life experiences are more likely to have blind spots.

Rick Moyers, chair of BoardSource’s board of directors writes: “For organizations working at the intersection of race and poverty, these blind spots may involve undiscussed and perhaps faulty assumptions about the root causes of poverty; the needs, assets, and aspirations of the people and communities being served; and what constitutes a successful outcome. Poor decisions on these important questions can have significant consequences for mission and impact.”6

How do I connect with funders?

Do your research

If you are seeking funding for your initiative, start with our Funding Guide and our Guide to Maximizing Resources.

If you are trying to connect with a funder you haven’t worked with before, start with their website. Look for their mission and the type of work or issues they fund. Where does your work match with their mission and areas of interest? What other groups does the funder support?

Get connected

Once you’ve got some background information, think about your ask. Funders can play various roles in partnerships, including:

  • Thought partners: Funders can help organizations clarify their goals, sharpen their plans or initiatives, and act as a sounding board.
  • Connectors: Because funders see the work of all their grantees, and other groups working in the community, they can connect organizations with other stakeholders working in similar or related areas. Funders can also connect their grantees with other philanthropies and sources of funding.
  • Conveners: Often funders are able to “set the table” for conversation among affinity groups as well as unlikely partners.
  • Citizens and consumers: As a part of the community, funders benefit either directly or indirectly from an organization’s work.

If you are becoming more collaborative with your funder, real and perceived boundaries may shift. The Defining Boundaries Conversation Guide can help grantees and funders negotiate these new roles and expectations.

It’s okay (and preferred) to be honest with funders throughout the relationship. Funders are eager to work with community partners to overcome unexpected challenges.

What’s in it for them?

  • Innovation. Funders are often interested in innovation. They may be looking for opportunities to partner with communities to try out new strategies.
  • Results. Funders bring a spirit of learning and continuous improvement to their partnerships with communities.
  • Mission. For philanthropic funders, investing in communities is core to their mission.
  • Value. For corporate foundations, giving is motivated by a combination of altruism and self-interest.7


  1. Erickson J, Milstein B, Schafer L, et al. Progress Along the Pathway for Transforming Regional Health: A Pulse Check on Multi-Sector Partnerships. ReThink Health, 2017.
  2. Doykos P, Gray-Akpa K, Mitchell F. New Directions For Foundations In Health Equity. Health Aff (Millwood). 2016;35(8):1536-1540. 
  3. Braveman P, Arkin E, Orleans T, Proctor D, and Plough A. What Is Health Equity? And What Difference Does a Definition Make? Princeton, NJ: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2017.
  4. BoardSource. Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices. Washington, D.C.: BoardSource; 2017.  Accessed September 21, 2017.
  5. Galinsky AD, Todd AR, Homan AC, et al. Maximizing the Gains and Minimizing the Pains of Diversity. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2015;10(6):742-748. 
  6. Moyers R. A Stronger Case for Board 2017. Accessed September 21, 2017.
  7. GrantSpace Knowledge Base: Where can I find information on corporate giving? What motivates companies? Accessed June 19, 2018.

Learn From This Community

2019 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner: Greenville County, South Carolina

The city of Greenville is one of the fastest-growing places in the United States; and yet, Greenville County, with a population of 507,000, including 67,000 in the city of Greenville, is also one of the toughest places in the country to climb out of poverty, according to a study by the Equality of Opportunity Project

This reality has motivated private and public partners to begin the work of changing through policies and systems the way things are done. One of these partnerships—the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy, a five-year-old collaboration of regional grant-makers—leverages its moral and social influence for maximum impact. 

“In Greenville, we’re aware of our shortcomings, which I think is a strength,” says Katy Smith, executive director of the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. “We know what we need to work on, and we’re trying to do it.”

Learn more

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