Reaching to What is Next: Planning with — not for — Our Grantees

Philanthropy is about more than grantmaking. It is about fostering deep relationships and providing support to help communities build their civic muscle and engage residents in leading meaningful change. While New Jersey Health Initiatives (NJHI) is a statewide grantmaking program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, awarding grant dollars is a small part of what we do. NJHI convenes thought partners, connects resources and communicates opportunities to strengthen our learning network of grantee communities. Our work reflects a commitment to trusting our grantees’ understanding of their communities’ priorities for giving everyone an opportunity to live healthier.

Seven years ago, NJHI embarked on a journey with 10 grantees to develop long-term solutions for building healthier and more equitable communities. Those Communities Moving to Action grantees and the dozens more grantees who followed, in addition to their hundreds of partners, continue to shape our work. To guide us in the year ahead, our expert advisors from Dawn Chorus Group, Drive Evaluation Studio, Healthy Places by Design and Community Health Strategist Toni Lewis worked with us to develop a process to gather input from more than 50 current and former NJHI grantees about the tools and non-grant support they feel they will need to continue to grow and sustain their work.

Trust is at the heart of this effort. This information-gathering process leverages the relationships we’ve strengthened through the years and reflects our intention of preserving grantees’ trust going forward. With our expert advisors, we convened one-hour, small group listening sessions and one-on-one interviews during the final weeks of 2021, and created a virtual suggestion box to collect additional input anonymously. From these insights, NJHI is building a technical assistance strategy that will encompass communications, network building, evaluation and data expertise, and learning and funding opportunities.

The ideas and feedback we have compiled from nonprofits, youth-serving organizations, faith-based partners, school administrators, municipal agencies, health care providers and their peers across the state are informing NJHI’s 2022 technical assistance plan not once, but through an iterative approach. We are immensely grateful to our grantees for their time and the honesty, thoughtfulness and creativity they brought to this participatory process. Their input will help us make sure we are equipping their communities with the tools and resources that can build their capacity to continue their valuable work well into the future, and as poet Amanda Gorman wrote in New Day’s Lyric, reach toward what is next.

New Day’s Lyric by Amanda Gorman (excerpt)

This hope is our door, our portal.
Even if we never get back to normal,
Someday we can venture beyond it,
To leave the known and take the first steps.
So let us not return to what was normal,
But reach toward what is next.

View the full text and an accompanying performance on the poet’s Instagram: