Philanthropy’s Role as a Connector in an Increasingly Fragmented Society

Thursday, September 1, 2022 - 12:15 pm
Mary O'Donnell

By Mary O’Donnell, MA, President, RRF Foundation for Aging

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we all experienced social isolation. Although a necessary response to an unprecedented public health threat, it caused real harm to our mental and physical well-being. 

Studies show that social isolation and loneliness increase a person’s risk for dementia and of premature death from all causes, at a level of risk that may rival smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Just like the many other facets of inequity spotlighted by COVID-19, isolation and loneliness can feel like purely individual struggles or responsibilities, but they are systemic issues and should be tackled accordingly. Philanthropy has a unique role to play in addressing these issues. 

The forces imposing isolation and loneliness on millions – including one in four people over 65 – include poor transportation options; lack of walkable neighborhoods; cultural, religious, and language differences; and ableism, ageism, homophobia, nativism, and racism. We need to think about these system-level barriers to connectedness and how to overcome them. Perhaps because the study of isolation and loneliness is relatively new, many philanthropies are not yet addressing this work directly. 

RRF Foundation for Aging has four focus areas with implications for the well-being of older people: housing, caregiving, economic security in later life, and social and intergenerational connectedness. The first three have been studied and evaluated, creating a robust evidence base. But social connectedness is a more nascent field. What we do know is that humans are social creatures, and we thrive when we’re in community with others. 

RRF has funded many evidence-based programs and will continue to do so. But we are looking at our social connectedness work differently. On one hand, there is strong evidence that social isolation is pervasive and can harm and kill. On the other, the evidence for specific programs targeting isolation and loneliness is a work in progress.  

Experience tells us that the best way to reach isolated or historically excluded people or groups is through local networks or grassroots organizations. However, these groups may not be large or resourced enough to amass the data needed for randomized controlled trials. Their ability to create a robust evidence base may never equal that of larger organizations or established research institutions, although their impact on the ground might be unrivalled.  

We’re committed to listening to communities, expanding the data sources we consider, and including programs that are “evidence-informed” in our funding on social connectedness. For example, we’re supporting Gen2Gen Innovation Fellowship to identify innovators and entrepreneurs bridging generational divides and building social connectedness.  

Social connectedness is not a one-size-fits-all issue, and no single solution is right for everyone. Foundations working together to advance the greater good, a core tenant of the Council on Foundations’ strategic direction, is especially important to tackle this critical social issue. As funders, we have unique access to both the polished insights of academic evaluators and the lived experience of our nonprofit partners. Let’s not miss the opportunity to make a difference just because the evidence-base is still emerging. 

What about you? Are you involved in work that seeks to increase social connectedness? Let us know—we’d love to hear about it. If not, we hope you’ll consider joining us.

Mary O'Donnell is the president of RRF Foundation for Aging (RRF), a national grantmaking organization and one of the few private foundations in the U.S. devoted exclusively to aging issues and improving the quality of life of older people.

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