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Creating a remarkable health experience

Remarkable Leadership: Meet Kenya T. Boswell, Senior Vice President, Community Affairs

Our vision is a world where everyone embraces health. In our Remarkable Leadership series, we talk with people who are making that vision a reality by leading the work to create a new system of health, empower our customers and communities, and better support every individual’s health journey.

“I always say, we’re going to work with the community — with — not just for,” explains Kenya T. Boswell, Highmark Health’s senior vice president of Community Affairs.

Boswell has impressive corporate leadership credentials, but that community-centered mindset runs deep and true. Growing up in a low-income, single-parent household, her first exposure to nonprofits was with the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation (BGC) as a community organizer during college.

“That opened my eyes to so much in my own community, including issues around housing instability,” she says. “I also saw how important grassroots work was — knocking on doors to get community members to come to meetings, so their voices were heard on decisions impacting their community.”

Someone she still considers a mentor helped her see that this was a potential career path, pointing out that she was already leading diverse stakeholders, and was passionate about helping people solve problems. In our interview, she talks more about her career journey, and her team’s strategic framework and Highmark Bright Blue Futures charitable giving and community involvement program.

Kenya T. Boswell

A community-driven leadership journey

Don Bertschman: Your roots are in the community nonprofit world — at what point did you decide that the best way to make an impact was by becoming a corporate leader?

Kenya T. Boswell: At the Carnegie Science Center, I had a mid-level leadership position running a program to get young people interested in STEM-related careers. In addition to leading a team and working with hundreds of students at the height of the program, I also had responsibility for fundraising, and looking at how to measure and report our success. We wanted to be good stewards of our donors’ investments, but also the impact was so important for those young people — many first gen, many in poverty. We eventually had an independent evaluator cite us as a promising practice for youth workforce development.

Then 9/11 happened — and it disrupted what had been very stable funding. That is when I decided, okay, I am dedicated to this work, but there has to be a better way to bring sustainability to organizations like this and drive impact. For some reason, I thought I should be the one to solve that puzzle.

I entered a new Robert Morris University graduate program in nonprofit management and focused on researching how nonprofits can become more sustainable. Specifically, I looked at what could be learned from corporations and the field of cause-related marketing. More corporations were pivoting to “deliver the whole firm” to nonprofit partners. Instead of just giving money, they would provide subject matter experts, marketing and communications, data analytics, whatever support could help the nonprofit have impact. I did my thesis on corporate-community partnerships for nonprofit sustainability, and that was my transition into corporate philanthropy. After the graduate program, I worked at Duquesne Light, and then at BNY Mellon for almost 14 years, ascending to a leadership position with oversight of a global function.

Don Bertschman: From your early days to big programs at BNY Mellon like Pathways and UpPrize to now, are there key principles that have guided your work?

Kenya T. Boswell: If you break it down, the work is being able to identify issues within a community, wrap around all the resources — money is only one element — and then, most importantly, work with the community. We can’t go in with a mindset of we know it all; we are often providing resources to individuals who have been working on the ground for decades. So, with Pathways, we weren’t telling the Department of Health and Human Services what they ought to do for foster care youth. The approach was, you are the experts, what do you see as the gaps, and how can we help fill those gaps?

That ties to another learning: A lot of important innovation is not about the shiny new idea, it’s about finding the right pivot or change for existing models. Some solutions are already there, and it is more about providing a missing piece or making connections to maximize impact.

Going back to my door-knocking days, another learning is you have to meet people where they are and understand their “why.” We can’t just say, hey, here's some training, here’s some jobs, and that’s it. We have to build relationships and understand what resonates.

I also emphasize the importance of defining realistic success. If you think about improving health, running a marathon wouldn’t be a realistic definition of success for most of us, right? It’s similar in community work. I tell my team we’re not going to be afraid of failure — I don’t believe in leading by fear, I believe in leading by learning. But we need to be realistic about what we can deliver, and have a sense of grace with organizations we support. Let’s not set them or ourselves up for failure by defining success in an unrealistic way.

Don Bertschman: What attracted you to Highmark Health?

Kenya T. Boswell: I was in an environment where I could thrive, so I wasn’t looking. When this opportunity presented itself, the reputation of the culture was one factor. There is a high level of support for taking a stance and being innovative — and it’s purposeful, it’s about improving health. Related, for me, was the opportunity to work toward health equity, which is a personal passion.

I’ll add that I knew that Highmark Health was an authentic, charitable organization — but I was surprised to learn just how deep we are in the community, and with partners. We do so much behind the scenes. There is really a belief that the success of Community Affairs is defined by how well we help others reach their goals. That’s external partners and internal partners like colleagues in our health care system, the Enterprise Equity Health Institute, and Social Determinants of Health function.

A “blended state”: Building on a legacy

Don Bertschman: Dan Onorato, chief corporate affairs officer, said that when he joined the organization in 2012, he inherited a long legacy of community involvement, and also saw areas where he felt he could lead improvements. What are you excited about improving?

Kenya T. Boswell: Similar to my point about innovation, I do not believe a leader has to come in and make everything new. Where new leaders typically talk about current state and future state, I’ve been talking about a blended state. We already do very impactful work, so let’s keep that moving forward. Our legacy matters — for more than 75 years, every market we enter, we have delivered our support to the community.

As far as opportunities to go deeper, one is how we are perceived. Yes, we’re known for being charitable. But if somebody asked what we stand for from a community standpoint — how would people answer? Not our mission as an organization, not our business model, not one program or marketing campaign, but what is the overall impact of our community and philanthropy work? The strategic framework and Highmark Bright Blue Futures program we launched in 2022 are about clarifying that.

The legacy and clarity are both important as we continue to grow and enter new markets. In any community we’re new to, we want people to know that Highmark is a good partner, we’re going to focus on the needs of your specific community, and we have 75 years of evidence backing that up.

Don Bertschman: We’re doing a detailed article on Highmark Bright Blue Futures after you publish your inaugural annual report, and people can learn more on your web pages, but can you give us a high-level overview of the strategy?

Kenya T. Boswell: Our framework starts with two strategic pillars. One is Community Health. If someone asks what impact we are trying to make, we are trying to improve health outcomes for everyone. At the most basic level, improving health outcomes is what we stand for — that’s success. From there, we can go deeper into five focus areas for how we do that: increasing access to care; addressing economic instability; connecting social and community resources; supporting access to education, particularly for careers within the health sector; and improving neighborhoods and the built environment.

Since we’re in health care, that all makes sense, right? Our superpower — our unique set of assets — sets us apart. We have leading subject matter experts on everything dealing with health, and that’s part of what we take out to the community to tackle challenges. But we’re also a major employer, and we believe that comes with a social responsibility — not everything links back directly to our business. That's where we have our second strategic pillar: Community and Economic Resilience. Our goal there is improving economic well-being and quality of life as part of a commitment to and investment in communities. Strong local economies, safe neighborhoods, diverse communities, healthy environments — we all have a responsibility for that.

[View MP4]

Hello everyone, and thank you for taking a moment for me to share some very exciting news with you.

At Highmark, we believe in giving back. We always have. We’ve seen first-hand that giving back grows healthy, vibrant communities.

Throughout our history, we’ve partnered with non-profit organizations from across our enterprise in Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, New York, and beyond.

From funding programs and initiatives that align with our mission to encouraging our employees to volunteer whenever possible, we are honored to cultivate partnerships for one common purpose — to make our communities better.

Today, we are introducing the Highmark Bright Blue Futures program. So, what does this mean? Well, this program will help amplify our regions’ giving and volunteering efforts. It helps make our commitment to community, health, and resilience stronger than ever.

The initiatives under this program will directly reflect our key philanthropic pillars: Community Health, and Community and Economic Resilience.

It also means we will continue to make meaningful impacts, like more equitable access to care; improved quality of life; and stronger economic futures.

Great things will come from Bright Blue Futures, and we’re honored to stand with our non-profit partners. Together, we are building stronger, brighter, healthier communities for all.

Thank you.

Highmark Bright Blue Futures: Community. Health. Resilience.

Don Bertschman: Along with that framework, your team developed Highmark Bright Blue Futures to help tie together different charitable giving and community involvement activities. Can you talk about how that took shape?

Kenya T. Boswell: We wanted to create an umbrella platform that conveys our values and what we're trying to achieve, and also, being honest, helps raise awareness in the marketplace about our impact. Where many corporate community programs focus on a specific population or issue, our challenge was that we have a broader approach — we want to improve health outcomes, economic well-being and quality of life…for everyone. It’s not one population, it’s a wide variety of activities and programs, so try coming up with a platform that captures what we stand for, but also has that much flexibility — it felt like mission impossible.

The breakthrough was thinking about the aspiration you can’t measure, and seeing that our work is all about “bright futures.” It’s hard to measure a bright future, yet you know that’s the aspiration. If we accomplish our Community Health goals, then, no matter what demographic you are, you have what you need to improve your health. That’s a brighter future. In our Community and Economic Resilience pillar, if we do our part to create thriving neighborhoods, thriving economies, thriving arts districts — again, that’s a brighter future. We are saying we are with you, we’re by your side. Individual goals and needs may be different, but what we do together is about aspiring to have a bright future.

And then what we stand for is spelled out more specifically in our tagline. I’m very appreciative to the people at our internal agency, Tonic, for getting us to three clear words. Community — we put that first intentionally, that’s why our function exists, to help the community. Health — that is our mission, and again our focus on improving health outcomes. And then resilience — to have a bright future, you need the resilience to weather the inevitable storms.

Don Bertschman: Highmark Bright Blue Futures was introduced in September 2022 — what’s the reaction been like in the first few months?

Kenya T. Boswell: It has really resonated. Being more clear in defining our focus areas helps internal stakeholders see how we tie within the business to some of our community partners, beyond just grants — they can be part of helping individuals improve their health outcomes. We have also seen that, no matter what market, no matter the differences between markets, Highmark Bright Blue Futures resonates. A great example is our New York markets, which are relatively new to the enterprise — they found it easy to utilize this framework, and apply it in a way that was meaningful to their communities and existing partners. The team in Buffalo was extremely excited because they were able to map the great work they were already doing to the framework, and they see opportunities to leverage Highmark’s resources to make an even bigger difference. Across all our regions, the way teams have adopted this truly shows Highmark Bright Blue Futures in action.

I have also had the opportunity to present to various team member groups, and the response again has been overwhelmingly positive. We sometimes take for granted that people understand what Community Affairs does, and the impact we have, and how we can partner with them. As a centralized function we do work closely with many people, but there are other groups where these presentations, and getting this framework, has been both educational and empowering. The whole aspirational piece has resonated — people realize that they can do something, that volunteering, for instance, is a tangible way to help impact somebody's life and give them a chance for a bright future.

Our community advisory boards, which are made up of health plan members and community leaders, also reacted to Highmark Bright Blue Futures with excitement, and a lot of affirmation. The number one piece of feedback was about clarity — that now they have a better idea of what Highmark stands for in the community, a true understanding of what we are trying to achieve, and more importantly, how we can partner and help each other improve outcomes.

Don Bertschman: A unifying platform like Highmark Bright Blue Futures reinforces awareness of the corporation as a whole. How do we balance that with also wanting to keep a local, community-based feel?

Kenya T. Boswell: The work itself has to remain localized, and we’ll continue empowering and equipping local leaders to be responsive to issues in their community. In the blended state, this is one of those things Highmark has done well when entering new markets and we will continue doing it.

Across our footprint, in Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and West Virginia, our team members are experts in community affairs, which is great, but more important, they are experts in their local communities. So our role isn’t to come in and tell them who to partner with, it’s to provide a clear framework and then make sure they have the resources to do their job in their specific community. There is a very long list of local programs we support — News & Sentinel Half-Marathon in West Virginia, PoGoH in Pittsburgh, Fitness on the Field in western New York — and we remain committed to partnering with local organizations throughout our footprint.

If you look at our Community Health strategic pillar, we have five areas that loosely connect to the CDC’s Healthy People 2030 social determinants of health domains. That covers so much that we can do collectively and cohesively, but it also allows us the flexibility to develop local approaches. When you look at Highmark’s portfolio, our legacy, you can see we show up as far as community health and economic resilience whenever needed, wherever partnership opportunities are there, and we let the community need help dictate where we fit best.

Looking ahead: Measuring success

Don Bertschman: With these new foundational pieces in place, how do see Community Affairs and Highmark Bright Blue Futures evolving in the years ahead?

Kenya T. Boswell: We have the framework, the goals and objectives, and the next iteration is coming up with key performance indicators (KPIs). What impacts are we trying to achieve that we can measure over a five-year period? This is something I’ve been interested in throughout my career — we have a responsibility, to internal stakeholders and to the community, to be effective, but how do we measure that?

We’ll work with community partners to do research and benchmarking — we do not want to just pull it from the sky — and define what we intend to achieve, particularly in our community health area, and continue aligning resources with that. Our goal by the end of 2023 is that we have the message perfected, so it is super clear what we stand for, we have our infrastructure in place, and moving into 2024 we are ready to start measuring impact and outcomes beyond what we do now.

One related thing we're working on that I'm excited about — and give the team credit, because this predated me — is a data integration, analysis, visualization and reporting platform that is being developed. This tool will be used by multiple groups within our organization to get meaningful real-time insights on our communities, with the ability to overlay factors like demographic, member, patient, community partnerships and funding information. That means we can get more accurate, specific feedback on whether we are reaching the right populations, whether needs are being met and outcomes are sustained, and whether resources are being invested appropriately. This will really help with decision-making. We want to be held accountable, and to do that we need the proper analysis, measurement and reporting tools and resources.

This year we are also launching a new Highmark Bright Blue Futures community report. This is purely qualitative. You know, even if you provide a clear explanation of areas you focus on, it can be hard for people to understand what that means and what you're achieving unless you also explain the need behind these issues and give tangible examples through qualitative storytelling. This report will help people see and experience what Highmark Bright Blue Futures is by going beyond the numbers and showing the impact on organizations and communities.

Don Bertschman: Stories can be their own kind of measure I think, so I love that you’re focused on improving both qualitative and quantitative approaches, not seeing it as either/or.

Kenya T. Boswell: Both are important, including in shaping how we are perceived in new markets. I will add that when we talk about measurement, it's not about blame or punishment, it's about learning what helps us do our job better. If we are focused on housing stability, people finding quality housing, then it is important to know, one, are we helping individuals who truly need help, and two, is it really quality housing? You have to go deeper than just how much money you gave. Measurement helps us to be better decision makers, hold ourselves accountable, and understand how to truly serve the populations we're trying to serve and improve their lives.

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Highmark Health and its subsidiaries and affiliates comprise a national blended health organization that employs more than 42,000 people and serves millions of Americans across the country.

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