Meet Eric Clay, Senior Program Officer for Health Initiatives
Do not mistake Eric Clay’s gentle demeanor for lack of conviction. He is deeply passionate about building a more equitable Richmond region and he works at it day after day in his role as Senior Program Officer for Health Initiatives. A native of Richmond, Eric has spent his career in population health, supporting the needs of under-resourced and marginalized populations with organizations such as the Human Services Department in Seattle and most recently as Director of Workforce Development for Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore. As we begin to chart a path forward after a year of turmoil, we asked Eric to share insights on how he approaches his role, how the past year has changed the work of the nonprofit sector, and where he finds hope.
Describe your role and how you work with nonprofits.
I manage a portfolio of nonprofit relationships on behalf of the Community Foundation, the Jenkins Foundation, and the Sheltering Arms Foundation Fund. Specifically, I am focused on organizations that provide access to health care and wellness activities. Every day, my goal is to deepen my understanding of the landscape of health services in the region. I meet with leaders and practitioners in the nonprofit field to learn about their work, who they are serving, with whom they partner, and how we can best connect them with resources so they can be as successful as possible.
While funding is often the impetus for meeting, I believe I serve a greater purpose. It’s about listening to organizations and learning what they need. I don’t want an organization to bend over backwards to try to fit what they do into our funding priorities. If there is not a fit, I may be able to direct them to other funding sources locally, regionally, or nationally that may be more aligned with their work. Similarly, there may be capacity building resources at the Community Foundation or in the area that can help them become more competitive in the grant process. I also connect organizations that are doing similar work to encourage collaboration and efficiency. Lastly, I work with our other program officers to identify connection points and share information since many of the issues they study are closely tied to health – such as early childhood development or safe and affordable housing.
At the end of the day, we are all trying to make the Richmond region a better place. In philanthropy, we can do that through effective communication, collaboration and a shared commitment to greater access and opportunity for all residents.
What does an ideal funder-nonprofit relationship look like?
I appreciate organizations that keep in touch throughout the year, even when there is not a grant on the line. Often, these are organizations we have worked with over longer periods of time. Having been on the other side, writing grants for nonprofits I’ve worked for in the past, it can be difficult to approach a funder. There is often a power dynamic at play, and it’s a process to build comfort, confidence, and trust. I would invite funders to my site to show them our work up close and personal. It’s more tangible and memorable that way and, over time, you get to know one another better. I encourage organizations to reach out and keep me updated.
Grant recipient Daily Planet Health Services uses their funding to combat the pandemic. William Smith, RN, (on left) administers a vaccine to Daily Planet Case Manager Ford Franklin.
The most important thing I want organizations to know is that we want them to be successful. If they receive a grant, we view it as a shared project in which we have mutual interest in the outcome. And if something isn’t working, let’s talk and adjust. When they are honest with us, it makes us better too.
What are the differences between the Community Foundation grant priorities and those of the Jenkins Foundation when it comes to health?
We view our relationship as a partnership, where we can leverage each other’s strengths to achieve more together. The Jenkins Foundation is a supporting organization of the Community Foundation and was established when Retreat Hospital was sold in the mid-1990s. They have retained a strong health focus – specifically, access to primary care, access to mental health services, and prevention and treatment of substance use disorders. We also partner with the Sheltering Arms Fund, established in 2002, which runs an invitation-only grant process for organizations that serve uninsured and underinsured adults who are experiencing physical or cognitive disabilities, or who are at risk for developing functional limitations. The Community Foundation targets its health-related funding in areas not covered by the other two. That includes food security and targeted interventions such as mental health services for children, and we further supplement that with grants that address social determinants of health that include housing and workforce development. Where the Jenkins Foundation primarily awards grants to support ongoing programs, the Community Foundation also supports systems like the trauma-informed care network for the region or advocacy through organizations like Fit4Kids.
Greater Richmond Fit4Kids works to improve children’s health by promoting physical activity and healthy eating in schools and communities.
From a process standpoint, we are working intentionally to share information between the Foundations so that we are not duplicating efforts and we are looking to streamline application and reporting for nonprofits seeking funding. We understand that the more efficient the grant process, the more time nonprofits have to work directly with the populations and communities they serve.
Following a global pandemic and racial reckoning, how is the work different?
I think we are all changed from the experience of the past year and we view our world a bit differently. COVID highlighted deep disparities in health, as well as other areas, for Black and Brown communities. Internally, we have moved beyond conversation to make key operational changes, including the addition of a new role at the Foundation, Vice President of Diversity and Engagement, held by Stephanie Glenn. Our staff and some of our affiliated boards have held conversations and received training to better understand how diversity, equity and inclusion practices can further inform and enhance our work.
We’re going to delve deeper into data, and particularly disaggregation of data by race. Data allows us to remove subjectivity and highlight who is experiencing the greatest barriers or negative outcomes. It helps us make more targeted investments where they are needed most, increasing the return on investment of our grant dollars. It becomes an economic conversation. If you can move individuals connected to tax-paid supports to being taxpayers, it’s a win-win for everyone.
Within the philanthropic sector, funders came together in support of the Central Virginia COVID-19 Response Fund and further developed their practice of information sharing and co-investment when interests align. We are also seeking ways to ease the application and reporting process and allow for greater flexibility in the use of funds.
The past year also cultivated a deeper understanding about how systemic racism impacts health. In fact, earlier this year, Virginia became the first Southern state to pass a joint resolution declaring racism as a public health crisis. Black and Brown communities historically have been denied equitable access to quality health care systems, causing trust barriers. Consequently, the Community Foundation and the Jenkins Foundation have increased support for community health workers through the Richmond City Health District and organizations like Casa de la Salud. They are trusted professionals who understand common barriers to access, but also the tremendous resiliency of the people they seek to help. Often living in the same neighborhoods they serve, they are effective advocates who can make residents feel safe while helping them connect to the services they need.
Finally, there are several issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, such as food insecurity and behavioral health. Previously, people would mobilize to distribute food during the holiday season, but COVID created new urgency around how to sustain these services throughout the year. Isolation, as well as stress around employment and housing, has impacted mental health for many people throughout the past year. Many of our health clinics implemented telehealth platforms, providing greater access to appointments. They have noticed changes in their patient load to include more rural residents, for example, and it has impacted both staffing and billing. The good news is that organizations have learned to adapt quickly, and I believe it will result in longer term improvements to many of our systems that needed a reboot.
Volunteers help deliver food at a Richmond distribution site as the region struggles to maintain food access throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are your biggest take-aways from 2020?
There is greater need than before and that requires greater effort from all of us. We cannot address health in a vacuum anymore. We must work collaboratively and intentionally to address racial disparities, as well as social determinants of health such as housing and access to jobs. We must pursue transformational change by continuing to layer investments in programs, systems and advocacy. We must listen to our communities and our community partners because they are closer to both the problems and the solutions. And, we must stay nimble enough to pursue the opportunities still unknown. While it will take time to identify which trends are here to stay, I believe that more good will come out of this experience than bad.