Community health grants support, empower community members to improve neighborhoods

Holly Gainer

Since 2012, 26 projects that help solve problems in Birmingham communities have been funded through the Community Health Innovation Awards. The program, which is based at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has touched thousands of men, women and children through projects proposed by community participants. The projects have provided mental health first aid training, increased access to fresh produce and bicycles to people without reliable transportation, and have accomplished many other initiatives to better people’s lives.

In a paper that analyzes the successes of the program, researchers detailed the strengths and limitations of CHIA, and the outcomes from each of the 26 funded projects.

“The greatest impact of CHIA is supporting good ideas and innovative actions that address complex issues designed and led by community,” said lead author Shauntice Allen, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Public Health. 

CHIA is an annual grant competition open to local 501(c)(3) organizations in the Greater Birmingham area that enables participants to seek bold, creative solutions to health challenges their communities face. Applicants work with UAB experts and local businesses to propose and complete a project addressing a public health issue in their communities. Projects are supported by grant funding, ranging from $5,000 to $25,000, awarded by the One Great Community Council, the community engagement arm of the Center for Clinical and Translational Science at UAB.

“Drawing on best practices in community engagement, CHIA begins with the premise that community members are experts on issues and opportunities in their communities. As a result, community members are the principal investigators with the latitude to direct funds in ways they deem most appropriate to improve their communities,” said study co-author Anthony C. Hood, Ph.D., Director of Civic Innovation in the Office of the President and associate professor in the Collat School of Business at UAB.  

Of the 26 projects, several have received additional funding from outside organizations as a result of their success.

The Mosaic Mental Health Project, which received a $25,000 grant from CHIA in 2015, provided mental health first aid training to more than 500 individuals. The project received an additional grant of $10,000 from the Public Health Advised Fund managed by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. The Earn-A-Bike Program, which provides refurbished bicycles to homeless and/or unemployed individuals, won $10,000 in a marketing competition and an additional $10,000 from a corporate foundation.

The ability for the projects to evolve is one of the goals of the program.

“I hope there continue to be long-lasting collaborations and sustainable efforts addressing complex problems,” Allen said. “We don’t want CHIA to be a one-off opportunity. Long-term presence of this program is important in building community trust and continued interest in solving real issues.”

The researchers found that funding and limited room for growth are a few of the programs’ limitations, but Allen and Hood hope future partnerships will boost community support and engagement.

“Each year, dollars are raised for this effort, and those amounts vary from year to year,” Allen said. “We welcome an opportunity to partner with sponsors who also are interested in funding innovative projects in the metro area.”

“The innovations that are supported by CHIA are typically not patentable and rarely lead to the launch of high-tech, high-growth startups,” Hood said. “They also don’t typically result in the development of peer-reviewed publications or NIH/NSF grant proposals. As a result, CHIA projects have tended to receive less attention in discussions of the research enterprise or the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem. However, now that community engagement has been elevated as an explicit mission pillar of UAB’s new Strategic Plan, I am hopeful that civic innovations such as those funded by CHIA will receive greater attention.”

While the program continues to expand, the goal of community engagement remains the same.

“I hope that CHIA continues to send the message to our community partners that we value their ideas and expertise,” Hood explained.

To find out more about CHIA, visit its website. The study, Translating the Birmingham Neighborhood Leaders Survey into Innovative Action through the Community Health Innovation Awards, was published in the journal of Ethnicity & Disease.