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Be Bold. Be Brave. Be Well.

Kathy Dunleavy’s Reflections on Wellville and the Future of Philanthropy.

“It’s such a game-changer. I’ve never seen this type of philanthropy before,” says Kathy Dunleavy, who recently retired as President & CEO of the Mary Black Foundation, the backbone organization for Spartanburg’s Way to Wellville.

Until she worked with Wellville, Kathy saw essentially one model of philanthropy: a funder would award a fixed amount of money for a very specific plan or project. “When we were chosen for Wellville, we asked, ‘How much is the check?’ and we were told there was no check.”

Instead, Kathy says, Wellville founder Esther Dyson endowed the five Wellville communities with 10 years of access to the skills and expertise of six Wellville National advisors (shepherded by Spartanburg advisor Jeff Doemland) to support the Spartanburg team’s efforts. “It’s been such a resource,” she says. “I’m not aware of any other philanthropist that has taken that approach.”

Three people are shown at a table having a discussion
Kathy (right) collaborates with others in Spartanburg’s Way to Wellville

The first indication that Wellville is different emerged early on, when the Spartanburg team was filling out the application to be a Wellville community. “We pulled the group [of local health-related institutions] together to see if we should apply,” Kathy recalls. “Even though we got along and felt like a community, all our work was in silos — health, education, economic stability.” As they pulled together the application information, they “came to realize that to really make an impact, all [our work] had to be interwoven. And while that’s extremely messy and can be difficult, it’s the best way to make it work. You can have an initiative that’s really successful, but if it’s in a silo it won’t succeed and it won’t sustain itself. That’s a really new way of thinking for us, that we all have to work together.”

Wellville’s different approach became more apparent once the Spartanburg team began working with the Wellville team. Normally, says Kathy, to get something done “funders give you money to do something specific” — rigidity that doesn’t allow for a logical change of course. In contrast, the Wellville National team applies an evidence-driven philosophy that’s similar to Esther’s style as an angel investor. It allows — even expects — changes to programs and areas of focus as teams implement their plans. “If Esther invests $1 million in your widget,” says Kathy, “she expects that you will have many different versions before it’s ready. So if we say to her, ‘We did a pilot but it didn’t work,’ she just gives us a thumbs up. [This flexibility has] allowed us to let our creative juices really flow. We say to ourselves, ‘So what if it hasn’t worked before. Let’s just try it!’ ”

Since Wellville doesn’t provide funding for local projects, the Spartanburg team splits costs for the basics, including most inexpensive pilots, across the major institutions on the Spartanburg team: the City of Spartanburg, Mary Black Foundation, and Spartanburg Regional Health System. The Mary Black Foundation is the backbone organization, providing resources such as meeting space and staff time. “Every few months we tally it up and ask for one-third of the cost from the other two. It’s not much – approximately $6,000,” says Kathy.

People in room at tables meeting
Kathy (far right) leads a discussion with some of the Spartanburg Way to Wellville team and Wellville National

To expand and sustain successful pilots or to fund larger projects, the team seeks grant money or develops sustainable funding models with support from the city, health system, or other payers. For example, Kathy expects the team’s small employers health collaborative, called The Wellville Exchange, to be absorbed into the Spartanburg Chamber of Commerce, and hopes that Hello Family, a continuum of family support programs that uses a pay-for-success model, is adopted by the organizations that realize the most benefit from those programs.

Kathy says the experience with Wellville has transformed the team members’ way of thinking, and has seeped both into their own organizations and into other area organizations.“It takes 28 days to create a habit. In three years, we’ve certainly created some habits! Coordinated effort is so important to us now. Every Tuesday morning we all sit together, share what we’re working on and ask how to move things forward. It makes us work together.” Collaboration has also given the team creative license to ask bigger questions. “You sit at a table with six or seven major organizations in the community, and big things look possible,” she says. “It’s taught us a different way of thinking and a different way of working together. I don’t think that’s going to go away.”

Though Kathy has stepped down from the Mary Black Foundation, she intends to stay involved in Spartanburg’s Way to Wellville. She’s hooked. “Our tagline is ‘Be Bold. Be Brave. Be Well.’ When I think about Wellville in the context of philanthropy, Esther was extremely bold and brave. She’s committed 10 years of resources. Yes, she’s hoping for outcomes and results, but it’s a big risk on her part. I hope this is just the beginning of a new type of philanthropy.”

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