The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is a stalwart of healthcare philanthropy in the United States whose ambitious plans to promote a “Culture of Health” drive its prolific grant making. The latest push from RWJF is a partnership with the Reinvestment Fund, a community development financial institution based in Philadelphia, to create an initiative called Invest Health. The program kicked off this month with a total of $3 million in grants to 50 mid-size cities across 31 states.

The Invest Health initiative is giving cities $60,000 to spend on projects that will improve health in their communities and boost local economies. Think safe and affordable housing, retail hubs, and designated areas for playgrounds and exercise. But even more than a financial investment, the program wants to shake up existing paradigms by encouraging leaders from different sectors to work together for change. The application process required a collaboration of representatives from local government, community organizations, school districts, and other areas, along with an academic or health-related anchor institution such as a university or hospital.

By building a network of local stakeholders and providing mentorship for grant recipients, Invest Health aims to enact long-term changes in low-income neighborhoods that will improve the health and well-being of the cities’ residents. The program believes that bringing different sectors together can result in innovative ideas that attract more capital.

“With a long history in community development finance, we are excited to help create a pipeline to channel capital into low-income communities through public and private investments,” said Amanda High, Chief of Strategic Initiatives at Reinvestment Fund. “Our goal is to transform how cities approach tough challenges, share lessons learned, and spur creative collaboration.”

Why the focus on mid-size cities? RWJF and Reinvestment Fund saw both a problem and an opportunity in communities with populations between 50,000 and 400,000 people. Mid-size cities, they say, face big challenges in dealing with poverty and poor health, and are often overlooked for investments. But these cities also offer a chance to test strategies that could be applied to other communities across the United States, and to gather data on the impact of cross-sector partnerships.

“Public officials, community developers, and many others have been working in low-income neighborhoods for years, but they haven’t always worked together,” said Donald Schwarz, Vice President in the RWJF Program division. “Invest Health aims to align their work and help neighborhoods thrive by intentionally incorporating health into community development.”

We wrote last year about the Reinvestment Fund’s participation in a coalition to create housing for the chronically homeless. If you follow our health philanthropy coverage, then you know that RWJF has a long historyof investing in communities to promote a culture of health, including a multi-decade partnership with the YMCA. Both of these funders have a proven track record in successful collaboration, and they’re hoping to foster that spirit of cooperation among city leaders.

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by Tracey DeFrancesco