How Funder Conversations Helped Move Maryland Funders to Action

November 12, 2012
Rebecca Ruggles

Sometimes in the midst of a new endeavor, you suddenly realize where you've come from. When HEFN Director Kathy Sessions, Phil Johnson from the Heinz Endowments and Amy Panek from the Park Foundation spoke to the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers’ (ABAG) Green Funders’ October session on fracking, I remembered something.  I remembered how earlier funder conversations involving HEFN members had been instrumental in moving us to action on toxics.

ABAG has sponsored a new project, the Maryland Environmental Health Network (MEHN).  We are convening advocates in the fields of health and environment, along with government officials, academics, funders, and community activists, to address human health implications of environmental degradation and pollution in Maryland. Toxics is proving to be just one theme being addressed by this solutions-oriented network, committed to education for action.

The idea for MEHN first cropped up within ABAG’s environmental affinity group, the Green Funders, who come together to build a shared perspective on regional environmental issues.  Our members are focused primarily on Maryland.  Our theme in 2011 was how human health is affected by pollution and other environmental threats.  With talks from Ken Cook at Environmental Working Group and from biologist author Sandra Steingraber, we began to identify a gap in the Maryland landscape: there was no forum for cross-sector dialogue and action on environmental health issues.

Thus the idea of a funder-initiated project emerged.  Several ABAG members had the opportunity to attend HEFN’s annual meeting (serendipitously held in Baltimore) in November 2011.  There, conversations with David Fukuzawa of the Kresge Foundation and Anita Nager from the Bauman Foundation helped to spark more interest. We absorbed the spirited dialogue and watched other grantmakers debating risks and rewards in a complex field.  We took heart.

Guided by the Blaustein Philanthropic Group (Betsy Ringel and Lara Hall), and with strong support from Karen Kreisberg at the Krieger Fund, the Maryland Environmental Health Network emerged in February 2012.   A third funder, the Town Creek Foundation,  joined us with an interest in assuring that our publication, the Maryland Children’s Environmental Health Progress Report, would be produced in a form that would reach state legislators and policy-makers (report due out in January 2013).  Among the opportunities that funders have helped shape has been the creation of a Children’s Environmental Health Specialist.  With support from the Abell Foundation, we are taking advantage of Maryland’s new mandate that all school systems teach environmental literacy and bringing environmental health topics to Baltimore City schools.

This project is a good example of how funders across the country can fertilize each other’s thinking.  Our Maryland work was enabled by a sense of the larger community of philanthropy working on the intersection of health and the environment.  Connecting to funders outside our region was of real value during the feasibility and planning stages of this project.

You can learn more about MEHN on the ABAG website, in ABAG President Betsy Nelson’s recent blogpost, on our blog, Adventures in Philanthropy, or by e-mailing me at

Rebecca Ruggles is Coordinator for the Maryland Environmental Health Network (MEHN), and Consultant to the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers’ Green Funders.

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