Funding to Fight Disparities: Minnesota’s Food Funders Address Health Equity Issues

January 21, 2016

By Sue Letourneau, Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, and Pam Bishop, Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation

There is strong legacy of creative work and collaboration between Minnesota’s funding community and hunger relief organizations and coalitions that have led to real impact. As funders who work at the intersection of food, health, and hunger, we see exciting work ahead that builds upon this foundation. New initiatives, ways of thinking, and compelling work on the ground are emerging at state and national levels.

If we look back at what’s been set in motion, we see examples of on-the-ground creativity coupled with state government’s commitment to move the dial on health and equity. The progress resonates with a new initiative at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that emphasizes creating a culture of health—one that “enables all in our diverse society to lead healthier lives, now and for generations to come.”

The Minnesota Department of Health has provided substantial investments around healthy eating and leadership as a state agency on eliminating health disparities and advancing health equity. The Governor’s office has facilitated a memorandum of agreement, signed by all state agencies, to meaningfully address equity in its programs, policies, and systems.

Many funders in the arenas of health and hunger have funded new initiatives —individually and in partnership—focused on increasing access to culturally responsive, healthy food where people get and buy food: hunger relief programs, institutional foodservice, food delivery programs, SNAP/EBT acceptance at farmers markets, and food retail. Other healthy eating initiatives across the state have added fresh produce at food shelves, established healthy food policies at hunger relief programs, and ensured that corner and convenience stores offer affordable, healthy options.

All this momentum in our state shows a shared commitment to ensuring all Minnesotans have reliable access to safe, affordable, healthy food. It also indicates a rising awareness that Minnesota’s racial disparities in health, income, and educational attainment require swift, sustained, and systemic action by a consortium of partners.

The convergence of health in all policies to advance health equity and integrate healthy food access and hunger relief provides Minnesota’s funding community with an exciting framework for future collaboration and systems change.

On January 20, the Minnesota Food Funders Network—in partnership with Greater Twin Cities United Way and the Minnesota Hunger Initiative—hosted an event: “Issue Brief: The Impact of Access to Healthy Food on Health Equity.”

More than 100 funders and program staff from across Minnesota came together for a half-day session, with presentations from the Minnesota Commissioner of Health, Ed Ehlinger; the Minnesota Assistant Commissioner of Human Services, Anne Barry; Director and Advisor of Chief Executive Officer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Dr. Dwayne Proctor; and other speakers from the Wilder Foundation and innovative programs from across Minnesota.

This event wove together important conceptual frameworks, new ways of thinking and collaborating, and success stories. As event co-chairs, we anticipate strategic new collaborations among funders and partners to implement policy and systems changes that advance health equity, reduce hunger, and increase healthy food access. We look forward to a future of dynamic work that builds the local and regional food infrastructure that ensures healthy food environments and promotes healthy food skills for all.

As a follow-up to the event, MFFN will host a 2nd quarter meeting to explore opportunities for strategic alignment and partnership among interested parties.

Our past, current, and future work at the intersection of hunger, health, and food are an important part of the shared roadmap of 99 policy and systems changes identified by thousands of Minnesotans in the Minnesota Food Charter. With many proven, actionable strategies that address hunger, health and equity, Food Charter strategies are a great way to move the dial on health and hunger for our state. This convening, the Minnesota Food Charter, and the rich array of current and potential efforts can support our collective efforts to make meaningful progress on these important issues.

The Minnesota Food Funders Network is a group of Minnesota-based funders who make informed, coordinated, and strategic investments to improve key facets of our food system. Our partnership supports learning, networking, and strategic alignment among funders who have a shared commitment to the vitality and prosperity of our state’s communities and resilience of our landscapes inspire us to work together.

If you’re interested in getting involved:

  • Join the MFFN Listserv by contacting Katina Mortenson (, Program Manager at the Minnesota Council on Foundations
  • Attend future MFFN public meetings like this one. You can keep informed through the listserv and at Minnesota Council on Foundation’s website at
  • Contact one of us to become a member of the Minnesota Food Funders Network ( or


Digital and Social Media Transform Nonprofits

November 17, 2015

Yesterday I received an infographic showing how digital and social media have transformed communications and fundraising in nonprofits across the country. It was nicely done, so I’m sharing.

The infographic examines ways that new channels are quickly, and dramatically, changing how people engage with nonprofit organizations.

According to MDG Advertising, infographic creators, take-aways are:

  1. Nonprofits are all-in on digital — 3 of 4 top engagement channels are digital: websites, email campaigns and social media; the only non-digital channel in the top 4 is in-person events.
  2. Online giving is on the rise — online giving has risen 13% in the past 12 months, with the biggest jump in donations coming from social media fundraising (up +70% compared with last year).
  3. Facebook is the foundation of social success — 81% of nonprofits say Facebook is the most important social network for their organization; Twitter ranks second.
  4. Peer-to-peer fundraising is growing fast — 33% of online donations are made through peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns, which encourage individuals and teams to rally for a cause.
  5. Websites are engagement hubs — traffic to nonprofit websites is up 11% on average since 2013, with most organizations now using their sites as hubs to provide information, accept donations and aggregate social posts.
  6. Email remains a powerful workhorse — nonprofits say email campaigns account for an average of one-third of all revenue raised. Email has the best return on investment of any marketing tactic: $40 for every $1 spent.
  7. Giving days are big — in Minnesota, Give to the Max Day raised more than $18 million in November 2015. Nationally 2014 Giving Tuesday donations spiked by more than a third compared with 2013; 4,300+ organizations raised more than $26.1 million.

2015 Trends: How Digital and Social Media Have Transformed Nonprofits [Infographic]
– Susan Stehling, communications and media specialist

How To Measure Social Impact?

November 12, 2015

17123254699_c2f412c9ee_mToday on the blog we welcome Karen A. Florez, C.F.A. and manager of investments at The Minneapolis Foundation. Karen reports on the Mission Investing Network Forum held at the Northwest Area Foundation on October 20. The forum addressed “How to Measure Social Impact.”

Northwest Area Foundation hosted a full house of diverse attendees representing a wide range of area nonprofit leadership, staff, board members, consulting firms and financial institutions.

Amy Jensen, investment director at Northwest Area Foundation, kicked off the event by sharing the decision-making process, experiences and lessons–learned as her organization evolved their Impact Investing model. There was plenty of audience participation with good discussion, questions, sharing of resources and wading through industry acronyms. Most of the organizations represented in the room are rapidly expanding the time and resources they put toward mission-investment endeavors. We are clearly growing a valuable network in this community!

Amy then led a panel presentation and discussion with Tom Woelfel, PCV Insight, and  Tim Bubnack and Hope Mago, HCAP Partners. A wide range of insights, ideas and suggestions flowed from this dialogue.

Discussion Takeaways:

  • This is a collaborative effort and we are all learning as we go along. Leverage the capabilities and resources available as you build your program.
  • Be flexible with the partners you choose to work with. Talk with partners about values and culture early on, and really take time to get to know the people. Carefully evaluate if they are a good fit for your organization and mission.
  • Get samples of reports that potential partners are creating, ask how their strategy came to be, how long they have been doing it, what impact measurements they document and what they ultimately do with that data.
  • Establish the social metrics you wish to measure in advance of initiating a program. Content around the numbers is increasingly important.
  • Start measurement early on and try to set expectations of what you consider to be good quality data. The first steps are the most challenging and the most significant effort is in getting started with staffing, strategy, priorities and documentation. It may not feel perfect, but just do it!

The program ended with another round of great discussion and plenty of casual conversation after we adjourned.

Enormous thanks to Amy Jensen for planning and executing a very strong, relevant and thought-provoking event!

Photo: Flickr CC

Safe, Affordable, Healthy Food for All Minnesotans

November 5, 2015

mnfoodBy Alison Babb, Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, and Pam Bishop, Southern Minnesota Initiative Fund, co-chairs of the Minnesota Food Funders Network.

The Minnesota Food Charter is a shared roadmap developed by thousands of Minnesotans that—when implemented—will ensure safe, affordable, healthy food for all Minnesotans. The Food Charter contains 99 proven policy and systems changes designed to build a healthy food infrastructure, healthy food skills, and healthy food environments where we work, live, learn, and play. These strategies can be implemented at all scales, from an individual organization to the federal level, across many sectors from farm to table.

The Minnesota Food Funders Network (MFFN) is proud to play an instrumental role in the success of the Food Charter. MFFN is a group of Minnesota-based funders who make informed, coordinated, and strategic investments to improve key facets of our food system. MFFN members share a commitment to the vitality and prosperity of our state’s communities and resilience of our landscapes. Over the past four years, many MFFN members have strategically aligned funding in support of the Minnesota Food Charter, generating broad public engagement in its development; building an integrated network of partners to support implementation over the long haul; and leveraging investments and influence to ensure resources are available to execute the Food Charter’s 99 strategies.

Funders have a critical role to play in helping change Minnesota’s food system. Whether a funder prioritizes health, hunger, community or economic development, environmental issues, racial equity, sustainable agriculture, or education, the Food Charter offers relevant, varied ways to generate meaningful, long-term impact. As co-chairs of the Minnesota Food Funders Network, we encourage our fellow colleagues in the funding community to invest in the Minnesota Food Charter. Here are some ways that Minnesota funders can support the Food Charter in 2016:

  • Review the Food Charter, select specific strategies of interest, and provide funding to relevant organizations well-positioned to carry them out.
  • Develop RFPs that align funder priorities with the Food Charter, asking applicants to select Food Charter strategies to implement as part of their funding proposal.
  • Join the Minnesota Food Funders Network, aligning funding with other members to invest in Food Charter strategies and support for Food Charter operations. Attend MFFN meetings and events, including this network meeting on December 8.
  • Provide resources for evaluation to enable Food Charter partners to measure impact and progress in improving Minnesota’s food system.
  • Invest in capacity building and development of food issue networks across Minnesota.
  • Contribute funding for the Minnesota Food Charter Network, a statewide network, rooted in Minnesota Food Charter strategies, that supports and fosters shared action such as support for action teams, convenings, technical assistance to partnerships working on Food Charter strategies, or stipends to support participation from under-represented communities.

With over twenty food issue networks and other coalitions and organizations prepared to implement Minnesota Food Charter strategies at various scales, the funding community has a critical role to play in ensuring the long-term success of the Food Charter. The breadth and extent of the impact – long-term, structural change – is considerable; we have a unique opportunity to align efforts in ways that will create fundamental shifts in our food system.

Contact us if you would like to join the network or learn more about it.

MCF Welcomes Katina Mortensen as Program Manager

October 26, 2015

katinaWe are excited to announce Katina Mortensen has joined MCF as our new program manager — networks.

Katina comes to us from Grassroots Solutions, an engagement strategy firm based in Minneapolis. At Grassroots Solutions, she had the opportunity to work with a number of local and national foundations, partnering with them on community engagement efforts, grantmaking initiatives, project planning and implementation, policy change efforts, training and facilitation, and assessment and evaluation. She received her Master of Public Policy from the Humphrey School in 2011.

Katina will take the lead in managing MCF’s member networks and annual webinar series, along with other member-oriented programming and initiatives. She started her work here earlier this month.

Welcome, Katina!

Go Far to See Close

October 19, 2015

MCF’s Early Childhood Delegation to Sweden

I think we sometimes have two conflicting ideas of travel. One is personal travel, the romantic idea of going to an exotic location and exposing yourself to new flavors, sights and ways of thinking. Travel as a pause button on our often hectic lives, so we can refresh and re-enter the fray with a new sense of purpose.

The other is business travel, which for those of us in the social sector means cramped airline seats, quick trips to conferences held in look-alike hotel ballrooms and plenty of rubber chicken dinners. There are sparks of great ideas, but they are easily extinguished as you try to focus on both the session at hand and the unrelenting emails that drag you back to the office.

When I proposed to my staff that MCF lead an early childhood delegation of funders, practitioners, researchers and civic leaders to Sweden, I think many of them envisioned the business trip described above on steroids. What we got instead were the sparks of brilliance that business travel can bring enriched with the relationship building and wonder more often associated with personal travel.

What does it mean for kids in Minnesota?
In September 2015, 20 delegates – including funders, elected officials, professors, representatives from early childhood programs, members of MCF’s staff and others – traveled with me to Sweden. We spent five days meeting government officials to begin to understand the infrastructure and funding tied to Sweden’s world-renowned education system.

We also met university professors dedicated to educating the next generation of early childhood teachers, and we toured three types of pre-school programs to better understand the classroom experiences of Swedish children. The visits were thoughtfully curated by our tour guide in Sweden, and they gave us time to really dig in and ask questions to help us answer our most pressing question: What does this mean for kids in Minnesota?

While the official visits were critical, I think the moments that felt more like personal travel will endure. Walking through Old Town Stockholm to help a fellow delegate find just the right souvenir for her new grandchild while conversing about what outdoor preschool education looks like in Duluth. Standing together on a city bus and being asked politely but loudly to move from the baby carriage section, and realizing that society is very different when children and families are at the center. Sitting in a restaurant built in the 1300s on the grounds of Uppsala Cathedral and watching delegates with very different ideas of what early childhood should look like discover how much they actually had in common.

All of these experiences are what one delegate member, originally from Denmark, called hygge – the warm feeling of connection and hospitality that opens you up to new ways of being with each other. This space of hygge creates the conditions where trust, respect and mutual joy become the foundation for doing something very different in our local communities.

I believe experiential travel has an important place in our work. By leaving our little corner of the world and exploring what can be learned from a very different corner of the world, we grow and our communities are better off because of it. We get sparks of brilliance enriched with wonder and relationship. Säker resa!

Trista Harris, president, Minnesota Council on Foundations

On Gender Norms and Young Black Girls

October 6, 2015

prepost1A guest post from Riki Wilchins of TrueChild. Join the discussion about gender norms on October 26 by attending a screening of “The Mask You Live In”, hosted by the George Family Foundation.

Decades of research has found that challenging harmful gender norms are a key to improving life outcomes for young people in at-risk communities.

For instance, young women who internalize rigid feminine ideals that prioritize the “three D’s” of being deferential, desirable, and depending are likely to have lower life outcomes in a cluster or related areas that include reproductive health, economic security, and education.

The same is true for young men who buy into harsh codes of manhood as defined by strength, aggression, sexual prowess, and emotional toughness. Such men are more likely to avoid condom use, to engage in risk-taking behaviors with sex or substances, to abuse girlfriends or LGBT people, and to drop out (or be kicked out) of school early.

This is one reason that major international donor institutions like CARE, UNAIDs, UNFPA, and WHO have implemented initiatives that challenge and try to change rigid gender norms, and found them effective. USAID won’t fund new programs that lack an analysis of gender norms and inequities; and PEPFAR has made changing masculine norms the centerpiece of its work in dozens of countries.

Even the staid World Bank has undertaken a very deep and highly-public effort to move gender norms to the center of its work around the globe.

As one Bank manager explained, “We’re not doing this because it’s politically correct – we’re data-driven economists  – we’re doing it because the data shows it works better.”

Yet although gender impacts nearly every issue funders address, donors and grantees in the US are seldom challenged to do innovative work around gender norms.

As a senior program officer put it, “My staff and grantees get race and class, but where’s the gender analysis? What I want to know is—what happened to gender?”

Part of the answer to her question may lie in new project on young Black girls we worked on for the Heinz Endowments.

We found that Black adolescent girls and young women face specific barriers related to both race and gender which have immense effects on their health and achievement. And this was especially true for low-income Black girls, who also have challenges associated with poverty.

First, Black girls’ unique race and gendered experiences of discrimination results in multiple stresses that – over time – impair their immune systems.

Also, they must navigate social hostilities based on race as well as pressures to conform to traditional feminine ideals and those specific to Black communities.

Finally, feminine norms in the Black community often prioritize caretaking and self-sacrifice. Black girls may be silently encouraged to focus on others’ health while ignoring signals of pain and illness until their own bodies are in crisis.

The additive impact of these stresses can produce a “weathering effect,” in which Black women’s bodies become physically and biologically vulnerable, resulting in high rates of chronic disorders, reproductive health problems, infant mortality and obesity.

Lately we’ve been testing a new curriculum that helps teach young Black girls to think critically about rigid feminine norms, along with an accompanying. Trauma Informed Facilitation Guide.

We are still a couple months from having data in hand, but we have high hopes for this project. With SUNY Stony Brook’s Tech Prep, we recently tested a similar curriculum that helps girls of color to think critically about feminine norms that can hold them back from STEM interest and achievement (science, technology, engineering, and math).

The results are now in , and – as the graph above shows – girls’ improvement across the outcome metrics were so robust that – even with a very small n – the evaluators already found them “statistically significant.”

That’s how strong the impact of gender norms can be. It’s not that norms are the only variable – they’re not. After all, these are complex, intersectional problems.

It’s that gender norms are one of the last big variables that’s not being addressed. Because learning to be and be seen as a feminine young woman or a masculine young man is a primary rite of passage – perhaps the primary rite of passage – for every adolescent.

So it makes sense that if you talk with boys and girls about rigid gender norms, you get better program outcomes than if you ignore them. It’s simple:

Isn’t it time US donors started reconnecting race, class and gender in our philanthropy?