“Idea Generators.” Why This Health Foundation is Investing in Senior Fellows



The national news has been rife with the wildfire-related tragedies and deaths in California, but philanthropy has to keep looking forward. The Blue Shield of California Foundation recently adopted a new strategic plan with the goal of making California the healthiest state in the nation, with the lowest rates of domestic violence.

Of course, no one foundation can realistically hope to engineer widespread change in the country’s largest and most diverse state. But what a smart grantmaker can do is help catalyze important work that otherwise wouldn’t happen and that could potentially prove transformative. As it angles for greater impact, BCSF recently established a fellowship program which aims to bring fresh perspectives and expertise to bear on the complex problems of health and wellbeing in California.

Backing fellows is not new in the foundation world, but is fairly new for the Blue Cross/Blue Shield outfits. For instance, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation has a Health Coverage Fellowship, but Blue Shield of California Foundation is charting new territory. Why now? 

For nearly two decades, the foundation has worked to increase access to high-quality care in California, and to boost services that address domestic violence, specialty care, and behavioral health and substance use. However, upon self-reflection, foundation director of policy Richard Thomason said it “became clear that in addition to meeting the most immediate and pressing needs of vulnerable residents, we also needed to create new kinds of solutions and approaches.”

BCSF embarked on a new strategic direction to address the root causes of poor health and domestic violence, partnering with under-resourced communities. According to Thomason, the fellowship program is designed to bring “fresh perspectives and expertise to this work.” 

This move comes at a moment when many funders are drilling deeper into the systemic drivers of inequity and looking to bust out of siloized issue-based funding to advance more wholistic strategies for boosting marginalizing communities.

BCSF is using its first round of senior fellows to “explore fresh approaches, find links across our initiatives, and make connections with new organizations, creative thinkers, and leaders to create new insights and inform our work.” Specifically, the fellows will focus on two areas: social movements and data strategies. 

Harnessing the power of social movements and data.

From Black Lives Matter to #MeToo, the recent power of social movements to drive change is undeniable. What’s been less clear is how foundations can best support such movements.

BSCF’s senior fellow for social movements Jacqueline del Castillo is bringing insights to that critical question. She’s a Stanford-educated researcher who, as a doctoral candidate at the Imperial College of London, teaches design thinking, human-centered design, and movement-building. Del Castillo was selected for her diverse experience in social movements—as a participant, scholar, and activist.

“Social movements have brought about some of the most important changes in society, uniting people around issues that affect us all,” said del Castillo. She will explore and investigate how BSCF can support social movements to increase community capacity. “Foundations cannot control or tell social movements what to do,” del Castillo said. “But they can nurture movements by providing resources, assembling networks and connecting people to amplify their efforts."

The other new senior fellow, Jen Lewis-Walden, holds two master’s degrees from Yale and is a Culture of Health Leader with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. She will help the foundation explore innovative uses of data to shift culture and support healthy communities. “What we measure indicates what we value,” said Lewis-Walden. “Data can be enormously influential in demonstrating and articulating value from many points of view. A data strategy that prioritizes the perspectives of diverse communities can support leadership on a local level to engage, sustain, and improve health outcomes.”

“Idea generators”

Thomason said the fellows will work as “idea generators” and also as connectors who can link the foundation to people and organizations that can help drive change throughout California communities. Specifically, the fellows will help develop and refine ideas that can contribute to the foundation’s work, and disseminate these ideas in blogs, papers, and other written products. Success will be measured at the end of the fellowship by the quality and quantity of work, the thinking, and new ideas and new relationships generated through the fellowship. Success will also be measured by the fellow in terms of how the fellowship contributed to their own growth, to the foundation, and to the field. 

Work won’t stop with these two senior fellows. In the future, BCSF plans to use the senior fellowships to identify areas where the foundation need special help in exploring and understanding issues and challenges from year to year. As Thomason said, “We see the program as an ongoing idea lab that will help us make more connections across sectors, communities, and programs to bring together the diverse strengths of all residents and make California the healthiest state.”