HCA Healthcare
May 29, 2019


SOURCE: Asheville Citizen Times

AUTHOR: Dillon Davis

From left: Alan McGregor, co-founder of the Southern Rural Development Initiative; Buncombe County commissioner Al Whitesides; Carmen Ramos-Kennedy of Just Economics in Asheville; and Kelly Ryan, president and CEO of Incourage, a foundation in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. The speakers were part of a May 24 philanthropy forum hosted by the WNC Health Equity Coalition at UNC Asheville. (Photo: Dillon Davis)

ASHEVILLE — It began with a puzzle piece. Rows of them. Symbolically placed on each seat of a conference room at UNC Asheville, they represent a small, double-winged slice of a picture not quite fully formed. 

That's where Dogwood Health Trust finds itself, too. But there are plenty of Western North Carolina residents gunning to cement their piece in it. 

The private, nonoperational foundation formed from the $1.5 billion sale of Mission Health was at the center of a May 24 forum hosted by the WNC Health Equity Coalition. Philanthropic and community leaders argued for the value of deep community involvement, race and equity initiatives as well as thoughtful grantmaking as Dogwood fills out its ranks ahead of its first grant cycle planned in 2020.

"One of the things we say internally a lot is the closer you are to the pain, the closer you are to the solution," said Jen Nixon, CEO of the Reidsville Area Foundation in the Piedmont region. "We try to build that, we try to build the capacity for individual community members to be in our offices, in our space, and for us to be in their space.

"We really do see ourselves as the community. We're not there for the community; we are the community."

Five members of the Dogwood board, including Chairman Janice Brumit, sat in during the sessions on conversion foundations and using foundations as catalysts for change. The trust, which could spend as much as $70 million annually across 18 WNC counties, was promoted as a major benefit of the sale of Mission to HCA Healthcare, but has drawn some criticism for the demographic makeup of its board and its links to the now-defunct Mission board.

But even after it hires its first chief executive and decides on funding strategies, Dogwood may take some time to hit its stride, said Brenda Solorzano, CEO of the Missoula, Montana-based Headwaters Foundation.

Headwaters, like Dogwood, was founded following the sale of a hospital system, in its case the 2015 purchase of Community Medical Center by a partnership of Billings Clinic and RegionalCare Hospital Partners. Solorzano said Headwaters grant-making initiatives didn't fully get underway until 2018, before which the organization consciously shifted its strategy to prioritize community input and education of its various funding approaches.

A program from the May 24 Cutting Edge Philanthropy forum hosted by the WNC Health Equity Coalition at UNC Asheville. (Photo: Dillon Davis)

Headwaters, which projects to spend about $6.1 million this year, has several programs in its midst including its Zero to Five initiative to bolster support for children in early stages of development, as well as its Go! Grants, a once-a-year payout of up to $5,000 for organizations doing work in rural communities of western Montana.

There effectively are four foundation funding models: charity, responsive, partially strategic and strategic. Each model offers benefits, but the common thread is that community must be at the center of each, Solorzano said.

"Trust matters," she said. "Trust is a critical, important thing — and it's not easy. It takes time, it takes relationship building, it can get broken and the focus is on repairing that. We have had to do all of these things through the course of the Headwaters story."

In a panel featuring Nixon and Solorzano, Tom Keith, CEO of the Sisters of Charity Foundation in South Carolina, also offered that successful organizations need to be mindful of the differences between urban and rural areas.

Every effort must be made to let each community speak for itself, he said.

"You have to reach beyond the perceived leadership and talk to people that are on the ground, not only people providing the services but the people receiving services," Keith said. "The worst thing we can do is be prescriptive. We don't want to go into communities and tell them what they need to do to make things better."

He added, "We have to go in with an open mind and be willing to be good listeners because nobody is going to tell you anything better or more important about that community than the people getting up in the morning and living there and working there and are challenged by that."

Carmen Ramos-Kennedy.

The second panel of the day featured Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides, Carmen Ramos-Kennedy of Just Economics and Kelly Ryan, president and CEO of Incourage in central Wisconsin. Ramos-Kennedy, in her role as president of the Asheville Buncombe County NAACP, criticized the composition of the Dogwood board last year, arguing at least half of the board members should be women and one-quarter should be people of color.

Asked how an organization can effectively take a lens of racial equity to issues, she said they need to hire people "who have proximity to the issue."

"If you're doing the work, hire the people that have proximity to the issue to help serve with you," she said. "Racial equity looks like people showing up at boards, hearing them, but remembering low-wealth communities, in particular, have difficulties showing up to these meetings at all times of the day."

A complete video recording of the forum by Trillivision is posted below.

Dogwood Health Trust Board Chairman Janice Brumit telling a room of philanthropic and community leaders about the new trust formed from the $1.5 billion sale of Mission Health to HCA Healthcare. The May 24 form was hosted hosted by the WNC Health Equity Coalition at UNC Asheville. (Photo: Dillon Davis)

Brumit, of Brumit Restaurant Group and formerly of the Mission board, addressed the room once the day's scheduled speakers concluded. She said board members and staff "came here today to listen and learn." She also noted suggestions made by the speakers already are being considered by Dogwood, but the organization remains still in its early stages without a CEO. That hire is expected to be made in July, she said. 

Others to join her were fellow Dogwood board members Jackie Godlock, Jackie Shropshire Simms, Martha Tyner and Wyatt Stevens.

"We want to be part of the solution to our drivers of health and the viability of our communities," Brumit said. "We want to know what people are thinking, what communities are thinking, but we can't impose anything on anybody, as most of the speakers have said. We want to be listening and learning and that's our first guiding principle."