Written by Erica Boniface, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Staff
One of our favorite things about Bonfils-Stanton Foundation’s Livingston Fellowship Program is the community it creates among leaders. Program elements are designed to connect leaders, who come from a variety of nonprofit organizations, to help each other stretch and grow in their leadership capacity.
A testament to this leadership community can be found in 2008 Livingston Fellow, Christy Whitney’s experiences. Over 27 years ago, Christy found herself thrust into hospice care as a CEO of an organization in Virginia. Since that time, Christy has had to evolve her leadership skills through the ever-changing healthcare industry, and she attributes some of her success to her Fellowship activities and spending time with other Fellows.
We think you will relate to our interview with Christy where she shares her Fellowship lessons learned, her advice to other Fellows – and how much has changed with healthcare in 30 years.
Bonfils-Stanton Foundation: Hi Christy! For starters, you’re the CEO of HopeWest in Western Colorado – tell us a bit about your role and the organization. You’ve been with the organization for over 27 years.
Christy Whitney: I moved to Grand Junction in 1993 from the suburbs of Washington, DC to become the first CEO of what was then named Grand Valley Hospice. Our current name is HopeWest, which we changed several years ago. I started my career in hospice before it was a Medicare covered service in 1979. I spent a couple of years in hospital administration in Durango, CO when I was recruited to be a CEO of one of the nation’s first hospice programs in Arlington, Virginia.
It was truly the universe moving in an unexpected direction when I was recruited to be the founding CEO of this organization. Looking back, I never saw what we would become. I hired the first employee and we now have over 400 staff and 1,300 volunteers! We transferred five patients to our new program and today we care for over 700 a day.
As the CEO for so long, I have had the responsibility of building effective board governance as well as growing the staff resources and expertise to adapt to the growing requirements of our many programs.
We started as a hospice. Today, we have a number of programs – hospice, home-based palliative care, palliative care in facilities, a physician clinic, a senior center, specialized counseling services for adults and children, as well as operating three retail stores, a coffeeshop and restaurant.
We have also grown from serving Grand Junction to all of Mesa County, Montrose, Ouray, Delta and part of Rio Blanco and Garfield counties in Colorado. We have six offices and an inpatient hospice center.
BSF: Wow. That is incredible! How has your role evolved?
CW: My role in the organization has grown and changed over the years. With few employees, I began very, very operational. As we have grown and matured, I had to learn how to grow other people and let them operate.
Today, my primary job is to keep the mission in the forefront, assure we have the resources to reach that mission (whether with reimbursement or philanthropy), and I am the keeper of relationship to the communities we serve and our donors. We have two new big programs coming up one is PACE (Program of All Inclusive Care of the Elderly), and the other is a comprehensive continuum of programs all housed in The Center for Living Your Best in Grand Junction.
BSF: How has healthcare changed since you began?
CW: How long have you got? Seriously, healthcare has changed dramatically over 30 years as a healthcare CEO and will continue to change dramatically. First, its light years more complex– both from a financial perspective and a regulatory perspective. It is steeped in overhead that never existed in the late 1980’s. Certainly, the advent of technology has made healthcare even more complex, despite the advancements of connectivity.
Today, healthcare is less personal. We all experience it. Primary Care doesn’t mean you will really see the same provider or doctor. Care is more hurried. Productivity standards are aggressive and necessary to stay in business. There is a disconnection between what we say our goals are of whole person, integrated care and how care is delivered. Insurance companies have become the focus of the delivery system and even more so in the future will hold all the cards.
Health insurance costs more than our mortgages. That was never true 30 years ago. It’s incredible that we pay so much more and in many ways can expect less.
I value being able to utilize philanthropy to reach our goals and aspirations in the healthcare we provide. Without it, we would simply be one more cog in the health care wheel. With it we have an opportunity to fill in gaps, coordinate care and make all of our care very personal and adaptive to every patient and family’s needs.
BSF: In your final report reflecting on the Fellowship, you wrote “It is somewhat difficult to put into words the transformational experience of the Livingston Fellowship. I believe I am a different leader than when I began.” Tell us, how your leadership has changed, thanks to the program?
CW: Looking back, my view may be a bit distorted but there are a couple of things I would say:
First, I moved from seeing my job as a “doer” to seeing my job as a “teacher.” I came to the recognition that to move the organization forward I had a new job of not just “conducting” talented singers in a choir but being the “voice teacher.” This was a big transition.
I credit a lot of these insights to spending time with Dorothy Horrell, who is an amazing leader and mentor, Jesse King and John Livingston. What a blessing to have three extraordinary people be committed to one’s growth.
Second, I learned that we can only be our most effective leadership selves when we incorporate our whole self and use both sides of our brain. The opportunity the Fellowship gave me to develop my artistic abilities has helped me see that we do not have to compartmentalize ourselves as leaders. We can use our talents in ways that help the cause or the organization we are passionate about as well as our business acumen.
And lastly, the opportunity to open my eyes to see how hospices in the UK utilize philanthropy to meet their mission was significant. I learned what one might expect, the Scots use every penny. They approach philanthropy from a place of “everyone can contribute something” and should be given that opportunity. They exemplify the concept of involvement as key to fundraising.
BSF: We recently announced the class of 2020 Livingston Fellows. What is some thoughtful advice you have for them?
CW: Advice to the new Fellows would be to think large and to open their minds to seeing things differently than they might today. To be open to self-examination and open to organization examination for opportunities to reach further.
BSF: Tell us more about your “whole brain” approach.
CW: I believe that leading endeavors of passion and cause require deep right and left brain thinking styles– head and heart. Compassion for the staff, volunteers and clients and passion for the nature of the work that enables us to be of service. Every endeavor takes rigor in both. We must be able to engage the creative sides of ourselves and at the same time balance with the pragmatic side of what is feasible and what can work. The best of this work is done in a team environment where the “third best answer” can arrive.
BSF: What’s one of your favorite memories from the Livingston Fellowship?
CW: So many great memories. The experiences were such a gift, but the mentorship from other Fellows and the Foundation leadership always stand out even more. I enjoyed our retreats– particularly one of the first ones that we all got to be in the same house— getting to know each other, me doing yoga for the first time, cooking together, laughing together and being inspired by each other. I also appreciated the leadership tips shared between fellows. I so appreciated my fellow Fellow, Carl Clark for sharing his leadership book list. A standout memory is on our retreat where Jesse King was out in the middle of a stream with waders standing up zen rock sculptures. Talk about silent teaching on balance— it was something to behold!
BSF: It’s 2020. What are you hoping for from the new year?
CW: My hopes for 2020 have to do with bringing HopeWest into the future decades of purpose and structure. I pray that our team has the wisdom, creativity and stamina to do the continuous redesign the current healthcare environment demands. We will finish our Center for Living Your Best project in Grand Junction that will create a collection of programs and services helping all of us age healthier, happier and more connected. That will be a rewarding experience.
BSF: Tell us more about your life a bit in Grand Junction. What are some of your places and hobbies you’d recommend for folks to visit when they’re on the Western Slope?
CW: Grand Junction and the Western Slope are great places to be. I enjoy something special in every community we serve. In Ouray, it simply being in the almost cathedral like surroundings of the mountains and the hot springs. In Montrose, it’s the vistas of the San Juans and spending a day nosing store-to-store downtown or a dinner overlooking the golf course! Delta County is a collection of a number of beautiful and interesting places— my favorites are the art galleries and antique stores sprinkled across Paonia and Hotchkiss. Up on the Grand Mesa is everything from great cross-country skiing to amazing camping amid its hundreds of lakes. Grand Junction, Palisade and Fruita offer everything from wine tasting to cycling. My second hometown, Meeker, is my most favorite – 2,200 people living an hour from the closest town who enjoy each other and the beautiful surroundings. It’s a welcome respite to the hustle bustle of every day life.