Integrating Conservation and Human Wellbeing


State of Maine

What does it take for a leading, state-wide philanthropy to combine their separate grant-making in conservation and human wellbeing?  Why would they do this? What does it ask of their grantees? What do they hope success will look like?

I had the great honor to collaborate over 18 months with the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation of Maine to help them answer these questions from soup to nuts, from philosophy to new grant-making guidelines. Until September, 2014, the Sewall Foundation supported more than 120 organizations in the two fields of conservation and human wellbeing. In October, they launched one, new Healthy People Healthy Places program to focus on five broad, interrelated strategies to enhance individual, community and environmental health and resiliency.

They pursued this innovative transformation in their own work out of the strong belief that the wellbeing of people and the environment are inextricably linked. Neither can thrive while the other suffers. As the connections between people and their environment are strengthened both become healthier, more resilient and more vibrant. Further, they believe that the positive connections and relationships people have with one another across socioeconomic and cultural boundaries serve to bridge differences, reduce inequities, and contribute to community health.

In support of this integrated program, they also allocated a pool of money to effect structural change in systems and policy in recognition that for people and places to truly be healthy, the basic needs of individuals must be met. My role, working with my longtime colleague Danyelle O’Hara involved assisting the foundation with all aspects of this evolution in Sewall Foundation’s grant-making from concept to operations.

A testament to the quality of leadership provided by the Foundation, they allowed us to begin the work in July of 2013 by conducting 4 day-long Listening Sessions in which almost half of all their grantees participated. Designed to provide open space for candid feedback to the foundation about the concept of integrating conservation and human wellbeing, we designed the listening sessions to also be a form of leadership development in their own right and to model the integration of work that the foundation sought in its grant-making.

Based upon what Danyelle and I heard in these Listening Sessions, we helped the foundation on a year-long process of articulating the values, goals and rationale for such an innovative change to make the change as transparent and helpful as possible to all of their grantees, those who seek a similar integration in their work and those who do not.

After working with Sewall Foundation’s grantees, we turned our attention to helping staff and board articulate and then operationalize the values, goals and metrics behind such an important shift. We helped them to maintain their strong commitment to social justice and to articulate it within the context of conservation.  

In September, 2014, the board of Directors of the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation adopted the Healthy People Healthy Places program and launched a new website outlining all the facets of their thoughtful, bold and holistic program.  

After 20 years of working with social justice and conservation groups separately to help them see the links and interdependencies of their work, this was my first opportunity to work with a statewide funder who was committed to bring these fields of endeavor together. I’ve not seen a more thoughtful, intentional and holistic approach which makes the Elmina B. Sewall’s new program very important and worthy of regional and national attention.

I point to Jay Espy, their executive director, and their staff, Megan Shore and Laura Dover,  and their terrific board for the extraordinary leadership they are showing in bring this work to fruition: Margaret Sewall Barbour, Kent W. Wommack, David E. Norris, Betsy Biemann,  Robert E. McAfee, M.D.,William E. Curran, H. Roy Partridge, Jr., Ph.D., Lisa J. Sockabasin and Carol Wishcamper.

Facilitation Type:

Culture Change in Conservation

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