In July, Dr. Kern Wildenthal, the former head of UT Southwestern and current president of the philanthropic arm of the Children’s Medical Foundation, will retire. His replacement is hardly a slouch: Brent Christopher, the former head of the Communities Foundation of Texas, will begin immediately after Wildenthal steps down. He hopes to bring to Children’s the same success he’s overseen at the Communities Foundation, which will have doubled its assets since his arrival in 2005.
Below, D Healthcare Daily media partner David Johnson with KRLD-FM spoke to Christopher as part of his CEO Spotlight feature. It’s been edited for length and clarity.
David Johnson: You doubled the assets at the Communities Foundation.
Brent Christopher: $1.1 billion is the asset base at the Communities Foundation of Texas. I wish I could claim credit for all that. Thankfully there’s a great team of people at Communities Foundation of Texas who are still there, working closely with a lot of donors. That’s individuals, and it’s families, and it’s companies all across this region who work through CFT and all that support is still very solid and all in place.
Johnson: You worked at Children’s before, right?
Christopher: I did. I was at Children’s from 2002 to 2005, really during the last capital campaign there. They called it the We Promise campaign and it was related to some capital expansion happening at Children’s in the early 2000’s. But I’ve been at Communities now for the last 11 years and frankly did not expect there would be this opportunity to switch gears and go back to Children’s. But it’s a huge privilege that this door has opened up and in conjunction with Dr. Wildenthal’s retirement. But I tell you, there’s nothing more intimidating then the thought of having to come along after Wildenthal and even attempt to keep pace with what he’s accomplished.
Johnson: Children’s has got to be a vastly different organization than it was over 11 years ago when you left. I was over there during the holidays and had no idea the reach of Children’s.
Christopher: The reach of Children’s has grown substantially since I was there in person. I’ve been able to keep up with it from a distance, of course, watching what has happened. But now, being able to see first hand what that growth means, it’s really an awe-inspiring thing.
Children’s, of course, has two major hospitals in the area. There’s Children’s Medical Center of Dallas that people are familiar with. And there’s also Children’s Medical Center Plano that many people are familiar with too. There’s also a network, though, of healthcare clinics all across this region. There’s a lot of work that Children’s is doing to effect what they refer to as population health. Looking at issues like diabetes, and asthma, and significant pediatric issues like that that they can influence and prove outside the walls of the hospital.
And most importantly maybe, there’s a new Children’s Research Institute that is leading the way and helping to discover new cures, new remedies, new treatments for pediatric health care that’s all happening in laboratories that are on Harry Hines, developed in conjunction between Children’s and UT Southwestern.
Johnson: I feel like this would be a pretty easy sell to the community. There’s something unique about this area and corporate involvement, support in the arts and giving.
Christopher: Absolutely. Charitable giving is an incredibly strong thread in the fabric of this North Texas community. I think back to what Richard Fisher used to say, the immediate past head of the Dallas Fed, he called Dallas “the American capital of philanthropy.” I know Rob Kaplan agrees with that even now.
And there’s something special and unique to the way people want to invest back and give back in the community that they call home here all across the Dallas-Fort Worth region. If you look at the statistics about what cities in the United States are the most generous, not looking just at the raw dollars that are given but giving as a percentage of people’s income, Dallas Fort Worth is consistently in the top ten of the most generous cities anywhere in the United States based on what people give away out of what they earn.
Johnson: It’s rare that you meet a native of Dallas. They’re all from other places. You’d think it’s very unusual (this desire to give).
Christopher: Well, it’s interesting you ask it that way because I think one of the big drivers in the local charitable giving climate has to do with the entrepreneurial spirit in Dallas-Fort Worth, that is also kind of unique and special.
There’s so many people who, whether they’ve grown up in Dallas or they’re drawn to Dallas from some other part of the country or some other part of the world, there’s a strong entrepreneurial culture here that attracts people who want to roll up their sleeves and make big things happen. That’s true in their business lives.
It’s also true in the ways that they look at the community where they live and how they want to get involved. These are people who understand what it means to have someone lend a hand back to you, give you an opportunity to help you get a leg up, and then prove yourself and to make the most out of the resources that you’ve been given and what you have to work with. And I think that value translates into the willingness and sometimes maybe even the duty that people feel here, I think, to want to give back.
Johnson: Is this the kind of thing that gets passed on?
Christopher: Kids definitely learn it from their parents. And in fact, at Communities Foundation of Texas, there’s a program there called Give Wisely that helps individuals within families look at what they’re philanthropic legacy is within that family, how they should be apart of that, and what sort of priorities they have around the difference they want to make in the community.
But within that context of family philanthropy we also do a lot of consulting directly with families as they’re looking at sort of the multigenerational transfer of values maybe from grandparents down to the next generation. Maybe all the way down to grandchildren, looking at the things that are important in that family and how to train the younger generations that are coming along.
But, you know, a lot of wealth in Dallas Fort Worth is that entrepreneurial wealth. And a lot of the folks that CFT works with are self-made folks who don’t have a lot of inherited wealth. And they’re the first generation that’s really been looking at how philanthropy can make a big difference. That’s a significant piece of what goes on in Dallas Fort Worth and the folks that are apart of the CFT world.
Johnson: You start in July?
Christopher: That’s right. So give me a little time to wrap up. I’ll be at Community Foundations of Texas through the end of this fiscal year, that’s June 30th. And then after Dr. Wildenthal retires at Children’s Medical Center Foundation, I’ll be headed over there at the end of July.