Since its creation from the sale of Wesley Medical Center to Hospital Corporation of America in 1985, the Kansas Health Foundation, 309 E. Douglas, has invested millions into programs intended to improve the health of Kansans.
Its $200 million original endowment had grown by the end of 2012 to $469 million in assets, and assets now top $475 million, making the foundation the largest philanthropic entity in the state, according to its president and CEO Steve Coen.
“It was a real innovative thing at the time, but now it’s happened all over the county and there are many health foundations that have been created like us,” said Coen, who has been with the foundation for more than 25 years, rising in the ranks to his current position in 2008.
Since its inception, the foundation has given away more than $500 million, Coen said, and the rocky economic climate in recent years hasn’t stopped the foundation from continuing its mission.
“From the standpoint of our total assets, like others in the philanthropic and endowment field, we were impacted negatively by the recession,” Coen said. “But our recovery has been aided by a long-term investment approach and complemented by a long-term grant-making approach.”
“The foundation utilizes a policy-based, long-term investment strategy that relies on asset allocation and diversification to achieve its investment objectives.”
In 2012, the Kansas Health Foundation’s board authorized more than $22.9 million in grants, according to its annual report.
Shift in mission
Originally called the Wesley Medical Endowment Foundation, it was renamed the Kansas Health Foundation in the mid-1990s as its mission shifted to serve the whole state. In its early years, the foundation focused on medical research.
“We noticed we weren’t really making much of a change in the health of Kansans, so we made the move to get out of research and really focus on prevention,” Coen said.
Last year, the foundation had an educational campaign on the health benefits of water fluoridation but had to discontinue it once the issue became a ballot initiative in Wichita because of laws that restrict the lobbying and political activities of organizations such as theirs, officials said.
“When we see something that would tremendously affect public health, those are the issues we get involved with and that’s why we did that campaign,” Coen said. “It’s a limitation we have to live with and there’s not much we can do about it. We do what we can do.”
At this point, Coen said they aren’t sure if they will restart the educational campaign for fluoride.
In recent years, the foundation has funded campaigns for tobacco cessation and its next push will likely be obesity prevention.
“Kansas is predicted to be one of the fattest states in the nation by 2030,” Coen said. “We’re trying to figure out what to do to reverse that trend.”
Claudia Blackburn, health director for the Sedgwick County Health Department, said the department has worked with the foundation for years and its financial support of preventative programs helps fill a void in the community.
“We’ve been really fortunate to have a foundation in Kansas whose sole purpose is to promote health and prevent disease before it occurs,” Blackburn said. “They are really focused on keeping people healthy and making sure the environment is designed to make the default choice the healthy choice.”
In 1995, the Kansas Health Foundation established the Kansas Health Institute, a Topeka-based program that conducts studies and research on health issues that affect Kansans with an annual budget of more than $3 million. KHI has an offshoot dedicated to writing news about health.
The foundation has also helped create community foundations in about 40 other Kansas communities by offering matching-grant programs.
Janet Hamous, executive director of the Wichita Business Coalition on Health Care, has worked with the foundation on the WorkWell KS project, which provides leadership and resources for businesses to support worksite health, according to its website.
KHF is the primary funder for the project, but Hamous said the coalition takes a more active role, working to find ways for projects to be sustainable even after the initial funding is gone.
“They are very much a partner on it,” Hamous said. “They have a very global view and truly want to change the world, beginning with Kansas.”
“The real exciting thing with them is you’re not just applying for funding for a program. You’re a part of a leadership change that results in more change and impact for the organization, the community and the state.”
In the early 1990s, the foundation began to develop leadership programs after foundation employees conducted listening tours across the state to find out what people thought were the biggest health problems.
“People would say things like cardiovascular disease, cancer, teen pregnancy, substance abuse,” Coen said.
“So we asked them questions about why they thought those issues weren’t being addressed, and the thing that came up over and over again was, ‘We don’t have the leaders needed to address those problems,’ or ‘They don’t have the skills,’ or ‘There isn’t a new generation of leadership coming up in our communities.’ ”
Later, the foundation decided the most effective route would be to institutionalize leadership training in a separate entity.
“When it comes down to it, to make any kind of change happen, you really have to depend upon human capacity,” Coen said. “When we look back at the grants that have succeeded, and we’ve done a comprehensive evaluation of all of our grants, when you look at what really makes a difference and what grants succeed and don’t succeed, it really comes down to leadership.”
The Kansas Leadership Center was founded in 2007 after the Kansas Health Foundation announced it would invest $30 million over 10 years in the center.
The center, which has been operating out of offices in the Occidental Building downtown, will have a new $9 million home next to the foundation when construction on the building on Douglas is finished in late July.
The cost of the building is not included in the $30 million, Coen said.
“It will be a really tremendous place,” said Ed O’Malley, a former state legislator who is now the center’s president and CEO.
“One of the ways to describe what it will be, or what our aspirations for it will be, is a living room for the state of Kansas – a place where Kansans can talk about the challenges in our state and how to exercise more leadership, a living room for discussion, debate and discovery.”
The center has 16 full-time employees and has upwards of 30 contracted coaches who lead training programs, O’Malley said.
O’Malley said the center stresses measurement of progress with the programs, although it’s a long process.
“Trying to measure leadership capacity isn’t like trying to measure the amount of pollution in the air,” O’Malley said. “There is no specific measure, a lot of the work is qualitative, with so much effort to understand what’s happening as time goes by.”
The programs are meant for people of all backgrounds, he said, from legislators to the faith community.