As Raising Places kicked off, I was  asked by several funders and community leaders: Why is the program designed this way? I wanted to make my thinking behind the development of Raising Places visible in case it helps other funders and community leaders in their quest to help all communities become great places for kids to grow up. And I welcome feedback on this approach!


At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), we are working with people across the country to build a Culture of Health so that all people can reach their full potential—no matter where they live or who they are. A Culture of Health recognizes that health and well-being are greatly influenced by where we live and work, the safety of our surroundings, and the relationships we have in our families and communities. National, state, and local leaders increasingly recognize that community environments—physical, social, and economic— directly affect individuals’ health. In the case of children, community conditions not only influence their current health and development, but also their future outcomes.


Families and communities often face significant obstacles in providing the supportive environments children need to thrive within, such as unsafe housing, lack of green space, poor air quality, limited job opportunities, and violence. Despite the challenges many communities face, each has tremendous local assets—from the creativity of residents to the power of local organizations and institutions. These assets include practitioners focused on better communities—those leaders from diverse sectors who are committed to improving the physical, social, and economic conditions which foster healthy communities. An equally diverse system of practitioners focused on better childhoods is invested in ensuring families are supported and children are growing, learning, and thriving across their development into adulthood. Creating supportive, healthy communities for children and families requires leveraging all of these assets to advance cross-sector solutions building on the vision of residents for their own community’s future.

A few “Aha!” moments ignited in me after conversations with other foundations, networks, and practitioners in both the better childhoods and better communities fields.

These considerations led me to Raising Places:

1.       The power of social innovation labs to bring together diverse perspectives helping solve complex problems. Such as the experiences of  funders and practitioners like Rockefeller Foundation, JW McConnell Family Foundation, and others across the globe who participate in the Social Innovation Exchange.

For example, say there is a problem for which no one entity is accountable for solving, no one solution is sufficient, and current solutions to the problem are insufficient to address the complexity. These labs are a process to help understand and develop options when complex social problems affect many stakeholders. Labs draw on diverse perspectives about a problem to make sense of an issue and focus on rapid experimentation to surface and adapt solutions to problems.

2.       The apparent disconnect between the early childhood development and the community development practitioners and networks.

Recent years have brought increased local and national interest in cross-sector collaborations. Yet, leaders from these two diverse perspectives rarely find themselves around the same table. For example, among better communities practitioners, there is a growing effort to put a greater emphasis on people and health along with a proliferation of place-based, healthy communities initiatives. However, there is rarely an explicitly holistic focus placed on children and their families. Similarly, there has been a movement among better childhood practitioners to adopt a multi-generational cross-sector approach, but this approach usually starts with clinical care, education, and child care. Thus, it does not necessarily directly address multiple aspects of the physical, social, and economic environments in communities.

3.       Our own learning at RWJF about what it takes to improve communities’ health.

The ability to set bold goals and play the long game are strengths of philanthropy. Whether it’s our own investments or philanthropic investments of others, these investments often come with prescriptions or requirements for communities or for specific organizations, rather than solutions being community-driven and -led. The unintended effect? Lots of siloed planning and research, with little focus on rapid testing and experimenting. It creates starts and stops on progress based on the duration of a philanthropic investment or emphasis, with little focus on developing community ownership and capacity.

What is the hypothesis of Raising Places?

I believe that by bringing different perspectives together using a structured approach, great ideas will happen, new skills for working across sectors will develop, and deeper relationships will grow. Where Raising Places can be a catalytic point in helping to move a community forward in its journey to being a great place for kids to grow up.

For the six communities going through the Raising Places process, the goal is not to implement a particular project or intervention. The goal is to use the labs to generate insights, rapidly prototype on ideas, and find ways to move those ideas and relationships forward together in a community-directed and community-driven way.

It can be scary as a funder to not have an outcome perfectly determined or precisely predicted, especially in the world of needing to understand “returns” for investments.

The Raising Places approach is more attune to a world of complex challenges and where answers aren’t readily apparent nor “proven.” It’s an approach that more readily embraces communities as dynamic organisms with agency, not predicated on a funder’s prescription for what “should be” accomplished. Rather, the direction is generated from within the community. And the communities’ insights can yield insights on what else could happen to scale efforts across the country and spread ideas to other places. 

My hope is that these experiences give leaders in philanthropy, public health, early childhood development, and community development different ideas about how else they can come together to make communities better for kids and their families. Perhaps it will surface levers for change we haven’t even begun to conceptualize.


What would you add, based on what you know about what it takes to make all communities great places for kids to grow up?