Generating ideas, connections, and action

Social Connectedness as a Philosophy, Strategy and Result

Lessons About Leadership and Social Connectedness
from the Work of Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Minnesota

I was honored to join the BCBS MN board several years ago because I am a big fan of their social determinants of health and health equity work.  I was invited to help the board think about how to integrate leadership into their program work.  I hope that they have benefited even half as much as I have from this relationship. Their commitment to social connectedness as a critical strategy for improving health outcomes has taken my thinking about leadership in some new directions.


During the last BCBS board meeting I found myself thinking about how social connectedness is expressed in grantmaking decisions and as a way of doing business.  You will find social connectedness embedded in the Foundation’s leadership work, in their social equity grants and in their grantmaking engagement strategies, and I would like to explore how all of this is cultivating leadership.  Building social connectedness creates opportunities to engage more people in leadership. 


For several years now, LLC has been lifting up the work of groups that honor leadership potential in everyone and are achieving significant results by supporting the alignment and action of multiple social actors in the change process.  Lawrence Community Works builds a community network by first connecting neighbors and building social cohesion within their community.  They are finding that as people talk to one another they discover shared frustrations, and as they develop trust, they discover opportunities to take action together. 


On the leadership front, BCBS invests in a leadership program that is focused on supporting and fostering place-based, cross-sector partnerships to address the conditions that influence children’s well-being, issues that include early education, affordable housing, and the built environment.  Teams that build new connections across organizations and sectors are recruited and introduced to collaboration, planning and community engagement skills like the ‘art of hosting’ that will help them develop their projects. The teams focus on projects that seek tangible results on behalf of children 0-5 and are supported with both planning grants and funding to implement their projects. In our recent “how to series” we provide numerous examples of programs contributing to population-level results by committing to tangible improvements.  As an example, the participants in the Blue Shield leadership program have started community gardens and reached out to immigrant communities to improve their access to resources.


The Foundation has also made a number of grants to local libraries in order to engage them as partners in working to improve health in low-income communities and communities of color.  Libraries can reach into communities and bring people together around special programs and classes on things like “Healthy Cooking on a Budget” or how to access to quality health information.  These programs also help to build relationships among community members.


Walking the talk of social connectedness, the Foundation implemented the Connect for Health Challenge, a grantmaking strategy that engaged Minnesotans in all aspects of the grantmaking process, raised issue awareness and increased social connectedness.  The community was involved in judging and deciding on grants. In the end, 21 grants were awarded to organizations that promote social connectedness, with projects that supported youth elder partnerships focused on peace, and projects that created safe spaces for people in the housing projects.


Through its structured leadership program supporting collaborations, and through a number of programs that help neighbors get to know each other, find safe spaces to connect and engage in projects to support their community, BCBS is supporting people to take action to improve their health and the health of their communities. I am happy for the opportunity to learn with and from BCBS about how organizations and communities are supported to take up leadership that promotes community health improvements