Lessons Learned 2007-2011…

11. Spelling Counts, But Not for Everything

VNA has never been a “spelling counts” foundation, where applicants live or die by a single written submission. By the start of our second decade of grantmaking in 2006, we’d come to rely on open communication with our 20 yr VNA logo no tag for webgrantseekers and had fully developed the partnership-based approach by which we still operate today.  We oftentimes discuss proposal ideas on the telephone with applicants before they submit anything in writing, and we always review a letter of intent before requesting a full proposal. Similarly, whenever possible we try to help grant applicants “think through” proposals or prioritize needs, suggest possible additional or alternative funding sources and share lessons from other grantees.  We learned that allowing multiple avenues of communication, in as interactive a process as is feasible, results in better partnerships–and ultimately, more impactful grants.

12. Even a Small Investment, Well-Placed, Can Make an Impact on an Entrenched Problem

Based on the success of our first Special Initiative with the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition, which provided core funding for the Covering Kids and Families Illinois Program, VNA staff began reviewing other opportunities that weighed need, population, impact, expense and partnership. In the end, we made the decision beginning in 2004 to undertake an oral health initiative, as at that time oral health was overlooked, underfunded and desperately needed among Chicago’s underserved. Our planning partner was Erie Family Health Center, which had already begun to consider expanding dental services and was located in an area with a documented lack of resources for uninsured residents.

After several months of planning and coordination, including meeting with experts, garnering FQHC approval, and building collaborations with other local health foundations, the VNA Oral Health Initiative (OHI) was launched and services were piloted. With continued VNA support, Erie was able to fully integrate oral health and primary care services at its main Humboldt Park clinic, more effectively serving its patients through a combined medical and dental home.

13. Nurses are Winners, and We Made it Official

Recognizing the long-term negative impact of the nursing shortage, particularly in community/public health nursing, we designed two programs in the mid-2000’s to help address the problem.  Our Super Star in Community Nursing Award gave an unrestricted $25,000 award to an outstanding “frontlines” nurse. It was created to honor the service provided by  Public Health/Community Health nurses , and—via publicity associated with the award and the nurse’s work—encourage nurses in training to consider  public health and community health nursing as a career choice.   During the seven years the award was offered, almost $300,000 was awarded to seven winners and twenty-three finalists. Additionally, the award received coverage in both nursing publications and general media, achieving the publicity for nursing for which we had hoped.

Our second nursing initiative, the VNA Nursing Scholars program, provided full-tuition scholarships for nursing students in accelerated baccalaureate, and later, master’s preparation programs; and in return, recipients agreed to practice for at least two years after graduation in a Chicago organization serving the medically underserved. The goals of the Scholars program were to encourage and support qualified candidates who might otherwise not attend nursing school due to financial considerations, and to promote community nursing via the requirement to treat the medically underserved in a community setting after graduation. Over the five years that the Nursing Scholars program was offered, a total of $369,100 was awarded to support 11 nursing scholarships, and underserved communities benefited from over 20 combined years of nursing services.

Although VNA Foundation’s desire to promote and support the role of nursing in the community is as great as ever, the uncertain economy and rising need for primary care community nurses forced the VNA board to make the difficult decision to suspend the nursing initiatives and direct all available dollars to support home- and community-based healthcare to Chicago’s most medically needy underserved communities. In this way, we are fulfilling the Foundation’s primary mission during a period when its assistance is vital, while also continuing to support community nursing by awarding about 50% of our annual grants toward nursing salaries and services.

14. Smaller Staff = Bigger Grants

Over the years, VNA has been fortunate to receive generally excellent investment returns, allowing our endowment and grants budget to gradually increase. As our grantmaking—and demand from grantseekers—grew, however, so did the challenges of operating as a small-staffed foundation. As a small foundation tackling big problems, we are always conscious of the need to maximize the reach of our staff and the impact of our limited grant dollars.  We have done this by using a team-based approach both within the foundation sector and with our community partners, and we are always on the lookout for opportunities to leverage our grant dollars or fill a smaller yet important gap. We also do our best to provide assistance beyond the grant dollar—whether it is building a network, assisting with evaluation, or thinking through a program idea.

VNA has always strived to operate on a lean administrative budget, putting maximum dollars into the Chicago communities where it’s needed the most. By working collaboratively and leveraging our grant dollars, we are doing our best to achieve uncommon results—results that represent our most sincere and thorough effort to make a meaningful difference in the lives of Chicago’s medically underserved.

15. What’s Good for the Grantee is Good for the Grantor

A peer-structured, partnership-oriented approach is the core of VNA’s grantmaking philosophy, and by 2006 we’d formalized a similar mindset for our internal relationships.  The start lies with the VNA Foundation Board of Directors. Our board members do not receive compensation of any kind; they are motivated only by their commitment to improve the health of Chicagoans without adequate resources. Since our first grant in 1996, at least one board member has accompanied VNA staff on most pre-grant site visits, and their input, perspective and expertise have often proven to be invaluable contributors to the process.  Their involvement in site visits and proposal reviews also make them active and informed participants when proposed grants are discussed at board meetings.

Interactions among VNA staff also adhere to a partner/colleague model. Each staff member has an area of expertise and prior experience as a grantseeker, and we believe the respect and cooperation we show each other, and our vivid memories of what it was like “on the other side of the table,” are reflected in how we interact with grant applicants. With a small staff, there’s little room for an “it’s not in my job description” attitude—so we do our best to work freely and honestly with both each other and our community partners.  We hope and believe that the end result is more honest discussions and more impactful grants.