Following the Work Wherever It Leads

In Buffalo, Two Foundation Leaders Follow Their Work to Surprising New Roles

Read About Us   I  An article published by Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy, Washington, DC


What comes to mind when you think of Buffalo, New York? An aging, rust-belt city buffeted by icy winds, lake-effect snow, and 5-foot drifts? The image is common, and, like many public perceptions, largely misleading. Yet the perception created a problem for the philanthropic work of Cathie Gura and Colleen Fahey of The Children’s Guild Foundation.

Gura and Fahey, president and board chair, respectively, knew from years working to build access to healthcare for children with special needs that specialized physicians were essential—especially the services of developmental pediatricians. They had seen the number of these physicians decline within the clinics they fund, with a decreased capacity for patient visits.

In the healthcare world, developmental pediatricians are scarce: only ten to twenty complete fellowships each year nationwide, and Buffalo, New York, is not their destination of choice. Gura notes, “Attracting these physicians to Buffalo is challenging because of misconceptions about the weather, lack of knowledge about the community and research opportunities, and limited salary and benefit ranges.”

The foundation had invested more than $6 million over the past 20 years in programming and services at the Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo. Yet, Gura recognized, “All the program and capital funding in the world does no good without the providers to make it happen.”

And Gura and Fahey faced yet another problem. The Children’s Hospital was not prioritizing recruitment of developmental pediatricians. Changes made by insurance companies over the past few years had dramatically reduced the reimbursement rate for these physicians, relative to other specialists. Since developmental pediatricians do not bring in as much money to the hospital, replacing them kept getting put off.

Undeterred, Gura, Fahey, and their board members did what dynamic small-staffed funders do—they got deeply and personally involved, investing their experience, skills, and connections, in addition to grants. Driven by their mission, they became recruiters and civic boosters for the hospital.

That Gura and Fahey would see value in serving in these roles, and be game to embrace them, says a lot about these philanthropic leaders, and about small-staffed foundations. Donors, foundation trustees, and family members see the local community not only as a focus for giving—but as their home. These philanthropic leaders are also citizens, business owners, parents, civic leaders. Philanthropy is an opportunity to strengthen the place where they live, work, and raise families.

Concerned about urgent community issues, they engage with the issues and learn everything they can, over time developing insight into solutions. And as these philanthropic leaders get deeply involved, they see opportunities to leverage their local connections and networks, and their intimate knowledge of the town or region to catalyze change.

Diving In

To overcome the challenges involved in recruiting physicians, the Children’s Guild Foundation convened an ad-hoc committee of its directors and president, plus hospital, physician, and academic leaders. A business and marketing plan for recruitment was developed, and the foundation made a grant to the hospital to help cover the cost, and to increase the salary and benefits offered to the new physician for a 3-year period.

The foundation also committed itself to being actively involved in the interviews. Gura and Fahey became recruiters. As residents of Buffalo, they were able to talk with prospective physicians about the city’s arts and cultural advantages, scenic waterways and outdoor activities, and, as Gura says, “its feeling of being a close-knit community, where connecting, collaborating and mentoring all come together as a way of life.” Gura and Fahey also talked about the foundation’s ongoing, committed support for state-of-the art healthcare, research facilities, and programming.

After a 15-month effort, the hospital and its partners successfully recruited a highly respected and trained developmental pediatrician, and hired an experienced full-time pediatric neurologist as well.

The payoff will be huge: expanded capacity of care, improved access to services, and advanced research opportunities. In addition, bringing advanced medical knowledge to Buffalo will enhance early intervention to help mitigate the long-term effects of disabilities, increasing the chances that children will lead happy and productive lives.

What Grants Alone Could Not Achieve

In their philanthropic journey, Cathie Gura and Colleen Fahey realized that the obstacles to better healthcare for special needs children could not be overcome with money alone. The power of their philanthropy comes from combining grants with deep, personal involvement.

By diving in, they accomplished two things:

  • Made recruitment a priority at the hospital, by applying gentle but steady pressure. Whereas the Children’s Hospital had many priorities, the foundation had the freedom to be deeply focused on special needs children. The foundation used this single-mindedness to its advantage, as well as its unique position as an outsider, and its reputation and leverage as a longtime community and hospital funder, to keep all the stakeholders focused on the “prize.” Gura notes, “People did not fall back on what was perhaps best for their individual department or concern. Our clarity of purpose also helped the group adapt to setbacks and problems more easily.”
  • Persuaded physicians to make Buffalo their home. Gura reflects, “Having the personal connection with the prospective physicians, and ensuring them of the ongoing support they would receive in their work, was crucial. We made it clear we were committed, long-term partners, providing funding and advocacy to serve special needs children.”
    The foundation’s deep engagement has had another impact: It has enhanced its capacity to work with hospital leaders, physicians, and staff.  Board and staff have developed an understanding of organizational dynamics inside the hospital, the perspectives of medical professionals, and the language they use. This knowledge is empowering the foundation to begin work on two other initiatives to advance its mission, again one of them with the Women & Children’s Hospital.

As often happens when funders engage deeply, the work has opened doors to more opportunities to make impact.

Following the Work Wherever It Leads

Two qualities set the most dynamic small funders apart: a willingness to let the work guide them, and the courage to venture where the path leads—wherever it goes.

As they work to bring the best possible healthcare to children with special needs, Cathie Gura and Colleen Fahey have been willing to venture wherever the work takes them. For these leaders, philanthropy goes beyond transferring money—it’s a creative force for change that engages all the talent, experience, and knowledge they have to offer.