PORTLAND – It’s good to be the hero. When you save the day — or the damsel, or even the nonprofit organization in distress — people talk and write about you.

People revere Batman. Alfred, his loyal butler? Relegated to the back story. Yet without Alfred’s medical expertise, costume-mending prowess and problem-solving skills gained as an Arctic explorer and intelligence service agent, the Caped Crusader would likely not have survived the 1960s.

The Portland Community Free Clinic, offering free medical services to 500-600 Cumberland County residents each year, faces dire financial straits following Mercy Hospital’s exit from the partnership. Within days of the news that the clinic faced closure, the Emanuel and Pauline Lerner Foundation stepped in with a generous $25,000 challenge grant offer to keep the clinic open. Other donors have since joined the effort to keep the clinic open through 2013.

Front page news and a genuinely praiseworthy effort, but what happens when that money runs out? Batman, meet Alfred.

I work with health foundations that fund strategic, system-wide changes that are intended to prevent just these kinds of crises and with foundations that lead nonprofits to sustainability. Year after year, these focused funders pour millions into Maine nonprofits to bring about better health and stronger health systems, and to teach nonprofits how to be financially viable.

Yet, because they don’t typically dive in to rescue the faltering nonprofit clutching the life preserver, they don’t make news — not even routine announcements of the millions in grants awarded.

Maine newspapers rarely dig in to examine the real change this funding creates. True, the projects are often policy-heavy and hard to explain. But the work often results in sustained and demonstrable improvements that impact all Mainers who face escalating health care costs and year-end funding appeals from scores of struggling nonprofits.

Some examples:

The Maine Health Access Foundation (MeHAF) awards about $4 million in grants each year to promote access to quality health care, especially for those who are uninsured and medically under served.

Strategically focused on key priorities that address health system costs, MeHAF has funded and advanced nationally recognized models of care, including the patient-centered medical home that is strengthening the delivery of primary care across Maine.

Ironically, according to the Press Herald, the Portland Free Clinic “needs a long-term financial solution in order to weather economic turbulence caused, in part, by federal health care reform.” Long-term financial solutions are what MeHAF helps create, but aren’t newsworthy.

“Lunch ladies” in Maine schools are comparing notes and sharing recipes to improve school nutrition through facilitated groups created and funded by the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation. The result? Through collaboration, Maine has had more schools qualify for the USDA’s HealthierUS School Challenge recognition than any other state where schools are going it alone.

The Harvard Pilgrim Foundation has contributed more than $1.3 million in Maine over 6 years to combat childhood obesity through this and MaineHealth’s successful Let’s Go! (5-2-1-0) program. Yet, as obesity remains a visible crisis, the foundation is the little-known expert catalyst behind the scenes with measurable goals and funding.

The Unity Foundation, based in Unity, directs funding and tools to strengthen nonprofits by helping to build the internal systems that make any organization function well, including leadership, financial management and compliance. The approach stems from the core principles of the late founder, businessman and Unity resident, Bert Clifford.

“Jumpstart Our Youth” is Unity Foundation’s most far-reaching grant program, each year empowering 4,000 Maine middle and high school students to get involved in solving community problems through grant-making and volunteering.

After five years and more than $250,000 made in student grants (funded by Unity, Unitel, Inc. and Maine Community Foundation), there is still little media interest in the developing community-mindedness of emerging civic leaders who want to solve persistent problems.

The Justice League can attest that there is a need and a role for heroes; saving the day makes us all feel good, but what happens tomorrow?

Proactive change quietly prevents many of the crises that heroes are called upon to solve. And steadfast work that benefits our communities is worth our attention. Just ask Alfred.


Catharine Hartnett of Portland is a principal of Hartnett Communications.