Tough Questions We Asked Ourselves and Where it Took Us

For many of us working in philanthropy, 2020 was a wake-up call for overdue reflection.

The toll of the pandemic and then the rallying cries following the murder of George Floyd called for philanthropy to ask some tough but important questions. Are we being bold enough given this moment? Are we using our own power effectively and to the best benefit of the communities we work with as funders? How are we amplifying community power and agency of the people most impacted? We had to examine if we were walking our talk, and we realized we needed to step up our game. Reflecting on such questions of accountability and power led the Convergence Partnership in bold, new directions, and I’d like to share a bit about our journey here.

At the heart of the Convergence Partnership, a national funder collaborative to advance racial justice and health equity, is the knowledge that we can achieve greater impact when listening, learning, adapting, and aligning our work together. We test ideas and take on issues that individual institutions wouldn't or couldn't, and the partnership model allows for institutions to go above and beyond their organizational priorities to achieve greater and more expansive impact. Convergence has always been about showing that the sum can be greater than its individual parts. Over the last fourteen years, we have created a space where people from foundations with different priorities, practices, and funding approaches come together to reexamine individual ways of operating to push ourselves to break away from the comfortable and move into the necessary.

When the Partnership was established in 2007 and began exploring its on-the-ground approach, we decided to focus on “field building” as a central strategy for creating and leveraging connections across various fields and sectors to advance health equity, policy, and environmental change. The goals of field building included generating greater philanthropic investment in local and state policy advocacy to advance equity outcomes. We also operated under conventional norms by centralizing all grantmaking decisions and power with the funders.

2020 pushed us to act and fund differently. We knew we could no longer be in the driver's seat as a national partnership, deciding what local issues or work gets funded. Instead, we leaned into community-determined, trust-based funding by ceding control and working with frontline grassroots organizations to determine where dollars were most needed.

For example, through our COVID rapid response grants, each of the regional funding partners reached out to their local grassroots and community partners and deferred to them to define their priority issues, scope of work, grantmaking needs. Grant applications were streamlined to simply include a letter of support from the regional funder on behalf of the grassroots organization(s) they identified to receive funding. We also streamlined approaches to reporting and put the onus of due diligence on the funders to understand the work of grantees without burdensome paperwork or vetting processes for the grantees themselves. The grants concluded with the Partnership offering to produce an optional podcast in partnership with each grassroots grantees in lieu of a final written report. We also hosted a virtual forum where grassroots partners could share what was helpful during the grantmaking process and more importantly what we could do better as funders next time.

We heard our grassroots partners loud and clear when they asked us to disrupt conventional grantmaking that perpetuates power imbalances. These investments showed us that it is possible and necessary to share and shift power to local and state grassroots leaders to drive policy and structural change. And that we must also do the critical internal work to transform our own relationships and approaches with grantees.

Philanthropy needs to put into practice the same principles and values that we have been asking nonprofits and communities to follow: to be more sophisticated and nuanced in our understanding of anti-racism, power, privilege, and organize ourselves accordingly; and to make our work accountable and effective for our constituents.

That was a huge impetus for the New Vision to Amplify People Power for Racial Justice and Health Equity we announced in January of this year.

Though Convergence has worked on equity issues since its inception, our commitment to do better by our communities is driving us to expand our definition and root racial justice more deeply in our work. Understanding that the primary driver of health inequities is structural racism and power, our new strategy holds us accountable to make our contributions meaningful and additive toward racial justice and health equity by:

  • Amplifying Community Power: Investing in the power and agency of people of color and low-income people to fully engage in democratic processes for transforming racist policies and systems. We will do this by making investments that strengthen and expand grassroots, power-building infrastructure for local, state, and national policy change.
  • Transforming Narratives: Elevating narratives and stories that shift public attitudes toward inclusion, belonging, and the dignity of all people. We will do this by using our positioning and platforms to advance a national narrative driven by local experiences and successes of people of color and low-income people that shifts the paradigm toward racial justice and health equity.
  • Shifting Funder Practices: Mobilizing and influencing funders, including ourselves, to embrace transformative practices and relationships that dismantle systemic racism and power imbalances in philanthropy. We have seven new partners, and all are committed to this fundamental shift and to bringing more of our sector into equitable practices.

We cannot go back to business as usual—the health of our communities and our nation's democracy is on the line. We will continue to do the necessary self-reflection work in the Convergence Partnership and ask others to test their threshold and willingness to be adaptable. We can be accountable and walk the walk together.

Tough Questions We Asked Ourselves and Where it Took Us


About the author(s)

Chief Impact Officer

Participatory grantmaking in a pandemic: practical considerations in design

This post originally appeared on the Candid blog.

Many of the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are being led by grassroots activists and organizers across the world.  As we consider how to resource and fund this emergent work both in the short and long term, the need to place communities most impacted by and leading responses at the heart of decisions is deeply apparent. This crisis offers us an opportunity to learn by doing and to experiment with new models of participatory decision making that are accountable and intentional.

As funders in the philanthropic sector seek to support communities in meaningful and appropriate ways, we participatory grantmakers want to share what this means in political and practical terms, including some considerations and reflections on design.

Here are some key considerations for funders seeking to build participation into their grantmaking responses.

1. Find a balance between urgency and participation

Designing a model that is participatory, virtual and quick is new terrain for many, but certainly not impossible. It requires open-mindedness and a balance between the urgency of getting resources out the door and grounding the approach in the values of  meaningful and authentic participation. This requires flexibility and inevitably some trade-offs. The key is clear decisions about which things are non-negotiable and where compromises are possible.

2. Be clear on whom this participatory model should serve

Before you start designing, ask yourselves: Why do you want to make this process participatory? Who is the core community or constituency that should be part of this process? Then engage these communities in design as early as possible in the process, and find agreement on the values underpinning your model.

3. Start with your original base

This one comes with a shout out to Virisila Buadromoi from the Urgent Action Fund for Asia and Pacific: Where you can, start with activists in your community, your networks or sister funders. This is a way to ensure you can very quickly resource and also show up for your community when they need you most. It will cut down on due diligence and outreach and allow you to move quickly. One way to consider this is to first fund grantees of sister funds as phase 1, and then, having tested the process with your existing community, as phase 2, roll out a more widely accessible pot of funds.

4. Know that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel

The COVID-19 pandemic underscores our interdependence. It shows us that we need to be in solidarity with others and use our skills and experience where we can to contribute to quick and well-designed responses. Draw on your networks and the expertise of those who have concrete experience in doing participatory and/or rapid response grant making. The GrantCraft Guide Deciding Together on participatory grantmaking is a good place to start. Look at how your work can complement existing work rather than duplicate.

5. Compensate activists for their time

Many activists have lost their jobs and organizations; many are in even more precarious financial situations then they were before the pandemic. Where you can, prioritize paying some financial compensation, stipends, or remuneration for people’s time spent advising or deciding on grants. Time is more precious than ever right now, and activists bringing their capacity and expertise to this work should be valued.

6. No process is perfect; plan to learn and adapt

Designing these models is new for almost everyone! So it is important to be open and accept with humility that there’s much we don't know. Do not strive for perfection, but rather a “work in progress” that will get better over time. Acknowledge up-front your plans to test and adapt your model.  Doing this with intention, transparency and care will ensure the changes do not have a backlash on people that apply for grants, peer reviewers.

7. Embed transparency in your process

Wherever you can, document your learnings in real time. Make your documents open source so they can provide learning for your peers in philanthropy. Not only will this help you to learn but it will also build with broader stakeholders. Also, it will help the field generally to grow—to learn from each other and to improve together.


Candid launches pop-up coronavirus webpage, emphasizes online trainings and programs

This blog originally appeared on the Candid blog.

Candid gets you the information you need to do good. That’s why we created this pop-up webpage to share the philanthropic response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Knowing where money is going and how, and having the latest information from organizations, facilitates thoughtful collaboration and decision making in times of crisis.

The page updates automatically as data and news are added to our database. The data is derived from news articles and other sources, and funders who directly share their funding data with us. We code the data according to our taxonomy. The news section pulls from 300,000 source articles that we regularly scan for relevant information. The page also links to funding opportunities related to the pandemic. Check back regularly for updates.

Beyond the pop-up webpage, you can also visit this free disaster funding map to track giving to disasters, including coronavirus. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), our partner on the map, has several resources that can help funders be effective in their response to this crisis.

Changes to Candid programs and trainings

We are working to move all public programming online across all regions. Affected programs include in-person trainings as well as other gatherings and convenings scheduled with our Funding Information Network partners. Specifically:

  • Our library at 32 Old Slip in New York City is temporarily closed until further notice.
  • We are postponing trainings and programs that can’t be offered online.
  • We invite readers to explore our recorded webinars, self-paced eLearning, e-books, Online Librarian, and other resources on GrantSpace.
  • We are postponing larger planned regional trips by Candid staff through April.

Giving to coronavirus relief and recovery

For individual donors, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and GlobalGiving have both created funds to support efforts related to the pandemic:

Your local nonprofits may also be feeling—or may soon feel—the pinch. A Kentucky animal welfare organization told Candid, “Our biggest fundraiser, Bark Bash, scheduled for March 28, 2020, may have to be canceled due to Coronavirus. This will make it very difficult as we will lose nearly $8-$10,000.” This same story is happening with organizations of all sizes everywhere. And organizations that provide food, housing, medical assistance, and other human services are seeing demand for their programs rise, while they themselves are also facing challenges. If you’re not sure where the need is most pressing, your local community foundation may have suggestions or have established a coronavirus fund.


Be careful

Coronavirus scams are already popping up. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission and U.K. Financial Conduct Authority have each issued warnings. To protect yourself, never give by clicking a link in an email or over the phone. It’s too easy for scammers to mimic an email or claim to represent an organization in a phone call. Instead, go to the nonprofit’s website and donate there, give through a site such as Network for Good or JustGive, or (gasp!) use the old-fashioned method of writing and mailing a check.

Nonprofits are facing challenging times now and going forward. At Candid, a nonprofit itself, we’re feeling it, too. Just like many of you, we are weathering work-related challenges such as conference cancellations, and life-related challenges of childcare and quarantines. During this crisis, we are redoubling our efforts to bring empathy and kindness into every interaction, and we’re committed to continuing to share resources and information that will hopefully help us get through it together.

Candid launches pop-up coronavirus webpage, emphasizes online trainings and programs


About the author(s)

Director of Stakeholder Engagement

Editorial Director

A Holistic Approach for Youth Mental Health

Through the TRAM competition, individuals and organizations came together from five different areas – research, service delivery, government, patients, and the non-profit community – to form 55 networks that submitted an expression of interest. Seventeen networks were chosen and brought together for a strengthening workshop to share their theories of change. GBF and the CIHR worked to help the groups exchange different ideas and identify connections with the goal of strengthening the original ideas.

In 2014, the competition led to the creation of the ACCESS Open Minds network which is demonstrating how youth mental health services can be transformed for youth at risk in 12 communities across Canada. The network brings together youth, families, care providers, policy makers, researchers, and community organizations with the goal of giving youths aged 11 to 25 years faster access to services designed specifically for them, with them. Along with families and carers, they are involved in every aspect of ACCESS, from the design and evaluation of services, to the creation of content for the website.

The five main objectives to be achieved through the transformation are:

  • Early identification;
  • Quick access for an initial assessment (within 72 hours);
  • Abolition of transition based on the age of 18, creating a seamless service for 11-25 year-old youth;
  • Access to high-quality, evidence-informed interventions within one month, when needed; and
  • Family and Youth Participation.

Lessons Learned

The GBF has learned a number of lessons through its unusual partnership with CIHR. The dividends have been huge. They include follow-on opportunities to develop large, joint venture projects with a number of provinces and to be a catalyst for the development of a National Knowledge Translation Platform in youth mental health.

One key challenge the GBF worked through was in navigating the pace. The government’s pace dictated the pace at which progress was made. Understanding culture and context varies depending on the level of government and from province to province. The GBF recognized that flexibility in its thinking and approach was key to the success of the initiatives.

Persistence was an important attribute at every stage. It helped the Foundation take a long view and find the “early adopters” who were willing to test out new ways of doing things. No level of government wants to be seen as a laggard and so the early adopters who help get an initiative off the ground can help inform projects developed with other provinces. The Foundation is currently working to help develop a system to promote learning and sharing of methods and lessons across the provinces and territories.

Overall, the GBF’s approach of acting as a catalyst for the transformation of the mental health care systems across Canada has been successful. The foundation believes that it is important to provide intellectual resources as well as financial support. For the GBF, the intellectual and social capital that a philanthropic organization can bring to the table is as important as the financial contribution it provides. This can’t be underestimated. The GBF is not a large foundation in financial terms. But limited resources wisely and imaginatively applied can have enormous impact, as the GBF has convincingly demonstrated.

In philanthropy money is not everything. Granting is not as effective as project and program partnering – to find other philanthropic, private and government organizations to work with on a common cause. Philanthropy can lead by taking risks that many other institutions cannot.

This blog post originally appeared on Philanthropy in Action.

Bringing Southern U.S. Grantees Together to Drive Progress Against HIV/AIDS

The U.S. South has never received funding proportional to its burden of HIV and AIDS, whether from the government or private resources. In 2017, to address the complexities of the epidemic in this region, Funders Concerned About AIDS (FCAA) brought together a group of grantmakers including Gilead Sciences, Ford Foundation, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, ViiV Healthcare, and Johnson and Johnson, forming a first-of-its-kind funding collaborative: the Southern HIV Impact Fund. Managed by AIDS United, the Fund aims to increase resources directed to the region and act as a catalyst for progress.

One way it does this is by engaging organizations that are new to HIV work but that have a deep history and broad reach among affected populations. This helps to ensure that those most impacted are able to play a vital role in identifying effective solutions. The Fund is also working to build a pipeline of new leaders through its 10-person, year-long cohort learning experience that more accurately reflects the current face of the epidemic — Black, Latinx, queer, and transgender.

As a program manager for the Fund, my first order of business was building community among and between grantee organizations—organizations that had varying perspectives and levels of understanding about the epidemic. Funders knew that a grantee convening early in the cohort’s establishment would help foster meaningful collaboration, not only amongst grantees but also the grantmakers. A convening would also create space for grantees to learn from each other and build cross-regional networks for support and enhance the cohort’s understanding of HIV in the South and learn more about intersecting barriers that impact their ability to effectively address the epidemic.

We scheduled this event to take place within the first four months of the grant cycle and prioritized the need to develop strategies around the most entrenched structural barriers. Some obstacles to accessing HIV treatment and support including poverty, limited educational opportunities, stigma, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and inequitable access to insurance and specialized care. By convening the grantees early on, those with specific focuses, such as racial or social justice, were better able to see how their efforts to advance these causes could mitigate barriers to HIV prevention and care. Similarly, organizations focused on the provision of HIV services were able to identify specific opportunities for cross-sector collaboration and intersectional interventions.

The meeting began with a session on using and implementing “people-first” language—emphasizing the individual over their health issue. Attendees learned about the historical, cultural, and societal links between language, policy decisions, and allocation of resources. They engaged around ways that language can be empowering and ways to use it to challenge rather than reinforce inequitable relationships and power dynamics. Attendees left with tangible ways of implementing these learnings, including one attendee who shared, "I will be conducting a language audit to see how and where I may be more self-aware of the powerful role of language in perpetuating stigma and layers of oppression." Painting of a person on a wall with raised fist in the air, surrounded by words of empowerment.

Another session focused on integrating healing justice into an organization’s service delivery, providing tools to assess the grantees’ mental health literacy and devising strategies to implement trauma-informed care and policies into their work. An increasingly popular area of research and practice, grantees were engaged and eager to learn more about this sensitive topic. One attendee vowed to, "be more introspective to people's needs to heal. Evaluating my own traumas and how they create bias in my work."

The grantee convening is indicative of the way the Southern HIV Impact Fund approaches its work – by focusing on the values of equity and social justice and by evaluating everything from the perspective of the individuals on the front-line. I am excited to share that progress has already been made as the first round of grants is outpacing overall HIV-related philanthropy in the U.S. South in three key areas of strategic investment: people of color, LGBTQ communities, and leadership development/ capacity building. The Fund is directing funds well over that which has historically been driven toward HIV-related philanthropy in the U.S. South and by the end of the grant year, the Fund will have mobilized a total of $300,000 in rapid response grantmaking to address urgent needs across the region.

To date, the Southern HIV Impact Fund has:

  • Made an initial investment of $2.65 million in support of 37 grantee organizations.
  • Reached nine deeply impacted states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.
  • Mobilized more than $200K in rapid response grants, including emergency support for organizations serving people with HIV in regions devasted by hurricanes.
  • Trained 10 established and emerging leaders from Southern communities working to end HIV in the South.

As the Fund begins its second year, we will build on efforts to combat the structural systems and societal norms that pose significant obstacles to accessing HIV treatment and support. Our hope is that other grantmakers will see opportunities to partner in this effort and learn from what we learned with our grantees. Together, we can expand the reach and impact of our work and change an unjust HIV/AIDS equation in the U.S. South by putting grantees in this region first.

Editor’s Note: The Southern HIV Impact Fund will be featured on a panel – Catalyzing Communities: Strengthening Philanthropic Funding for Community Action on AIDS – at the upcoming FCAA AIDS Philanthropy Summit. GrantCraft’s director Jen Bokoff (@jenbo1) will moderate.

About the author(s)

Program Manager,
AIDS United

What Philanthropy Can Do to Help Cross-Sector Collaborations for Health and Well-Being

Regional cross-sector collaborations are growing rapidly across the U.S. leading to the creation of integrated, equitable, and sustainable systems for health and well-being. In these venues, organizations from many sectors come together and recognize that health and well-being will never thrive if we work in fragmented ways; nor will it emerge by defining health as a product of health care alone. When we address the many interconnected areas influencing health, communities can reach their full potential. It’s important to recognize, however, that there is a long way to go before cross-sector partnerships reach a mature state in regions across the country—and there are many ways that philanthropy can help move things along.

What do we know about these collaborations? At ReThink Health, an initiative of The Rippel Foundation, we conducted a 2016 Pulse Check survey of 237 health-focused cross-sector groups. We found that many have existed for decades, and since 2010 their numbers have steadily increased! We also learned that participants most commonly come from public health, health care delivery, education, social services, and community-based organizations. These collaboratives work primarily at a county or multi-county level and focus on issues like improving clinical care, health behaviors, socioeconomic factors, and the physical environment.

The breadth and diversity of these efforts are impressive, as are their bold visions and deep engagement from a broad range of stakeholders. The trouble is that most face significant obstacles and are not as far along in their development as observers like us suspected. Among the largest barriers from the research we published in the January 2018 issue of Health Affairs are:

  • Many groups are disconnected from other collaborative efforts to improve health in their community.
  • Their infrastructure to coordinate collaboration is often fragile and underfunded.
  • Partnerships primarily rely on short-term grant funding, making it hard to plan beyond a two-to-three-year time horizon.

What can philanthropy do to help collaborations overcome obstacles? Philanthropy often plays a central role in advancing this regional work—both as funders and collaborative participants. To help cross-sector groups break through barriers, here are some strategies philanthropy can consider:

  • Encourage networked leadership across a community. Multiple cross-sector collaborations and organizations are working to advance similar health goals. Yet their efforts are often disconnected, with overlapping or incompatible strategies. The opportunity for impact could be significantly increased if programming and resources were strategically integrated across stakeholders and philanthropists can structure their proposal and grant requirements to encourage coordination. For example, they can offer increased funding or require that funded efforts are governed by a broad range of sector leaders who have real authority to make necessary changes in their own organizations.
  • Support long-term strategic planning. Most partnerships have grand aspirations that may take many years to achieve. Real change requires planning for the long-term—extending over decades or even across generations—so that there is a strategy in place that will persist through inevitable leadership transitions and changes in wider contexts. Supporting work that can help regional efforts sustain a long view, including scenario planning and longer-term or multi-phased grant projects could shift regional approaches and improve outcomes.
  • Remember that infrastructure is essential to a region’s long-term success. Resources dedicated to supporting a partnership’s core infrastructure are often a decisive factor in their development over time. Funders can greatly impact the long-term strength of collaborations—and their communities—by intentionally and substantially supporting infrastructure, not just direct program work.
  • Consider how grant funding can be a bridge to other financing sources. Grants can be especially useful as early-round seed money, to finance riskier activities such as pilot projects, and to leverage other sources of funding—but they are not a sustainable form of long-term financing unto themselves. Philanthropy can and should consider how to build bridges to more dependable financing over time.

Overcoming the barriers to creating an integrated, equitable, and sustainable system for health and well-being will require having the courage to take risks, try new approaches, step out of one’s comfort zone, and embrace collaboration. While many philanthropists are already embracing some of these important practices, we are increasingly hearing calls for the sector to be even bolder and go beyond where historical evidence-based approaches will take us. We have yet to tackle many of the health challenges we face on a national scale, but we increasingly know that approaches of the past may not be what will help us move forward. Rather, we should be bold in embracing new tactics, while learning from our past. Cross-sector collaborations are positioned to be key players in shaping a new future for health. We invite you to share in the comments below: how will you take advantage of the opportunities to support their impact and success?

About the author(s)

Project Director,
ReThink Health Ventures, The Rippel Foundation

SDGfunders Helping Philanthropy Engage in the Global Development Agenda

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become a universal language for discussing how we need to improve the world., a free platform from Foundation Center, tells the story of how philanthropic dollars are being used to achieve these goals on a new dynamically-updated dashboard, and aims to foster better coordination among those working to build a better future for all of us. Launched by the SDG Philanthropy, a partnership of the United Nations Development Programme, Foundation Center, and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors the site features interactive maps and dashboards tracking key funding data, lists of top funders and recipients working on specific SDGs, a collection of literature, including case studies and interviews with global experts, and an online community that will serve as a hub for discussions and knowledge sharing worldwide. Among other benefits, it will enhance opportunities for collaboration across sectors to increase the effectiveness of work that addresses our world’s common social, and economic challenges.

View Resource

Anchored in Place: How Funders Are Helping Anchor Institutions Strengthen Local Economies

This report issued by the Funders' Network as part of their Anchors Institution Funders' Group, examines the potential these deeply rooted local enterprises hold to create lasting and sustainable change—and illustrates how funders are working with anchor institutions to create healthier, more equitable, and economically vibrant places to live and work.


Katherine Pease


Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities

Through IssueLab, the Foundation Center is working to more effectively gather, index, and share the collective intelligence of the social sector by providing free access to thousands of case studies, evaluations, white papers, and issue briefs.

SDG Indicator Wizard

How Does Your Work Align with the SDGs?

The SDG Indicator Wizard helps you determine which Sustainable Development Goal(s) and Targets relate to your work. Enter your mission statement, strategy or goals, and the wizard will translate your strategic priorities into an SDG-compatible framework consisting of the relevant goal(s), targets, and indicators that are universally comparable.

The SDG Indicator Wizard Widget can be embedded onto any website and there is a mobile app available for both iOS and Android users. Search for SDG Wizard on iOS App Store or Google Play Store, download it, and see how your work relates to the SDGs from your mobile.

View Tool

Using Low-Cost Technology to Democratize Data and Protect Public Health: Case Studies in Pittsburgh

Over the past several years, the Environment & Health Program at The Heinz Endowments has prioritized work to help the Pittsburgh region become truly livable. Many metrics can contribute to a definition of a livable city, and Pittsburgh often touts itself as a “most livable” city. But it is hard to imagine how a city with dirty air, a notably toxic built environment, safe drinking water challenges, and other environmental health issues is most livable.

How bad is the problem? Pittsburgh ranks among the worst 12 percent of urban areas monitored in the United States for average annual particle air pollution. Allegheny County ranks in the top two-tenths of 1 percent with respect to cancer risk from power plants and other large industrial sources. The city is presently struggling to come to terms with drinking water quality challenges including lead-containing service lines in old housing infrastructure, sewage overflow from stormwater, and elevated disinfectant byproducts from the fossil fuel industry. These byproducts carry cancer risks, and the health threat is exacerbated by the coal fly ash and natural gas wastes in the city’s source waters.

In response, the Endowments has supported numerous efforts to develop low-cost technologies and data visualization platforms that reveal environmental conditions and can be used by the general public, educators, advocacy groups, and policymakers. Some of these tools and efforts are available through our Breathe Project initiative, such as the Breathe Cam with its live-camera views of the region and pollution maps showing the best estimates of the annual average concentrations of different pollutants in Allegheny County.

The Breathe Cam network technology was used to assist a community experiencing intense smell and health impacts from nearby industrial air pollution. The facility produced metallurgical coke, which is used in making steel. The CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University designed a surveillance system that was installed in homes and businesses owned by private citizens and overlooking the coke works. The system provided continuous video, weather and pollution data that provided evidence of chronic emissions problems to regulatory authorities. This helped put pressure on government and industry to be more accountable to community well-being and public health. With increased scientific scrutiny and empirical evidence, there was more transparency and feedback to ensure that emissions violations would be corrected, and less pollution would burden the community.

Recently, the CREATE Lab launched an app called Smell Pittsburgh. It provides geo-coded, crowd-sourced methods for engaging the public on air quality conditions in the city. Users can share their experiences, map environmental impact, and send formal complaints to regulators in real-time.

Here are four lessons that we’ve learned through our experience investing in the development and use of these tools:

  • Use technically sophisticated and socially-oriented engineering teams who see their mission as helping to support communities and human well-being. Ideally, the team includes outreach persons who have media and communications training.
  • From the start, the technical work as developed and executed should integrate community-based experience; this includes working with community members and advocacy groups.
  • Develop a communications platform that can aggregate and analyze data; translate output into sharable information; and, ideally, support the efforts of advocacy networks.
  • Ensure that the monitoring technologies work well, serve the needs of user groups, and are rigorously tested (ideally by third parties). In the rush to develop and provide low-cost sensor technologies – which can be technically challenging and complex – there is the risk of promoting and launching tools that are inadequate.

When thinking about using low-cost monitoring technologies and data visualization for strategic grantmaking, consider all objectives and design the implementation to meet those needs. We have learned that there is no all-purpose technology; trade-offs are necessary.

Moreover, the data should be relevant and readily usable by all. For example, a question to consider upfront is whether the data should be relevant to legal teams and regulators. Is the information that is gathered intended for educational outlets, such as classrooms? Will the data be publically shared, open-source, proprietary? Will the data have the ability to engage the public in meaningful ways?

Thanks to innovative and creative work to make data relevant and engaging to all, Pittsburgh is starting to experience a transformation toward a more equitable, just, and sustainable city. Individuals, communities and neighborhoods – especially those experiencing disproportionate harm from environmental challenges – are demanding more accountability of their regulatory and political leaders.

The Heinz Endowments is part of the Health & Environmental Funders Network (HEFN) who helped to curate this blog post. HEFN is the "go-to" place for grantmakers interested in environmental health and justice issues and works to mobilize philanthropy around solutions for environmental health and justice. Click here to learn more about their work.

About the author(s)

Environment & Health Program Director
The Heinz Endowments