Southwest Community College new building going up with grants from foundations.
New building at southwest community college.

The face of philanthropy across Western North Carolina changed dramatically in 2019 and is about to change again in 2020.

Last Feb. 1, Dogwood Health Trust and six new health foundations came into being as for-profit HCA Healthcare acquired nonprofit Mission Health in a $1.5 billion transaction.

Created with proceeds from that sale, Dogwood added staff, increased the diversity of its board and recruited its first CEO, Antony Chiang, as it embarked on a mission to improve the health and well-being of more than 900,000 people in an 18-county region, largely through grant-making.

The six foundations, five of which had raised funds for various Mission-owned hospitals and one supporting CarePartners Health Services, began assessing community needs to make grants to a wider range of nonprofits.

Now, just shy of their one-year anniversary, the repurposed foundations have awarded a total of nearly $13 million to some 200 programs that address community concerns such as access to health care, food insecurity, quality of housing, education and transportation, all considered “social determinants of health,” which impact an individual’s or family’s well-being.

Going forward in 2020, the foundations – AMY Wellness Foundation, Gateway Wellness Foundation, Highlands-Cashiers Health Foundation, Nantahala Health Foundation, Pisgah Health Foundation and WNC Bridge Foundation – will continue to coordinate with Dogwood on community outreach, resource development and grant-making.

And at Dogwood itself, 2020 marks year one of a five-year, $5 million-a-year commitment to address substance abuse disorder.

Access to health care

While Dogwood and the foundations support programs that address many root causes of poor health – poverty, hunger, interpersonal violence and the like – the local foundations placed great significance in 2019 on making grants to agencies that provide direct medical services to the public or that help broaden the pool of medical professionals in the region.

Funding ranged from the specific, such as the purchase of a simulation mannequin to help staff and students at Cherokee Indian Hospital prepare for life-threatening emergencies, to grants from three foundations totaling more than a half-million dollars to help fund equipment and furnishings in a new health sciences building at Southwestern Community College.

The new $20 million building in Sylva will add three more health sciences programs (dental assistant, opticianry, surgical technology) to the current 14 when it opens in 2021. Existing training in disciplines like emergency medical technician and respiratory therapy has already turned out graduates who work in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties and in Qualla Boundary, which is within several counties and is home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Scott Buchanan, president of WNC Bridge Foundation, told Carolina Public Press that its $400,000 grant is a good investment in the future.

Most SCC graduates remain in the region, and the construction project will have a major economic impact on the community, he said.

“Nearly 90% of our graduates remain in Western North Carolina, providing the region with well-trained health care professionals while stimulating the local economy through higher salaries,” said SCC President Don Tomas.

Highlands-Cashiers Health Foundation and Nantahala Health Foundation also made grants to the college.

Separately, WNC Bridge made the largest grant in the region with a $500,000 check to ABCCM’s Medical Ministry in Asheville.

Formed by a coalition of churches, the ministry provides urgent care, dental care and pharmacy services to about 4,000 Buncombe County adults, according to its website.

ABCCM had received long-standing support from Mission Health, but its level of support dropped in 2019, said the Rev. Scott Rogers, the group’s executive director.

“They provided us with what they considered adequate funding through September of 2019,” Rogers said.

As ABCCM’s shortfall grew, Rogers put out a request for donations but ended up reducing the ministry’s medical, dental and pharmacy services just as it was experiencing a 30% increase in the number of uninsured people seeking care.

“We knew that they had lost funding … they had some pretty dire needs,” added Buchanan, who reached out to Rogers.

With its $500,000 grant, ABCCM is now on target to restore pre-cutback staffing and service levels this month and will build from there, Rogers said.

Beyond such large-dollar largesse, public access to health care was also supported through numerous five-figure grants to other nonprofits.

Recipients included multiple community clinics providing primary care or dental care to people near, at or below the poverty level; a clinic for migrant workers; a mobile mammography program; a child medical evaluation program serving victims of abuse or neglect; and a program providing primary care to the elderly.

Many other social determinants of health were funded as well, including food insecurity, transportation, adequate housing and interpersonal violence.

Recipients of those grants included The Community Kitchen in Haywood County, The Community Table in Jackson County, Clay County Transportation to provide subsidized fares for people to get to work and Hinton Rural Life Center for home repair and mold remediation.

Demand for grants was fierce. Gateway Wellness Foundation received funding requests for nearly 20 times the amount it was planning to distribute.

Buchanan at WNC Bridge, which serves all 18 counties in the region, said the foundations will hold an anniversary gathering in February and will meet regularly to coordinate their activities.

Dogwood starts funding

After a year of organizational development and listening to community needs, Dogwood Health Trust will start making its own grants this year.

In 2019, the mega-foundation provided community organizations with technical support to help applicants write proposals and launched a leveraged fund to aid nonprofits and municipalities in locating national sources of funding “left on the table.”

In 2020, Dogwood plans to go big.

Its first commitment is to release $5 million a year over five years to combat substance use disorders, part of an agreement reached with the state attorney general’s office and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

The first installment will come on the heels of $3.5 million in federal opioids-related grants to six Western North Carolina counties and agencies, announced in December.

Dogwood’s other major commitment is to conduct annual funding rounds in which it expects to make up to $75 million in grants, including its substance use disorder funding.

Brian Myers, Dogwood’s chief strategy officer, is leading the design and implementation of grant-making portfolios as well as the creation of emerging public-private partnerships that will address social determinants of health. Myers served as chief strategy officer at Empire Health Foundation in Spokane, Wash., where Dogwood CEO Chiang served as president.

Two directors, Wyatt Stevens and Bob Roberts, rotated off Dogwood’s board on Dec. 31 as part of plans to create greater geographic balance in the organization’s leadership. A third Buncombe County resident will depart in 2020.

Dogwood has also appointed eight new nonboard committee members to strengthen community engagement and provide input on board nominations, compliance issues and programs, grants and services. New members include Bishop Jose McLoughlin of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina, physicians in Murphy and at MAHEC Family Health Center, a nurse at Cherokee Middle School, a workforce development specialist, a retired professor, a retired rear admiral and an official of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.

Dogwood anticipates releasing its first annual report by spring.

Clarification: The first sentence of this article has been revised to describe the foundations in question as “health foundations.” The original wording may have implied that they were part of a technical category of foundation to which they do not belong.

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Neil Cotiaux is a contributing writer for Carolina Public Press. He is based in Wilmington. Send an email to to contact him.

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