The term ‘social movement’ is increasingly found in organizational, community, and political narratives. Yet typically, it is proffered without shared understanding of what is meant by the term, nor applied with any measure of rigor and stewardship. This essay highlights how Well Being Trust (WBT) applied a disciplined social movement praxis to: (a) invest in and cultivate a ‘field of fields’ for equitable health and well-being in its first six years; (b) how we partnered widely to catalyze a series of measurable outcomes that benefit our nation to this day; and (c) how this approach can be adapted by movement leaders to other issue areas and settings.
From late 2016 through July 2022, WBT served as a US-focused impact philanthropy, with a pacesetting mission to measurably advance the mental, social, and spiritual health of the American people. We were initially endowed with $130M, to in turn leverage the resources of a $30B health system, so as to influence a $3T health sector. I was recruited to be its founding CEO, building on my three decades of work across the United States and globally to measurably improve the health of people and place. As to vision, we were called by the Sisters of Providence and St Joseph to build a social movement for health and well-being, with a focus on the most vulnerable.
To deliver on this mission for social justice and health system accountability for outcomes – I took these courageous women religious seriously, and embraced their call as my raison d’etre for accepting the role. Early-on, we engaged our newly-minted National Advisory Council and founding staff to reverse-engineer and learn from several social movements in the United States — from abolition and suffrage, to civil rights and the environment, to climate change and marriage equality.
Together, we uncovered and then acted on three essential learnings and seven movement domains to leverage our modest resources in order to deliver outsize results in a short period of time. This mission – in the face of soaring rates of mental health challenges, addiction and suicide; and declining US lifespan and equitable well-being over the past decade:
1. Social movements have both collective and distributive features which can be carefully cultivated to accelerate positive outcomes. Collective, in terms of collaborative, concerted action taken at the same time by multiple diverse partners working together for systems change. Distributive, in terms of diverse partners choosing of their own accord/motivation/rationale to act in aligned, yet wholly independent ways. E.g. leading from where one stands, on what one stands for, seeking greater impact. Powered by trust and reciprocity (social capital), partners worked both independently and interdependently to catalyze “discretionary actions” far and wide – well beyond the reach of the initial movement leaders / field catalysts.
Notably, a movement-based approach is fundamentally distinct from a campaign or organizational strategy that may self-referentially use “movement” language, yet act from one center of control. WBT invested not to build our organization, nor benefit our founding benefactor’s bottom line – rather to grow a “field of fields”, with multiple strong nodes of power, and to catalyze both collective and distributed action for impact at scale that could go far beyond what we could ever do by ourselves.
2. Across several historic US social movements, we identified seven domains of action (see graphic) that were always present to one degree or another, and core to relative success. Further in successful movements, these elements were not characterized by siloed work. Rather, they operated synergistically to become a powerful thriving ecosystem – generating multiple co-benefits concurrently. WBT invested in this form of leveraged “multi-solving” as its primary theory of change for results. Examples of our investments in growing and sustaining the field’s movement infrastructure, are found in the links for each element:
- Aligned Leadership: Connect and focus diverse leaders and organizations for aligned action – transforming previously disconnected missions and competitive centers of gravity into a coordinated force for good — generating increased power, influence, and complementary benefits. Good solutions, when embraced widely, can solve many problems. Example: CEO Alliance for Mental Health and its Unified Vision.
- Policy & Advocacy Muscle: Prioritize, catalyze, and implement public policy changes at local, state and federal levels by leveraging the focused power of diverse organizations who often have different (and/or underdeveloped) policy foci and strategies. Optimize the qualities of our democracy to engage hearts and minds, change laws, release trapped assets, and move significant resources towards the evidence base and what matters most. Example: Inseparable.
- Courageous Philanthropy & De-Risking: Increase the volume and flow of catalytic funds – focusing resources and leadership on what works, and where innovation and ‘patient capital’ is needed. Vital to this, is breaking through social stigma (e.g. such as surrounds mental health/addiction topics in influential organizations and high net worth families) to normalize conversations and invest with dose-sufficiency in the evidence base – as well as in building the evidence base (de-risking) where needed. Example: Mindful Philanthropy.
- Proof Points: Supporting sectoral, local grassroots and regional/state “tests of change” that demonstrate what works on the ground. Surfacing and building the capacity of leadership to innovate and apply (and build) the evidence base to create measurable results and build momentum. Examples: The WIN Network, the Thriving.us “multi-solver” platform, and its contribution to the powerful US Federal Agency ELTRR response to Covid and related poly-crises.
- Communications Prowess: Listening to the pain and hopes of the nation, and then discerning and framing compelling messaging that resonates widely across interests and perspectives. Aligning diverse partner/field voices and channels around one consistent message framework, and turning / tuning “distributed messengers” into a powerful harmonic chorus. Examples: Pain in the Nation and the Mental Health Coalition.
- Data to Knowledge: sourcing and democratizing access to granular data collection, research and sharing. Apply learning from the emergent data to go from information to wisdom, in sharpening investments, ever more focused and yes-able public policy, and organizational practice changes that help entities go from aspiration, to walking the talk. Example: Kaiser Family Foundation data infrastructure.
- Standards of Excellence: A shared ethos and understanding of what quality is and looks like across related fields, its leadership, its professional associations, and its diverse public stakeholders. In WBT’s work, this meant applying the “quadruple aim” as the north star for health system quality; holding non-profit health care accountable to effectively addressing social needs as a standard of care; and delivering community level outcomes – not just doing good things while pursuing business as usual.
3. Growing a social movement requires disciplined assessment across a field of fields; discernment as to when/where/how to focus and engage; and creative risk-taking in investing dollars alongside incubating leadership to build and sustain essential movement infrastructure to function as an ecosystem.
Once WBT was able to better understand the collective and distributive properties of effective social movements, and apply the seven core elements of movements via the learning from our retrospective analysis – we then partnered to “asset map” the then-state of the US health/mental health and well-being field. This, to identify emergent trends, gaps and areas of need and strategic opportunity. In this, we applied lessons from decades of community-building, where effective leaders don’t just conduct needs assessments (only half the story) they implement asset-centric approaches that embrace and build on the gifts, resources, skills and infrastructure already present – and then apply dose-sufficient (reach, intensity and duration) investment and leadership cultivation capable of sustaining a thriving movement ecosystem.
In this praxis, Well Being Trust partnered with scores of other philanthropies, impact investors and leadership/subject matter expertise from each of these seven domains to: (a) strengthen existing entities where current capacity could be built on and enhanced to meet movement needs, or (b) envisioned, co-created and incubated entirely new entities where insufficient capacity was present or altogether missing. Movement building and incubation became the heart of WBT’s impact strategy, and central to our allocation of $65M invested in our six years as an impact philanthropy.
This approach proved fortuitous for strengthening of the US mental health and well-being field, when in mid-2022, facing Billions in financial losses and other challenges, Providence (WBT’s benefactor) abruptly reclaimed the WBT endowment from the founding national mission, pivoting to meet its internal business objectives.
The increased power and impact of the US mental health and well-being movement and the stewardship of the legacy entities WBT helped build, is perhaps the most significant living legacy of Well Being Trust’s six years as a national-scope impact philanthropy. It is worthy to witness the forward momentum of these organizations, partnerships, and alliances as an ecosystem for impact – as it (a) reshapes private sector and philanthropic investments; (b) informs public policies and resource allocation; and (c) implements new organizational practices across sectors. Contrast this from philanthropic and health system business as usual.
In recent years, I have begun to witness innovative leaders and entrepreneurs working for the common good across the health, social, justice, civic/democracy, community economic development, environmental/climate, and other fields begin to learn from and adaptively apply these movement principles and qualities to their fields of focus and settings. How might you apply these learnings to what calls you to service?
Tyler Norris a long-time social entrepreneur and trusted advisor to philanthropies and partnerships working to improve the well-being of people and places. He was the founding CEO of Well Being Trust (2016-2022) and is now Visiting Scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. www.tylernorris.com