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Serving, Learning, and Leading: Lessons from Three Health Plan Foundation Presidents

The three major not-for-profit health plan foundations in the state of Massachusetts are led by dynamic women. In addition to being mission-driven executives, the threeNora Moreno Cargie, Karen Voci, and Audrey Sheltoare friends who champion each other’s careers. They are servant leaders who listen, learn, and truly engage with constituentsthey see leadership as a privilege. To achieve their goals as leaders of their foundations, they engage with stakeholders across the spectrumin the community and within community-based organizations, in the political and legislative realms, and in the corporate and philanthropic spheres.

Serving, Learning, and Leading: Lessons from Three Health Plan Foundation Presidents Serving, Learning, and Leading: Lessons from Three Health Plan Foundation Presidents Serving, Learning, and Leading: Lessons from Three Health Plan Foundation Presidents
Nora Moreno Cargie Karen Voci Audrey Shelto

As president of the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, Nora Moreno Cargie is known for her honesty, directness, and willingness to take charge. That said, she is keenly aware that leading doesn’t mean having all the right answers. “The best ideas usually come from the people whose lives are directly impacted by an issue or problem,” she says. “That’s why it is so important for leaders to listen and pay attention to those they serve.”

The second leader in the foundation’s history, she is also vice president of Corporate Citizenship for the Tufts Health Plan (and served previously in a similar capacity with Boeing). She has held key roles in education and politics in Chicago, giving her a broad background for her current work. As a servant leader, Moreno Cargie’s focus is, appropriately, on the underserved. Today, this means a deliberate dedication to the aging and at-risk seniors.

Seeking new solutions to entrenched problems means taking risks, then measuring outcomes and moving on if something isn’t working. This includes shifting resources if need be. “You can’t be stagnant,” she says. “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson,” she adds. “It’s not always about winning, it’s about learning.”

Karen Voci, president of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, has spent a career in philanthropy, starting as a grants reviewer and transitioning into roles of increasing authority and influence. Always passionate about matters of health equity, she views her current role as a unique opportunity to support healthy communities at the regional level. The foundation awarded more than $2.3 million in grants to more than 900 nonprofits in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in 2017.

Voci is also a VP of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, managing corporate sponsorships and corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting. Like Moreno Cargie, Voci does not pretend to have all the answers. Leadership for her involves creativity and collaboration with stakeholders, providing them options. “It’s all about lifting people up and giving them opportunities,” she says. An example is helping to start and secure capital for community gardens in New England, the Healthy Food Fund in Massachusetts, and previously the Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island, all focused on promoting healthy families. Minimizing childhood obesity is a particular focus. Children who are overweight are not so because of their behavior, she says. “They’re overweight because they are living in an environment that doesn’t support healthy choices.” Providing such an environment means working with families as well as teachers, soccer coaches, scout leaders, and others to address each facet of a child’s life.

Though the mother of two sons, Voci is passionate about inspiring young women and serves on the board of Big Sister Association of Greater Boston. She counsels younger professionals that there is no magic formula for career or leadership success. “Just put one foot in front of another,” she says. “Success does not come overnight but rather through being committed to issues that you are passionate about.”

Audrey Shelto, president of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, figured out early in her career what she was passionate about: supporting low-income and vulnerable individuals and populations. As the head of the foundation, she leads its strategic aims of broadening healthcare coverage and lowering barriers to care through grants, research, and the promotion of fair and equitable health policy. As interim president in 2005, Shelto guided the Roadmap to Coverage initiative that resulted in the state’s universal healthcare law. Understanding the critical link between good policies and social progress, she has also held such roles as executive director for the Boston Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Health Care and COO of Neighborhood Health Plan.

Shelto was driven early in her career by proving to herself that she was capable of high levels of leadership. The first in her family to go to college, her initial interactions with elected officials and key donors required her to convince herself that she belonged. She has stayed humble, leveraging the close relationships she has developed through the years with community members as well as public and private sector leaders. “You don’t need to be the most educated person in the room” to lead, she notes. Hard work, authenticity, passion, and a desire to have a real impact in one’s professional life are more important.

She is a collaborator, a “convener,” she says. “I spend a lot of time learning what others are doing and being respectful of what others have done; I don’t come in and provide direction without understanding that first.”

As with the two other health plan foundation leaders, Shelto appreciates her position as a shepherd of the funds and resources needed to drive mission-oriented organizations. She is intellectually focused on where her foundation investscurrently, toward greater access to behavioral healthcare and to services that address the social determinants of health such as food stability and housingwith a desire to measure successes and reallocate accordingly.  

Nora Moreno Cargie, Karen Voci, and Audrey Shelto rely on each other. They have a standing meeting each month, though they talk more frequently and recently connected at a health conference in Chicago. They even squeezed in a showing of the musical Hamilton. Moved by the theme of revolution, these leaders know that, in the nonprofit world, success comes from relationships, a willingness to serve others, and “not throwing away your shot.” 

Serving, Learning, and Leading: Lessons from Three Health Plan Foundation PresidentsJulie A. Rosen is leader of the Not-for-Profit Practice as well as a consultant within the Healthcare Practice of the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. Based in the firm’s Boston office, Julie identifies C-suite and other senior leaders on behalf of hospitals, health systems, philanthropic and charitable foundations, social service organizations, national and international member associations, and other leading not-for-profits.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice Nonprofit leadership Leadership Attributes Women in Nonprofits Leadership Skills Female Nonprofit Leaders