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How to Bring a Health Equity Lens to Philanthropy

Samantha Hunter
Published:  05/24/2021

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Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

2020 illuminated racial and socio-economic disparities in healthcare - issues that all health foundations need and want to address. Health equity has been a topic at the forefront of the conversation to help address those disparities.

In our fourth Leading Forward session, Dr. Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, chief clinical diversity, equity, and inclusion officer and Allie Quick, chief philanthropy officer, discussed how they are integrating health equity into everything they do at Allegheny Health Network. 

Here are a few of their key tips for philanthropists beginning a health equity journey.

Understand and acknowledge the problem

In its simplest form, health equity is making sure that everyone has an opportunity to have longevity and be productive. There are several reasons we see disparities in healthcare for individuals including employment status, where a person lives, race, and gender identity. Two of the most prominent that can be addressed by hospitals and healthcare systems are quality and access to care, and they’re often intertwined.  

In the same hospital, two individuals might receive different care or might be provided with different resources due to unintentional biases. As Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew put it, “it’s important to pay attention to all of the ‘isms’, like racism and sexism”. A lot of this is due to systemic issues that feel out of our control, but ignoring them will only cause these disparities in care to rise even further. 

It’s important to understand and acknowledge that health disparities exist. Then you can begin to ask questions like, how do they arise? How do we tackle those problems to make sure that everyone has access to care? Where can we start? 

Look internally and educate 

Addressing health equity issues is something needed across the entire healthcare system, which can make it feel like something that one organization can’t address on its own. But it’s important to look inward with a health equity lens to see where there’s room for improvement. If we all agree that there is inequity across the healthcare system as a whole, how are these disparities in care being addressed for your patients? 

Having tough conversations can help foster a more inclusive environment that allows for the best patient care. Focusing on internal education at a senior level is a good place to start. Educating your board and senior leaders are critical because it trickles down into everything from day-to-day governance to organizational values. 

As fundraisers, including the board in the foundational work, sets you up for sustainability and longer term impact for future campaigns, which is always top of mind. It’s important to change the conversation and messaging to be thinking through a social justice lens instead of just one-off ideas. 

Reframe the work you’re already doing

There’s a good chance some of the work you’re already doing supports greater health equity, but you might not be framing it that way. Many diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, also address disparities in healthcare. This ties back to why education on the topic is so important. Having a deeper understanding on the topic causes a shift in thinking that reframes some of the work your team is already doing. 

You can also reprioritize your efforts to make sure all of your efforts align. When pursuing new grants with new funders, development staff will start to ask the question, how would this work impact not just good health for some, but good health for all? 

Continue to be a storyteller

Philanthropists often play the important role of storyteller, this holds true for focusing on equitable health too. Understanding the story and presenting it to patients, donors, board members, and staff can have a direct impact on how an organization addresses health equity. 

The story can be how specific grant work results are presented to the board to ensure a continued focus on addressing disparities in health care. Or it can be through donor outreach that highlights how a focus on access to care can have a positive impact on the community. 

You’re doing the work, so it’s important to be able to translate that to the right audience. Whether that means making sure equitable health efforts are included in the annual report or your newsletters to donors. It’s key to do the work on the front end to show the impact philanthropy can have on health equity initiatives and why a focus there matters. 

It’s not necessarily a heavy lift, just an intentional one

One of the biggest challenges with addressing disparities in healthcare is figuring out where to focus your efforts. We’ve reached a point where it isn’t hard to convince people that there should be a focus on health equity. The biggest hurdle is that the needs are greater than the resources many organizations have right now. 

Try to find a few specific programs that your organization can rally around, and start your focus there. Don’t let the enormity of the task discourage your development team. For more information on how your team can focus on health equity, check out our Leading Forward session on the topic

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Meet The Author

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Samantha Hunter
Association for Healthcare Philanthropy

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