Checking In with Grantmakers In Health's New President and CEO

February 11, 2013

Kathy Sessions spoke with Faith Mitchell, Grantmakers In Health’s newly appointed President and CEO, about her plans for GIH, visions for health philanthropy, and thoughts about opportunities for collaboration on health determinants and disparities.       

Faith, congratulations on your new role as President and CEO of GIH – and congrats to GIH for such a fabulous choice! 


You served as GIH’s Vice President for several years, so you really know the organization and its funder community.  What are you most excited about in your new leadership role? 

In a nutshell, what excites me is the opportunity to take GIH in new directions that benefit both our organization and the funder community we serve.  That opportunity is enhanced by the fact that I’m taking the reins of a strong organization with a good staff and board, and supportive funders.  Because GIH is in good shape organizationally—and I was already familiar with the staff, board, and organizational culture—I am in a position to hit the ground running and focus on future plans.  We call these plans, which are under development, “GIH 3.0.”

Let us know when you’re ready to say more about GIH 3.0!  Meanwhile, what do you see ahead for health philanthropy? Emerging opportunities?  Sticky challenges?

One of the big challenges lying ahead for health philanthropy is the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), for which key provisions take effect in 2014.  Health funders can potentially play important leadership roles both nationally and at the state and local level in the run-up to 2014 and the years following.  In this regard, many funders are turning their attention to issues like reforming health care delivery systems, containing health care costs, protecting Medicaid, and ensuring more people get enrolled in insurance plans.

Of course, not all funders are focused on health care issues; going forward, many will continue to focus on prevention, with their efforts hopefully being reinforced by the ACA’s support of improved preventive services.  In addition, funders with a focus on the social determinants of health will continue to find ways to address the factors like housing, poverty, and poor neighborhood conditions that we know contribute significantly to low health status in vulnerable communities.

Faith, for those vulnerable communities, so much of health philanthropy has been focused on helping people with little or no health insurance.  If the US shifts closer to universal health coverage, does that create space for a new health agenda?    

That's a big “if.”  I agree that the country seems to be gradually moving in the direction of universal coverage, but I suspect that it will take decades to reach that goal.  In the meantime, even with the advances that are possible because of the ACA, there will still be significant numbers of people who lack health insurance.  In some cases these are people who don’t know they’re eligible.  In others, immigration status forces people outside the system.  Because lack of coverage will continue to be an issue, for the foreseeable future there will be an ongoing need for health philanthropy to ensure the integrity of the health care safety net.

While we work towards making  universal coverage a reality, my dream for a new health agenda also is one that fully recognizes and addresses the social determinants of health that were mentioned previously.  Access to health care services is vitally important, but we know that it is not sufficient to make people healthier.  Addressing education, income, and the environmental quality of neighborhoods is essential if we want to achieve lasting improvements in the country’s health.

Do you see potential for more funder interest in addressing those social determinants whether it’s promoting healthier foods and physical activity or improving everyday environmental, social, and economic conditions affecting people’s e health?

The flood of statistics about overweight and obesity—and especially the escalating numbers for children—have fueled funders’ interest in promoting a Healthy Eating – Active Living (HEAL) agenda.  There is a lot of philanthropic activity in this area, from supporting school-based food and exercise programs, to funding community gardens and other programs that increase access to healthy foods in poor neighborhoods, to advocacy for new federal policies.  Funders are also interested in addressing the conditions that shape health outcomes, with the recognition that this work will require long-term commitments and investments before there are measurable results.

It was a privilege to work with you on a Health Affairs paper about philanthropy’s responses to health disparities.  Some people who’ve known you through GIH may not know you worked at the Institute of Health on their seminal work on health disparities.  What do you think are the next best opportunities for health philanthropy to make good on visions of health for all?

One of the main strengths of the health funding community is its ability to develop a vision and implement it independently.  But health philanthropy doesn’t have enough money to make lasting change on its own.  Accordingly, GIH encourages health funders to partner when they can, whether with each other, with federal agencies, or with organizations from other sectors.  Interestingly, some funders are now partnering with private banks and investment groups.

There are many possibilities.  The key element is the idea of forming creative partnerships that will further the health of individuals and communities.  It is also very important for health philanthropy to cultivate and support new health leaders, especially in vulnerable communities.  Achieving the goal of health for all will require the active involvement of diverse, and representative, voices.

GIH and HEFN have worked together now for more than a decade (!) to support funder interests in environmental health issues.  What do you think is the value of collaboration across affinity groups?   Any ideas for the next GIH and HEFN collaboration?

GIH has always benefited from its collaborative work with HEFN, which has also been a model for us of collaborating across affinity groups.  Because health both affects and reflects every dimension of people’s lives, we welcome the opportunity to work with groups from outside the formal health sector.  For us it’s win-win.

HEFN’s work on environmental factors that affect children’s health, children’s ability to learn, women’s reproductive health, and health across the lifespan are particularly fruitful areas for future collaborations, because they relate closely to the priorities of many health funders.

We have seen many good things come from connecting funders across siloes around shared values of health and equity, and we really value the GIH-HEFN Partnership.  In fact the HEFN staff is hard at work right now preparing a workshop for your 2013 annual meeting!  And can we meet again for lunch soon? 

Of course!  “The Red Line is our friend.”

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