Leadership Interview: Sal Schaefer, Rocky Mountain Health Foundation

Sal Schaefer is a consultant and serves on the board of the Rocky Mountain Health Foundation. She previously served as CEO of Hilltop Community Resources and, before that, as administrator of West Springs Hospital (part of Mind Springs Health). Schaefer also served on the board of the Rocky Mountain Health Plans Foundation. With RMHP’s recent acquisition by UnitedHealthcare, that foundation was converted to the non-profit Rocky Mountain Health Foundation; it officially launched March 1.

The Ascent: Rocky Mountain Health Plans Foundation started as a way to help residents in need of short-term financial support. Will that change, and if so, how?

Schaefer: The new Rocky Mountain Health Foundation is independent of RMHP—it’s owned by the community, and its proceeds go back to the community. So although we are serving as a legacy board of directors, this is a brand-new baby. 

One thing we agreed to, as a board, is that RMHP created a lot of good work and good will here. Now that we’re the recipients of that sweat equity, it’s our responsibility to carry on that good work. 

The former foundation was delighted to offer emergency funds, and we’re still giving out money for that. The process is as simple as a phone call from a social worker, physician practice or home health service who has encountered a situation that’s horrific, and we agree we need to help solve it now. We will keep responding to those calls. We always have been, and still are, seeing about $5,000 a month going to emergency requests. 

The Ascent: How will the work of the new foundation evolve?

Schaefer: There’s no question in our minds that we will continue to focus on community health. But the definition of health has broadened considerably. It used to be about being able to have access to health services from clinics or hospitals, but now it includes social determinants of health, such as poverty, inequity--all those things that cause an individual to have poor health down the line.

We will serve 22 counties on the Western Slope, so our scope is getting wider. That’s a change from what has mostly been a Mesa County presence. We have representation on the board from a few other counties. The majority of the money that’s been generated by RMHP for the foundation has come from Mesa, Delta and Montrose counties, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see most of the grants in those counties. They represent a good chunk of the population, but we’re sensitive to the needs of rural populations: They have to work harder to get problems solved. It will be interesting to see the kinds of things that come our way. 

We’re also spending a lot of time doing our homework to be able to buddy with other foundations. The Colorado Health Foundation has been spending $110,000 a year helping communities get healthier. To the degree we can pool resources, the greater the impact we can make. 

The Ascent: What can you share about the grant-making process going forward?

Schaefer: We’re not yet ready to extend grants, but when we are, we’re going to look to the community to decide what they want to solve. We want to be a catalyst to help and support communities that are already rolling up their sleeves.

Also, we want to make this process as simple as humanly possible. We’ve all felt the effects of onerous grant processes, and we’re not going to make this hard. It could be as simple as asking people to submit a letter of inquiry. Before we ask people to put a lot of energy and resources into writing a grant, we want to give them clear parameters about whether the project will fit the rubric for what the foundation wants to fund. We’re really trying to establish the foundation as a partner with people who want to get something done. It’s not about the money; it’s about community commitment to solve a problem.