Jen Algire, The Greater Clark Foundation

Algire__Jen_Headshot.jpgTell me a little about your career path and what led you to become the President and CEO of The Greater Clark Foundation. How do these experiences inform your work in philanthropy?  

I’ve held a lot of different positions in my career in local government, the nonprofit sector, the for-profit sector, and philanthropy. The common theme with all of these positions is that I started something from scratch or took something to a new place, and all were related in some way to health and community development.

The Greater Clark Foundation is a health legacy foundation – our assets came from the sale of our local hospital in 2010. I took the position in 2012 after being recruited by a headhunter. I had a background that was a bit in healthcare, a bit in hospitals, and a bit in philanthropy. It took about a year to get the foundation off the ground. Nobody in the community had been on a foundation board before, so it required teaching people what it means to be on a foundation board, which is similar to being on a nonprofit board, but not the same. That was a really interesting process and it continues to be. I consider us to be a very young foundation. Each year is new, because it’s the first time we’ve done it.

 My true calling in life is helping people understand that as individuals we all have power, and we have to get in touch with our power and stop giving it away to other people. So, the idea that I could be a part of a small community in a part of the country that I feel passionately about and be building something that I believe is going to make the community more resilient over time was pretty powerful to me. The Greater Clark Foundation’s asset size is pretty small relatively speaking, but it’s pretty large on a per capita basis, and so that was enticing in terms of thinking strategically about how we could invest assets and really contribute to growing the region – not just the Greater Clark region where we fund, but the whole Appalachian region.


How did you become involved with the Appalachia Funders Network?

Like most great things in philanthropy, I was recruited by my peers. Sandra Mikush, Gerry Roll, and Susan Zepeda encouraged me to get involved with the Network. Making the decision to join was interesting because, where I’m based in Clark County, we’re the westernmost eastern Kentucky county, but we’re only 20 minutes from Lexington. Our county, geographically, is part bluegrass, horse farms, and agriculture, and the eastern part of the county is much more rocky and rugged. The personality of our community is such that those that have historically held power in our community identify with the bluegrass region and don’t identify as Appalachian. But the working class and the folks who make up the majority of our community identify as Appalachian, and 40% of our workforce comes from Eastern KY.

It was a really interesting conversation around our board table about getting involved with the Network because we feel strongly as an organization that part of being the Greater Clark foundation means that we’re touching the region, and in our mind our region goes east. We also had to work through our psychological issues. We had to ask, what does it mean to affirmatively say, not only that we want to be part of the Appalachia Funders Network, but that we consider ourselves part of Appalachia when, for however many of the last hundred years, we’ve tried to shy away from that.

As a foundation, we’re so much richer for being involved with the Network and I’ll always be grateful to Sandra, Gerry, and Susan for encouraging us to join, because this is exactly where we need to be. 


How has your involvement with AFN added value to your work at The Greater Clark Foundation?

I immediately saw value in the Network for a couple of reasons. Any time you can be networked to other colleagues in philanthropy, it’s helpful. Also, the way we engage practitioners in our work is one of the most important things we do in the Network. There’s no substitute for hearing from people who are doing the work on the ground. Whether we like it or not, most of us in philanthropy are a bit removed from our work. There are very few of us who are functioning as operating foundations where we’re doing the work ourselves, so we’ve got to stay really closely connected to the practitioners. That’s one of my favorite things about the Network.

I also found I could add value to the Network immediately. For example, The Greater Clark Foundation got involved in the Network in 2012, and as the HWG was just getting established, I remember being part of a conversation around investments. I realized I was one of the few people who had been on the business side of health care and understood how the markets were changing, and felt like I could add some value to the conversation around the role of healthcare investing in rural communities. So even though I wasn’t in a leadership role the first few years, I was adding value behind the scenes.


You’ve recently become the co-Chair of the Health Working Group. What do you hope to accomplish through this role?

I think the Health Working Group is really special, because it’s cross-sectional to the other working groups.  Oftentimes when the conversation goes to health, people think about hospitals or doctors or something transactional. I think about health as much more dynamic concept. I have a very broad view of health, and, in fact, the Greater Clark Foundation only funds the social determinants of health, like education, poverty, and civic engagement – the things that are most strongly correlated with health status.  

For example, for any rural community that has a hospital, the hospital is probably one of the largest employers – a huge economic driver. And health is a fundamental part of working on issues of workforce development and education. When we think about advancing an equitable Appalachian Transition, health is a big part of that, because if people don’t have health, they’re unable to fulfill their innate potential.

My goal as a co-Chair is to help tease apart the intersection of these issues – health, education, poverty, civic engagement, and economic justice - and hopefully inspire people to stop thinking about health as merely health care but to really think about health as a dynamic condition, just like anything else.

And, of course, my most important to-do item as a co-chair is whatever Terri Donlin Huesman (my co-chair) wants us to do!


Who do you look to in the fields of philanthropy, community development, or healthcare for inspiration?

I find inspiration in a lot of places. I admire Atul Gawande, a doctor who writes for The New Yorker. I find him to be a thought leader from the perspective of humanizing the healthcare experience and challenging some things that seem like fundamental beliefs about the healthcare system that were really just never challenged. He holds the mirror up to us.

I also really admire Julius Rosenwald, whose investment in schools for African Americans really changed the trajectory of our country in so many ways. It was such an important investment and it was something he did because it was important to him personally. Some of the best philanthropy has come from those who, really humbly, wanted to make an impact, and maybe didn’t realize the importance of it at the time, and it’s only by looking back 50 or 100 years later that we see the impact.

One of the things that I wrestle with is the sense that our experience today is the only experience that matters. We’ve forgotten the past and don’t recognize the importance of thinking about what happens long into the future. I wrestle with, for example, whether it’s better to be a spend-down foundation or a perpetual foundation because who are we to say that we know what all the problems are today? But the flip side is, if we can solve a problem so that somebody tomorrow doesn’t have to, do we have an obligation to do that? These are hairy issues, so I find it fun to think about the people who just wanted to make a difference in their small corner of the world, and then it turned out to be something that was so impactful that we’re still talking about it a hundred years later.

Finally, in my faith tradition, philanthropy is incredibly important, and there’s this thinking about a hierarchy of giving. Anonymous giving is considered the highest form of philanthropy. I suspect that some of my favorite philanthropists are people whose names I don’t even know—they’re people who are just doing good because it’s the right thing to do and I love that. It doesn’t have to be Big-P Philanthropy; oftentimes everyday philanthropy is the most powerful.


How do you spend your free time?

I travel a lot. I love to travel and see the world, and I’m pretty involved with a couple of organizations that work internationally. I started doing CrossFit and I love it—it’s really fun and addictive. I spend a lot of time with my dog, and I garden. Oh, and I have a spouse.  That’s pretty important!