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On Cultivating Urgent Patience

Is there such a thing as 'urgent patience?' If so, philanthropy needs to cultivate it. It seems to be in short supply in our line of work, for understandable reasons. Grant funding has been traditionally short-term in nature, often broken into artificial 12-month project periods driven by funder planning horizons and convenience, rather than the needs or objectives of the projects and its participants.

Also, as I noted in a recent blog post, most funders have traditionally measured success through work and activities that are easy to count.This might be appropriate for technical approaches or models to foster change, but they’re not well-suited to the complex issues that sit at the intersection of many systems, such as health. For these complex issues, funders must provide the kind of support that can advance the adaptive capacity* of grantees and their communities, allowing them to immerse themselves in the relationships and systems within their community in a way that enables them to identify common interests, align strategies and activities, and develop solutions that potentially solve many problems.

It takes time. It takes trust. It takes not being process-averse, but actually viewing process as action. It takes urgency. We know that change moves at the speed of trust, yet we act differently when the bell rings. We want to get straight to the action – to the deliverables. We let urgent action and our drive for results trump the need for patient attention to the relational and process components so critical to systems change.

This was the case with MeHAF’s Healthy Communities grant program, six months into a 12-month pre-planning grant, driven in large part by timelines we as the funder established. The 20 grantees are in a pre-planning phase of engaging a variety of stakeholders (especially individuals and organizations typically excluded or not involved in community health improvement efforts) in an effort to select a community-identified priority health issue that they will collectively address with local partners in future phases of funding (planning and implementation). In order to advance successful communities from pre-planning to the planning phase with no disruption in funding, we originally planned to release the request for proposals eight months into their project period. Grantees felt, and rightfully so, pressured to identify their health issue by the time they were expected to submit planning grant applications at the end of the summer. They felt this timeline would result in one of two things: either they would focus on deep engagement of individuals and organizations typically excluded from such processes in their communities and hope they could identify a health issue in short order, or they would rush through the engagement phase of the work in order to have a health issue in place in time to submit their proposal – one that might not reflect the voice of folks with lived experience of the issues. A feeling of urgency to arrive at the grant deliverable was winning out over the patience required to get the process right.

Seth Godin, the prolific blogger, strategist, and marketing guru, has this to say on balancing process with the end result:

"Can we talk about process first? It's so tempting to get straight to the issue, especially since you're certain that you're right.

The challenge is that organizations and relationships that thrive are built to go beyond this one discussion. They are built for the long haul, and this particular issue, while important, isn't as vital as our ability to work together on the next hundred issues.

So yes, you're probably right, and yes, it's urgent, but if we can't agree on a process to talk about this, we're not going to get anywhere, not for long.

If the process we've used in the past is broken, let's fix it, because, in fact, getting that process right is actually more urgent than the problem we've got right now. Our meta-conversation pays significant dividends. At the very least, it gets us working together on the same side of a problem before we have to be on opposite sides of the issue of the day."

Grantees shouldn’t be put in the situation of having to choose between trying to work differently in an inclusive and engaging way towards change or falling back into old ways of doing their work that focus on short-term deliverables/metrics. It’s incumbent upon funders who are trying to support adaptive approaches to address thorny, complex issues to alter the way they design grant opportunities and distribute their resources.

MeHAF was able to pivot with respect to the Healthy Community grant program. Every grantee has been given a cost-extension of six months to complete their pre-planning work. We also plan to extend the planning phase from 12 to 18 months, so that all can apply after a full project year and not after just eight or nine months. We’re taking small but important steps to foster an environment where grantees can focus on the urgency of deliverables AND also have the time needed to build trusting relationships with their organizational and individual partners. Coordinating strategies among organizations whose missions may be quite divergent is extremely difficult.  It requires a level of urgent patience that makes time and space for the relational and process elements of our work and the influential roles they play in supporting systems change – a patience that is in equal balance with our urgent actions to create greater access to care and improved health.

Our President and CEO has likened MeHAF staff to action figures, and referred to our foundation as small but mighty. We all like action, I get that, but for that very reason we have begun to find ways to cultivate a better balance between relationships, processes, and results that will position us and our grantee partners for long-term success on the challenging issues we are trying to address.

What other approaches are funders trying to promote an environment where positive change can happen around complex issues? What else can funders do to support the work of grantees willing to approach their work with an urgent patience that lifts up the relational and process aspects of change?

*"Adaptive community capacity" is the ability of organizations/coalitions to learn and adapt, build trusting relationships, and develop a shared analysis, aligned vision, and purpose that is collectively created, and accurately reflects the needs and priorities of the geography served.

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