Myrna Deckert

Times have been tough for non-profits since the country’s economic slowdown, as many have had to meet more needs with fewer resources.

In response, some foundations are expanding their role beyond grant making, looking for ways to help non-profits build capacity and work more efficiently.

In El Paso, the Paso del Norte Health Foundation is still making grants, upwards of $5 million last year, but it’s also intensifying efforts to help local non-profits do things better.

“We can accomplish more through strong leadership than we can through money. We don’t want to be a pocketbook; we want to be a leader,” foundation CEO Myrna Deckert says.

One of the largest private foundations on the U.S.-Mexico border, with net assets totaling $179.6 million, the Paso del Norte Health Foundation was established in 1995 from the sale of the not-for-profit Providence Memorial Hospital. It recently released its 2011 report.

The foundation takes a proactive approach to funding, developing its own goals and conducting assessments to identify the most pressing local needs and where the foundation can help the most.

It then recruits experts to develop the best programs to meet those needs and, later, to evaluate the programs’ effectiveness.

“A good example is we gave out four community garden grants last year, but we’ve hired an evaluator at the University of Texas at El Paso to determine what works best so, if we fund them again, we know the best way to do it,” Deckert says.

Last year, the foundation supported everything from those gardens and sexual health programs to a “Smoke Free” media campaign and a program that gives youth in Juárez and El Paso schools an opportunity to express emotions about the drug violence through art.

The list of non-profits Deckert has worked with and awards she has won won’t fit here, but most recently, Deckert was appointed to the national Council on Foundations.

She is involved with the Paso del Norte Group, MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors, UTEP’s Centennial Commission and Grantmakers for Children Youth and Families in Washington, D.C.

But she is probably best known as the longtime former YWCA director. Over 32 years, Deckert built the local Y into the country’s largest.

She’s tenacious but humble. Asked about the YWCA, she quickly asked not to be credited for its success.

Deckert sat down with El Paso Inc. in her immaculate office atop the Wells Fargo tower and talked about building better non-profits, if she plans to “retire” for a fourth time, and what may be the most dynamic thing the foundation has done since she became CEO.

Q: The foundation’s offices are rather impressive. You’ve got quite the aerial view of the region.

One of our objectives is to bring major national foundations here to El Paso to fund in this region. Many of them fund in other parts of the country, but we haven’t had a lot of national foundations fund here.

Our board chair when we moved here was an architect and he said, “If we are going to do this, let’s do it right and make sure whoever comes into these offices can see the entire region.”

Over there you can see Juárez (points), this is Downtown, of course. You look this way and you see Hudspeth County, look right over there you’ll find UTEP and beyond that is New Mexico.

We convinced Grantmakers for Children Youth and Families to hold their national annual conference here this October, raising $100,000 to bring them here. There will probably be 250 people here during the conference, and we really think that once they put their feet on the ground here, they will begin to see what the potential is of this region and begin to fund here.

Q: I’m surprised national foundations don’t do more work in El Paso. There are so many unmet needs here and not much money locally to meet them.

It’s simply because we are isolated. People know Dallas and Houston. We don’t get a lot of national publicity other than what’s happening in Juárez, so we had to do a lot of fast-talking to get the conference here.

The big foundations just don’t know about us and that is the purpose of recruiting the conference here.

Q: The foundation’s 2011 report is just out. Tell us a little bit about the projects and goals you had for last year.

Well, we focused on five areas. We are working to promote “healthy eating active living” – HEAL is the acronym being used nationally – because of the prevalence of diabetes and obesity here.

The next goal is a smoke-free region, because it is the single most preventable death in the world. This year we are going to focus on both smoking and alcohol control.

The foundation focused on smoking prevention long before I came here, writing with a coalition of other organizations the city ordinance that stopped smoking in public places. It’s now been passed by the state of New Mexico and other smaller communities, and we hope it will be passed by the state of Texas this next legislative session.

Q: Are fewer smoking?

The incidence of smoking since we adopted the ordinance has gone from around 27 percent to 14 percent among adults. Now we are focusing more on kids.

Q: I’ve heard youth smoking is on the rise in some areas.

It is increasing in some ways, and we’re really going to go at this hard. The ads you see on TV that talk about Smoke Free El Paso; all of those are paid for by the foundation. We are doing everything we can. We are focusing on TV channels and radio stations that are watched more by young people and have young people review the ads.

Q: With so much information available now about the dangers of smoking, it surprises me that smoking is increasing among youth. What is driving that?

Tobacco companies and all the kinds of things that are out there now. I mean hookah bars and stuff like that are not exactly where you want your children to be. Then there are electric cigarettes, but they still have tobacco.

Q: The third goal?

We spent the year developing a strategic plan, working with mental health people in the community, and we are just getting ready to kick off a major initiative related to mental health. It is going to be an anti-stigma campaign, because it is one of the things that is really prevalent. We are putting together a major coalition then we will decide on the specific strategies and launch a media campaign related to stigma.

Q: Mental health services have never been El Paso’s strong suit. How would you characterize the availability of mental health services here?


Q: And unfortunately, I imagine demand is only growing with the expansion of Fort Bliss and violence in Juárez.

It is. Of course, Fort Bliss is handling a lot of its own particular problems related to PTSD.

Q: But the Army is referring cases to the community.

They are. And in some cases, families don’t necessarily want to get their services at Fort Bliss just like we may not want to get our services at one particular hospital or another.

Bottom line is there are not sufficient services, but dealing with the whole stigma issue is crucial. Once we get our coalition together, a lot of things will change.

We’ve put a lot of time into this one, taking the whole year just to evaluate the issue. Putting together the coalition is as critical as anything else we do. We don’t just jump out and do something on our own. It is going to take a village to accomplish everything that needs to be done here. Right now, though, it’s really just an embryo waiting to be born.

Q: The fourth goal?

Healthy families and social relationships. The foundation has been working to eliminate teen pregnancy and that sort of thing for a long time. We are broadening that to a degree. A matter of fact, I just read the beginnings of a strategic plan that is going to work in that area. In addition to healthy sexuality, we’re going to launch an out-of-school initiative.

Last year, we launched a program called Safe Places, funding five organizations in Juárez to provide safe places for kids to go. That has led us to look at what we can do for out-of-school youth in El Paso – after school programs, things that will help build assets in youth here.

And the fifth initiative is leadership. I’d like to talk a bit about that. Basically, we’ve decided that we can accomplish more through strong leadership than we can through money. We don’t want to be a pocketbook; we want to be a leader. We feel there is not a lot of capacity when it comes to local non-profits.

Q: What do you mean by that?

There are what, 600 non-profits in this region? But most of them are small. For us to give a $1 million grant to one of them, they’re not capable of handling that. We started a health leadership program. We had 90 nominees and we selected 20. They included deans of colleges and directors of non-profit agencies. We put them through a 15-month program called Realize. It was awesome. We looked all over the country to see if we could buy a program, and we didn’t find anything we felt was satisfactory for this region so we hired a consultant and, with our staff, they developed a curriculum.

Every individual was assigned an executive coach. One of the coaches is coaching executives at Google; the other coaches executives at major corporation around the country.

At the very beginning, every person took a myriad of different kinds of tests – self-evaluations, Myers-Briggs, 360 assessments. We brought in nationally recognized leaders and bought everybody a Kindle with 30 e-books about leadership.

Q: Going to offer another class?

We probably will, but right now the main thing is we’re evaluating its effectiveness. We want to make sure that it is a good program, because it is not an inexpensive program as you can probably tell with the speakers we brought in.

Q: How much did the foundation invest in it?

More than a quarter million dollars.

Q: How much did the foundation spend last year total?

We spent $6 million, counting what we funded and our operations.

Q: The foundation also funded community gardens last year. They seem to be taking root across the country. Michelle Obama even wrote a book on the subject.

Our goal is that they are all over town – that people would begin to grow their own fresh fruits and fresh vegetables. One of the grants was given to an international organization called La Semilla Food Center that is building its capacity here to operate a youth farm and pilot a farm-to-school program. Sierra Vista Growers in the Upper Valley gave them 15 acres and they are doing all kinds of gardening with kids.

Q: You’ve built some very successful non-profits in El Paso, including the YWCA, which is now one of the largest, if not the largest, YWCAs in the nation. What are the keys to running a successful non-profit?

You have to have a board of directors that does not have any self-interest. The board has to focus on the mission of the organization, and, if they don’t, you have to have a board chair and a CEO that is strong enough to keep the board focused.

There are several elements of a good board. It’s important that they plan. If they are not looking forward, if they get all wrapped up in crisis management and micromanaging, it just doesn’t work. We spend a couple of hours here with every new board member. We give them a notebook, we go over exactly what is required of them and we meet with them consistently.

There needs to be a partnership, a real team effort, between the board and the director – a director has got to leave her ego at the door. A board cannot be hand picked by the director, and it really has to be representative of the community. The boards that get into trouble are the ones that are hand picked by the CEO and they just come to meetings to put it on their résumé.

Q: I wonder if sometimes people start a non-profit or join a board with good intentions but don’t realize how much there is to it.

There is not a single thing about running an effective non-profit that is not the same as running a corporation. Every non-profit has to abide by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, every non-profit has to abide by HR laws and do the proper accounting.

Q: What’s the latest on the effort to set up a health information exchange in the region?

It may be the single most dynamic thing this foundation has done since I have been here, because it will have long-term affects on the long-term health of the people in this region. My own husband had a medical problem about a year ago. He had four MRIs. Now that’s ridiculous. If his records had been available electronically, that wouldn’t have had to happen.

Q: What is a health information exchange?

Say you end up in the emergency room. The doctor will request your medical records and they will be sent electronically. Then if you go to another doctor, they can request your records and see what tests were done. We have a committee that is working on all the security that has to be done. People will be able to opt out of the exchange.

Q: How do you set one up?

There are huge companies that provide the technology. We spent the past six or seven months just interviewing companies and decided on the company that will provide the technology for us this past week.

Q: How much money is behind it?

We applied for and got a state grant that has helped support the project. Right now the budget is about $500,000. By the end of the year, it will be well over $1 million.

Q: What’s next for you?

(Laughs) Are you asking me if I am going to retire? As long as I am enjoying what I am doing, I am going to stay right here. People ask me all the time, “When are you going to retire, again.” I’ve “retired” three times now already. One thing I know for sure is I will not retire. I have to be busy and work. I love our community, and I am going to do everything possible to help promote our community.


E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.