Reimagining Philanthropy with Humanity at the Core

  • By Debbie I. Chang, June 12, 2024

Reflections from the 2024 GEO Conference

As I entered the grand ballroom of the 2024 GEO Conference, a sense of shared purpose filled the air. Representatives from diverse philanthropic organizations had gathered, their anticipation creating a palpable buzz. My role as CEO of Blue Shield of California Foundation and GEO host committee member had brought me here, but it was the collective perspectives and people that are the real reasons for going to a conference. I felt a deep connection to the themes and discussions from the first session I attended, shaping not just my perspective but our collective philanthropic efforts in the coming days.

My conference journey began with an electrifying keynote by ALOK, who challenged us to ponder, “What would philanthropy look like if it took humanity seriously?” This question lingered in my mind throughout the conference. ALOK’s insights on existing binaries, such as the donor and the grantee, were particularly striking. I nodded in agreement when they asserted that the grantee was indeed the giver. At Blue Shield of California Foundation, our mission is to achieve health equity and end domestic violence in California, and we believe that those most impacted by health inequity and domestic violence are experts in crafting the solutions. The keynote reinforced the importance of centering these voices in our philanthropic efforts.

Next, I attended, “Scaling Change Through Community: How Community-Led Collaborative Funds are Remaking Philanthropy,” and heard insights on how to share strategy and criteria, and center community expertise in grant making. The panelists highlighted how collective efforts can drive sustainable and impactful change. This session was a powerful reminder of the immense potential we can unlock when we trust and invest in the communities we serve. These community-led collaborative funds are what philanthropy looks like if it took humanity seriously.

Throughout the conference, the struggles faced by people of color in philanthropy and the need for mentorship of emerging leaders of color were discussed and reimagined. It was great to hear this vision of philanthropy that genuinely takes humanity seriously by offering tailored support and mentorship and extended funding for the growth and development of emerging leaders. I am deeply committed to supporting BIPOC leaders, so these discussions really resonated. For a CEO like me, mentoring emerging leaders is not just about imparting knowledge—it’s about nurturing potential and fostering an inclusive and equitable future.

Another theme of the conference was the role of foundations as catalysts for policy and systems change. In California, we are fortunate to have a rich history of partnership between the state and philanthropy. Our Foundation experiences with public systems including the California Department of Social Services and Medi-Cal, which support large populations of people of color, demonstrate the potential to improve those systems through equity-centered engagement. Now is the time to move from engagement to partnership and power sharing, and philanthropy can play an integral role in driving systemic changes that align public systems more closely with the priorities of the communities they serve.

As the conference neared its end, the question became: how do we need to think differently to create the change we want to experience and see within our communities? Trista Harris of Future Good challenged us in a session on “Co-Creating the Future Now” when she spoke about disruption as the norm, AI as a partner, and the hyperlocal future of democracy. She also emphasized seeing philanthropy as a collaborator beyond the grant and focusing on transformative impact. How fascinating! Another powerful moment was Trabian Shorters’ lunchtime address. The founder and CEO of BMe, urged us to “stop defining people of color by the challenges they experience.” Using his award-winning cognitive framework, “asset-framing,” he encouraged us to focus on our community partners’ aspirations and invest in their potential. That took us full circle back to ALOK’s positive framing and will influence my approach moving forward.

As a member of the host committee, I was intentional about attending sessions and engaging meaningfully with the content and participants. I also brought many Foundation team members to the conference, ensuring we collectively absorb and implement the insights gained. Our team held two equity-focused community sessions: a breakout session on philanthropy and partnerships that support systems change in service of community, and a spark conversation on public sector community engagement. Also, the team hosted a community building event on shifting power in relationships with grantees. Structural and systemic efforts don’t change the conditions of communities by themselves. We must invest in the work of shifting hearts and minds so that people’s consciences can create and support the changes. The 2024 GEO Conference was more than just an event; it catalyzed deeper reflection and a renewed commitment to philanthropy that truly takes humanity seriously.

Debbie I. Chang, MPH

President and CEO

Debbie I. Chang (she/her) is president and chief executive officer at Blue Shield of California Foundation. In this role, Ms. Chang leads the Foundation’s work to make California the healthiest state and end domestic violence and oversees more than $20 million in annual grantmaking. Upon joining the Foundation, Ms. Chang led the organization through a process to refine its strategy to increase impact. She has focused particularly on policy opportunities to influence Medicare and Medicaid to engage in domestic violence prevention. Throughout her career she has championed equity and inclusion in health and health care, drawing on a deep personal commitment to building a more just and equitable world.

Ms. Chang is a nationally recognized public health, policy, and health care financing expert. She has a more than 30-year track record of establishing innovative programs and national and regional partnerships — including spearheading a national partnership with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative to combat childhood obesity in child care centers. Prior to joining the Foundation in 2020, she served as senior vice president and chief policy and prevention officer for Nemours Children’s Health System where she led transformative efforts to focus on value-based care and health outcomes, working with communities to address the social determinants of health. Ms. Chang also leveraged Nemours’ expertise and experience to spread and scale what works through national policy and practice changes to improve the health of children nationwide.

She has held key positions in government, including Deputy Secretary of Health Care Financing at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, with oversight for Maryland’s Medicaid program, and was the first federal director of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Ms. Chang is actively engaged in professional appointments with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on population health improvement and obesity solutions and is chair of their Early Care and Education Innovation Collaborative. Her numerous honors, awards, speeches, and publications — especially in the areas of social determinants of health, systems transformation, Medicaid, CHIP, and prevention — are a testament to her vast achievements and career-long commitment to support the well-being of all people.

Ms. Chang holds a Master of Public Health in policy and administration from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.