Being bold: Topeka Community Foundation to tackle community health initiative

Topeka Community Foundation President Marsha Pope, left, is joined by board chair Shelly Buhler, center, a Shawnee County commissioner, and vice chair Chris McGee, a financial consultant with Krumins McGee Financial Group.

The Topeka Community Foundation is launching an initiative to address community health, taking on a leadership role to coordinate and collaborate with local organizations.

 

Marsha Pope, TCF president, said the nonprofit had been through a period of self-examination after she became president in March 2016. She spent 90 days visiting with business and nonprofit leaders, as well as donors.

“The thing that stuck out most to me is that we could do more heavy lifting when it came to the area of leadership in our community,” she said.

In the past, TCF had done community convening that led to the founding of ArtsConnect and Heartland Visioning, for instance. But it had been some time since that occurred, Pope said. Further work on a board retreat led to the same conclusion.

“We talked that day about the kind of organization that we want to be and really talked about how powerfully we can lead our community when those three roles of donor services, grantmaker and community convener come together,” Pope said. “I think we all agreed that day that that’s the kind of organization it is. Then the question is, ‘What next?’ My response to that is you open the door of possibilities and you know when the right things walks through.”

The “right thing” turned out to be focusing on community health. TCF’s board and staff attended a Shawnee County Health Agency event, where they learned about the county’s dismal health rankings.

“What we heard that day was so compelling that we came back here and said, ‘This is it,’ ” Pope said.

Understanding the extent of the health challenges in the community, added TCF board chair and Shawnee County Commissioner Shelly Buhler, meant taking responsibility.

“They came away knowing it’s just not a health department issue. It’s the broader community,” she said.

After that meeting, Pope immersed herself in learning about the social determinants of health — things like poverty, education, access to healthy foods that have a significant impact on a person’s physical health — and to learning more about the county’s health ranking, which dropped in the most recent year.

“We’ve literally granted millions of dollars into our community for healthy lifestyle initiatives throughout the years, and yet that score has gone down,” she said.

That understanding of social determinants and their relationship to health is critical and not always understood outside the medical profession. Pope said Gianfranco Pezzino, M.D., and Shawnee County health officer, explained that 20 percent of health is hereditary, 20 percent is medical access and physicians, but 60 percent is the zip code that you live in.

“Which is really poverty,” Pope noted.

It’s not that many of those programs weren’t worthy and didn’t have the planned impact, but it was time, Pope said, to consider what else could be done to move the needle.

With multiple community contacts who already work in the area of health, donors who care about that arena and past grants, TCF began to organize around the issue.

“We are defining leadership as mobilizing others to do difficult work,” Pope said.

TCF hired a facilitator, who will pull together 21 groups identified by TCF’s leadership team and meet with them in five different sessions beginning in mid-February.

The meetings will allow the organizations to set expectations about what the community health initiative is and isn’t, Pope said.

“This isn’t a social justice initiative. This isn’t a back-door way to get a grant from the community foundation to do the work that you’ve already been doing,” she said. “This is an opportunity to try new things, knowing that the community foundation has the resources and the capacity to assist in those experiments.”

Buhler said numerous agencies already are addressing many of the health challenges in the community and doing great work.

“We don’t want to lessen that,” she said. “But yet, we are all facing these same challenges, so how do we approach this differently?”

As Pope has been out in the area talking to people, she’s been amazed at their willingness to be part of what TCF is doing.

“Never before have I seen groups so willing to collaborate,” she said. “Every single organization I’ve talked to about this has said, ‘Yes, we want to be a part of this, we want to be a part of something big and bold and courageous.’ ”

The Shawnee County Health Agency and Heartland Healthy Neighborhoods are both thought leaders in the community, Pope said.

The fact that St. Francis Foundation chose to put its funds to be used in the Topeka community with TCF also gives them resources, she added.

“We have those resources available to us to deploy back into the community to create change,” she said. “This is not the community foundation riding in and saying we have all the answers and just throwing money at things. I anticipate that when I talk to people about whatever it is they want to do, money really is not the issue. While there will be resources to assist, I’m betting that it’s more providing leadership, providing coordination, providing access, opening doors, making connections as much as it is the money.”

It is, Buhler said, about elevating the discussion about health.

“We are making progress in this community,” she said, pointing to Momentum 2022. “We’re trying to figure out how to keep our talent there, how to increase entrepreneurship. But we have to have a healthy community to make sure we can do all those things. I think that a community that places a high value on health, that’s a good thing for all residents.”

After the facilitator conducts the five meetings, Pope said TCF will be able to move forward to consider what experiments or ideas the group is willing to try to make a difference.

“This isn’t a pass-fail thing,” she said. “We’re going to try it. We’re going to evaluate it. We’re going to adjust. We’re going to bring new people to the table.”

It’s a big task, calling for bold and innovative leadership.

Coming to this place, Pope said, has been a natural progression for the foundation.

“There’s only one community foundation, and for us to be the best that we can be for our community, this really feels like it’s it,” she said.

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Shawnee County Health Concerns

68%: Adults overweight or obese

50%: Adult population with one or more chronic health problems

22%: Adults diagnosed with depression

20%: Adults who smoke cigarettes

54%: Infants not fully immunized by age 2

9%: Births are to teen mothers

Source: County Health Rankings & Roadmaps

RELATED LINKS

Read more about the Capital-Journal special section, State of Health Care in Kansas, at http://cjonline.com/state-health-care-kansas.

See the 24-page Capital-Journal digital magazine of the special section here.

 

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