Portraits of Leadership

New Jersey Health Initiatives confronts COVID-19

Hyperakt’s interview series hands the mic to nonprofit and cultural leaders around the nation as they guide their organizations through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today we’re talking with Bob Atkins, Director of New Jersey Health Initiatives. A state-wide grantmaking program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, New Jersey Health Initiatives supports innovations and drives conversations to build healthier communities across the State of New Jersey.

From your vantage point, what stories are not being told about the impact of the Coronavirus?

New Jersey Health Initiatives is a grantee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and we both have a very specific interest in the idea of equity.

Communities with the greatest need too often have the fewest resources, and the least voice. In many cases, they just can’t get crucial information.

So, many people have a sense of the pandemic along the lines of, “You can’t do anything about it. It will hit, or it won’t hit,” as though it were a hurricane.

We have to figure out how to make sure everyone understands the purpose of social distancing, the need to stay home, if they can and other actions they can take to protect themselves and their families. Everyone needs to know these things. Not just those privileged enough to have access to traditional sources of information.

Another very hard-to-tell-story right now — because no one knows yet — is the impact the pandemic is having on young people. We don’t hear much other than that they are at home and not in school. How they experience this will stick with them for years. It could have mental health or anxiety implications and also affect their sense of responsibility to the community and what they can contribute. We need to find out as soon as possible and address any issues.

How have you needed to change how your staff works or the way you deliver services in order to meet the new reality?

As grantmakers, it’s our responsibility to use the resources we have to do what we think makes the most sense to address the greatest need. When the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave $5 million in pandemic aid to New Jersey (as part of $50 million given nationally) we had the opportunity to use our networks to understand what was happening on the ground, reimagine grantmaking and identify and fill funding gaps.

We wanted to make sure we helped shape the conversation about how to create opportunities for the communities hardest hit. We reached out to thought leaders, elected officials, local health departments. We talked to our partners in food access and security knowing that’s where people feel it first, especially with schools no longer able to provide kids with meals.

Those conversations informed our thinking right from the start. As an example, the first week of the shutdown we got call from a grantee asking permission to shift grant money from the intended project and use it to provide food to those in need. We said, “Yes, the Foundation wants you to meet the most important needs.”

Then a lot more called. Social service organizations wanted to help undocumented people, so we made several $50,000 regional grants and said, “use it for the most immediate needs you are seeing.”

It was gratifying to be able to call people up and say, “You do great work. Yeah, just go right at it,” asking only for a one-page proposal and promising a quick review process.

What gives you hope in this moment?

As a nurse, I absolutely love the way nursing has shown up for this. They are there in acute care and in community centers. School nurses are doing contact tracing. It’s really amazing — but not surprising — the level of commitment and passion being displayed by those professionals across the country.

It’s also great to see the cross-sector coalitions we support all at one table. Whether it’s the YMCA, elected officials or community-based nonprofits. They already had worked these muscles and were able to snap into action identifying needs and partnering to help their communities. We’ve invested a lot in creating and nurturing coalitions. Now, in crunch time, it’s great to see them not competing against each other; not picking winners and losers.

Explore New Jersey Health Initiatives at njhi.org and on Twitter. Read more interviews in the Portraits of Leadership series.

Hyperakt is a purpose-driven design and innovation studio that elevates human dignity and ignites curiosity. We believe in design’s power to build a future filled with courage, optimism, and honesty.

Are you a leader in the nonprofit, cultural, or design space? Want to share your perspective on confronting COVID-19? Please fill out this Google Form.

Hyperakt crafts transformative brands and digital storytelling experiences for clear-eyed champions of social justice and creativity.

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