Two Years into Our Journey: Lessons in listening and humility

By: Carolyn Wang Kong
Portrait of Carolyn Wang Kong

What started out two years ago as a simple “strategic plan refresh” quickly became a completely new direction for Blue Shield of California Foundation in our journey to make California the healthiest state and to end domestic violence. After having been rooted in supporting the health and domestic violence safety net for more than a decade, we became deeply aware of the strengths, challenges, and limitations of those systems. We had also come to understand that those systems were not going to end domestic violence or solve poor health and well-being in California, at least not alone. We knew that if we truly wanted to prevent poor health and domestic violence, we needed to shift. We needed to advance the mindsets, methods, and tools that would enable our state to address the root causes of poor health and violence in California. The “destination” we had in mind was a point where the kind of work we have historically supported — helping individual survivors of domestic violence and aiding efforts to improve health and healthcare across the state — is no longer conducted in a crisis atmosphere because our communities have a shared commitment and values towards prevention.

In starting this journey, we knew we were going to be in new spaces, forming new and additional relationships, and learning as we go. Our history in the space of health and domestic violence gave us a sense of where we wanted to go and a generalized idea how we would find a path, or multiple paths, to this destination. 

Our bird’s-eye view of approaching our goal pointed to:

  • Breaking the cycle of domestic violence by healing those who are currently in violent relationships, while also promoting prevention by addressing the impact of exposure to violence on younger generations. 
  • Collaborating for healthy communities by bringing people and programs together to use their collective influence in new ways to address complex social drivers and pinpoint the fundamental elements that allow healthy partnerships to thrive.
  • Designing the future of health by creating innovative spaces for testing and learning to generate breakthrough ideas that foster long-term health, safer families, and thriving communities.

Now that we’ve moved further down those paths toward our ultimate goals, we have realized that “what” we focus on is almost as equally as important as “how” we do the work. We learned that our impact is only about half related to the grants we make, and the other half is about the capabilities we build and how we show up to do that. On this point of the “how”, several strong inter-related themes have emerged. They are centered around the concepts of listening, equity, and humility. 


A lesson about listening came early in our new course as we considered the grantmaking and changemaking approaches that would begin to help us map out this journey. In the past, our grantmaking was centered around identifying a problem we wanted to solve and developing a request for proposals (RFP) that clearly set out what we wanted potential grantees to accomplish, with clearly defined parameters for meeting those goals. Often, these RFPs were either “invite only” or open to a type of organization or sector. As we started out on the journey of this new plan, we had to acknowledge that we didn’t have the answers and the problems we’re tackling are not discretely defined. Under our new plan, we had to embrace a different stance to grantmaking, focusing instead on sharing our questions with the field and creating opportunities for the best thinking to emerge to inform those questions. Our first RFP under the new plan, Exploring the Value of Prevention, is a key example of this shift in approach. Instead of naming specific problems or goals, we shared four high-level questions we were grappling with around how to change the way we think, measure, and incentivize prevention. Instead of issuing an “invite only” or “targeted” RFP distributed to certain people or organizations, we made it an “open” RFP. The only pre-requisite to applying for the funding was having a shared interest in the questions we wanted to address.

What we got was an overwhelming response from the field, and so many strong proposals that we ended up listening carefully to their strongly held opinions — and then funding many more projects than we originally intended. Taking an open and emergent learning stance was productive for us at this preliminary stage — it’s opened the door for exciting outside-the-box thinking to address some of our state’s most pressing issues, informed our thinking about the community and policy levers to advance prevention, helped us form new relationships by funding new organizations, and started us on the path of seeding prevention as a priority for California communities. 

Equity and Humility

We came into this new plan talking, like much of the philanthropy community, about equity. “Those closest to the problem are best positioned to define solutions.” We had a strong desire to approach our work centered firmly on the lived experiences of our partners, grantees, and especially the communities we intended to help serve. But we quickly learned that having good intentions, opening your processes to those with lived experience, and building in incentives for those individuals to engage was not enough. During a “design day” hosted by the Foundation to understand how to operationalize equity within multi-sector collaborations, we brought together a broad array of collaboration experts and community leaders to help us think about ways to better center equity and community in collaborative efforts. The convening yielded great insights and great connections among attendees. And it ended with some very pointed questions to us: “So what are you going to do with all of this information? Is the Foundation ready to adopt the equity principles we’re recommending for your collaboration grantees?” It was through this initial convening that we came to quickly understand that we were asking people to give us their time, to be vulnerable, and to share their thoughts on serious problems that impact them — without any guarantees about how we would use their insights, in our grantmaking and in our overall work. It was also in that moment that it became very clear that working in this new space isn’t just about what we fund, but how we show up.

By listening differently, leading with humility, and realizing that equity is more than a “lens” to look through but the way we will make the difference we aspire to make, we are excited about the possible impact of our work.

The tension of being a funder pushing towards the bold goal of prevention in communities faced with significant urgent challenges has also not been lost on us. Being rooted in the health and domestic violence fields has made us acutely aware of the crisis, urgency, and need for these important services. That same experience has also made us acutely aware of the need to work at broader systemic levels to make sustainable changes in community. Speaking this shift has required humility. It has required that we listen to stakeholders to hear what they are ready for and what it will take for them to join us in this new approach, while also speaking to a vision of what’s possible. We are in the middle of laying a lot of groundwork to get them there. An example of how we’re doing this is through our “within and beyond” strategy for advancing multi-sector collaboration as an approach to prevent domestic violence. In our Collaborating for Healthy Communities initiative, we are funding new partners to use their influence to help change systems positioned to break the cycle of domestic violence, while also building the capacity of our existing grantees in the domestic violence field to understand how to use systems change as an approach to engage others in breaking the domestic violence cycle. Learning where organizations are today, and what it will take to help them build their capacity for addressing more systems-focused solutions that can address domestic violence and poor health at their roots, will enable us to also continue to work for those in need today. 

Even though it was supposed to just be a “refresh,” the new plan that we embarked on less than two years ago has not only seeded a prevention field in California, it’s seeded a new stance and new ways of being for our Foundation. We’ve already learned important lessons about how to set forth a vision, how to meet the field where it is, and how to learn “in public” alongside our grantees. By listening differently, leading with humility, and realizing that equity is more than a “lens” to look through but the way we will make the difference we aspire to make, we are excited about the possible impact of our work. If there is one lesson we have learned quite deeply, it's that it will take all of us prioritizing prevention to achieve the vision of making California the healthiest state with the lowest rates of domestic violence, and if there’s a state that can do it, it’s us. 

Explore Topics : 

Get our newsletter

Sign up for occasional event announcements and our newsletter, Intersections, to learn more about the work we’re supporting to make California the healthiest state and end domestic violence.