Susan Shumaker and Steve Sumerford: Cone Health Foundation: 20 years of investments in our community

Susan Shumaker and Steve Sumerford: Cone Health Foundation: 20 years of investments in our community


Twenty years ago, a few visionary leaders created Guilford County’s then only health-related philanthropic organization.


The Cone Health Foundation, which was born out of the merger of Wesley Long and Moses Cone hospitals, would be dedicated to creating a healthier community, where similarly focused nonprofits could go to get the financial support needed to create a more vibrant place to live, work and play. These leaders pictured a prudently managed hub overseen by a diverse board of community leaders, able over time to grant out more dollars than the $100 million initially invested and able at any moment to call on a team of professionals with a deep knowledge of the community’s health needs and resources.

How is the Cone Health Foundation living up to that ideal?

Grant investments of $86 million spread over 1,500 grants tell a small part of this story. The larger narrative poses the question, so what? What’s different because of those investments?

We strategically target our investments in each of our four priority areas (access to care, adolescent pregnancy prevention, HIV, substance abuse-mental health). We impact the Interactive Resource Center, where one of our homeless neighbors gets blood-pressure medications and sees a counselor for that persistent cloud of depression. Impact is personified at Guilford Child Development where a vulnerable first-time mom is paired with a registered nurse for two years. That same nurse explains how vital a healthy pregnancy is to the baby’s healthy start in life and about the options available for the woman in planning her next pregnancy.

Spend a day with our infectious-disease physicians as they explain to a newly diagnosed patient how HIV is a chronic disease that can be managed with medications. Witness that patient’s relief upon realizing that a network of medical providers, case managers, housing counselors and even a dentist will guide them toward better health.

Meet the 37-year-old woman who “just cannot go on.” She experienced a recent breakup with her boyfriend and cut herself several times. After a risk assessment by our congregational social work team, she is voluntarily hospitalized because of the severity of her symptoms. When she is released, case management services guide her toward further treatment and help her find stable housing.

Our foundation has always prioritized funding for our least-advantaged neighbors. That is at the heart of what we do. Yet, while grant-making is clearly our primary function, the Cone Health Foundation has, over the years, found considerable value in going beyond grant-making to invest in advocacy. In the 21st century, advocacy is the best way to leverage our limited dollars, given the large scope of the problems we are trying to address. Public policy advocacy is often the most effective route to enduring social change for the poor and most vulnerable among us.

That’s why in 2014 we commissioned a study, along with Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, that assesses the impact on all 100 counties of North Carolina of not expanding Medicaid. The nonpartisan study was prepared by prominent researchers at George Washington University and clearly demonstrates that the cost to the state of expanding Medicaid is low, compared with the economic boom it brings. Expanding health care access to 500,000 hardworking North Carolinians caught in the coverage gap makes good economic sense and puts the health needs of people first.

The arguments for closing the health insurance coverage gap are compelling. Given our current political realities, some people might consider the foundation’s advocacy work to be in vain. However, people in our community still need access to health care, no matter who controls the political agenda. The work of philanthropy is privileged work. We must not squander the opportunity to stand for others when the odds seem overwhelming. Funding advocacy and working to bring about change is a strategy for hope, tempered by reality.
A healthy bit of reflection is good for anyone, but the occasion of our 20th year should be about taking stock and focusing on the future and new opportunities that await. Our board meeting opened recently with a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

That’s where we are focused at the Cone Health Foundation.

Susan F. Shumaker is the president and Steve Sumerford is the board chair of the Cone Health Foundation.