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Heart of Giving Blog: Interview with Judy Belk

Jan 18, 2022


Public Health Philanthropy 

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how social and economic disparities can have urgent consequences, leaving those with fewer resources dangerously vulnerable. As many families and communities rebuild, new opportunities have emerged for philanthropy, research, and policy intervention: How can we understand and improve the link between social justice and public health? Judy Belk, currently president and CEO of the California Wellness Foundation (Cal Wellness), is a leading advocate for health equity. A childhood in segregated Alexandria, Virginia inspired her lifelong dedication to social advocacy. Leveraging as many endowment dollars as possible, her mission-related investing strategy has contributed to new initiatives combatting health challenges facing women of color. Belk’s insights on social change and organizational ethics have been featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and on National Public Radio. Listen to these episodes (Part I and Part II) of the Heart of Giving podcast for more insight on these themes:

Expanding the Definition of Donors: While prominent foundations and multi-million dollar grants are a powerful force in the philanthropic space, they are not the last word. In fact, much of Belk’s optimism stems from grassroots-style charitable giving. After a tragic death in her family, home churches and others in the community offered donations that helped create a long-running memorial scholarship. Small-dollar gifts on a larger scale not only create change, but also let individuals contribute to a meaningful cause. Viewed in these terms, an approach that balances acts of generosity with a larger-scale endowment boost could be valuable for many organizations. Pushing the Boundaries of Public Health: For many, the term “public health” now conjures images of N95 masks and CDC press conferences. Yet Belk continually looks to the intersection between wellness and social problems. At Cal Wellness, she has spearheaded initiatives addressing the impact of gun violence and joblessness. Gun violence can induce devastating psychological trauma or physical disability, while job loss also causes many in the U.S. to lose their healthcare. For those within charitable or nonprofit fields, similar holistic approaches to a cause may well inspire new, unanticipated collaboration with other groups or policy makers.

Promoting Diverse Philanthropy: Despite the importance of bottom-up organizing and marketing efforts, a diverse leadership team is often key. Equity can—but all too often doesn’t—begin from within. In recent years, a significant number of private foundations have retained an all-white board. Cal Wellness’ diverse boardroom, emblematic of the communities it serves, reflects its foundational belief that quality healthcare is a universal human right. By ensuring that all aspects of Cal Wellness’ operations reflect its commitment to diversity, Belk is steering change from the inside out—a model for other foundations, nonprofits, and organizations to follow.

To learn more listen to our interview with Judy Belk on the Heart of Giving Podcast here.


This article was composed by Emily Hershman.