Who likes asking people for money? Not everybody, but Dennece Knight does. She’s very good at it, and she’s been at it in one way or another for about 30 years.
After 13 years as executive director of the University Medical Center Foundation, Knight will be retiring Friday, June 7, from that position and as executive director of El Paso Children’s Foundation.
She and her 10-member staff do double duty, serving in the same positions for two foundations that are separate but equal nonprofit corporations.
Knight, 66, helped restart the dormant UMC foundation in 2006 to support the 394-bed county hospital and then formed the Children’s Foundation after voters approved the $120-million addition of a 122-bed Children’s Hospital at UMC in 2007.
Both facilities are academic teaching hospitals for Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso and the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine.
Knight and her staff have raised more than $30 million, of which about $18 million has gone to Children’s and $7 million to UMC.
Foundation money goes for new medical equipment, amenities, art and family care grants to help cover big expenses, such as a poor family having to take a child out of town for treatment not available in El Paso.
“You can’t turn a corner in his hospital, and I say that very humbly, without going past something that the foundation funded or helped make happen,” she said.
Knight has been married for 15 years to Brian Kennedy, CEO of the El Paso County Coliseum and the El Paso Sports Commission that oversees it.
Before the hospital foundations, she was raising money for causes and candidates, as well as running political campaigns.
Her successes included the elections of former county commissioner and county judge Pat O’Rourke, former councilwoman and mayor Susie Azar in the 1980s, and the 1979 county jail bond election.
El Paso Inc.’s interview with Knight began with a brief tour of the hospitals. The first stop was the Enchanted Forest, an indoor jungle playground serving both hospitals that boisterous kids were thoroughly enjoying.
“We fought for this,” she said. “At the time, Children’s was a very fast-moving construction project and getting it was hard because they didn’t want to stop for anything. It was going to be a waiting room.
“We were lucky to work out the funding. Anyone who bought a ticket at the Coliseum or Ticketmaster helped fund it.”
The conversation resumed in the wig room beside the infusion center for cancer patients. It was established by the family of Marcy Aboud, who died of breast cancer in 2008. Wigs line the walls, and the chairs are comfortable.
“People get to take a free wig with them, which is very important if you’re going through this,” Knight said. “It’s used constantly.”
Q: How would you compare the state of medical care in El Paso today to 2006? That was when you began, right?
Well, I started the campaign at that time – the feasibility study for Children’s. Then, there were 19 pediatric subspecialists, which was nothing. Many specialties were not represented at all and many had only one, which meant they were on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Eventually, we just wore them out. So they went someplace where there was beach and water instead of just beach.
Today, we have quadrupled the number of pediatric specialists in El Paso. So if you’re that parent who, without that specialist would be driving to Fort Worth or trying to scrape it together to get on a plane or not able make the trip at all, you have more options in El Paso.
It’s the difference between the right physician and the right answers at the right time.
Q: Tell us about yourself, how you got here and your first big job?
First big job or first job? My first job I was the Easter Bunny at Bassett Center. I am from San Angelo, originally. We moved here when I was 11. My father was transferred here with the company he worked for in 1963.
Q: What was the first thing you did when you got into the world of employment – after the Easter Bunny gig.
I ran health spas. The early adopter, they were Jack LaLanne’s Spas. I sold spa memberships and, at one point, I gave six different exercise classes a day.
Q: Now you’re on the other end of a long career, why are you retiring?
When I started, my initial job was to coordinate feasibility and a three-week campaign for children. That evolved into establishing a foundation from scratch. So in 13 years, we’ve been through some ups and downs, but I’ve been here to see the Children’s Hospital come out on the other side.
An amicable relationship exists between the two hospitals to the extent that they are strategizing together for the future. So I think it’s a good time.
Q: What are you going to do next?
I’m going to do a lot more of everything I love.
Q: What do you love doing?
I cook, I entertain and I love gardening. I have a real passion for what I think is a lack of connection with nature in our society. One of the books that I’m reading is about nature deficit disorder. It’s called “The Last Child in the Woods.” That’s something that I really do have a kind of passion for.
Q: Have most of your efforts at UMC been on behalf of El Paso Children’s Hospital?
There are two foundations, the UMC Foundation and the El Paso Children’s Foundation. We’ve raised more for Children’s. People open their hearts very easily to sick children.
On the UMC side, our efforts are dedicated more toward the science of it and the progress and the impact. Both hospitals are academic teaching institutions, so a lot of different benefits come from them.
UMC serves one out of two El Pasoans, and Children’s is just on the verge of breaking 110,000 unique patients in the seven years they’ve been open. That’s almost one out of every two children. That’s a lot of impact for the donor dollar.
Q: It seems like it would be harder to raise money for a taxing entity, even if it is a hospital.
It’s not, honestly. UMC returns probably four times more in uncompensated care than they receive from the taxpayers. So there’s a great return on investment even there. So thank you for the taxes on your house every year.
All those medical centers that you see in other cities – Fort Worth, Houston, Denver, anywhere – they all started just like ours. There’s very good reason to support this hospital. In fact, just about every reason to support it because besides just helping people, you’re also creating jobs and secondary industries and it’s a real economic driver for the community.
I mean, do you care about education? Well, we have medical education. Do you care about research? We have research. Do care about jobs? We certainly provide jobs. There’s 3,000 or more at Texas Tech, 3,000 at UMC and another 600 at Children’s. It’s a huge economic driver for the community.
Q: How much have you raised for Children’s and UMC?
It’s $12 million to $15 million for Children’s and $7 million to $8 million for UMC.
Q: Where has the money gone?
We get requests from different departments for what their needs are, and that’s weighted based on the money we have and whether we can find it with a direct ask or a grant.
Predominantly, we ask for things like medical equipment and program support – family care grants, a little bit of research, and we funded a tremendous amount of medical equipment.
Q: In the early days of Children’s, I recall the first CEO saying a children’s hospital needs its own independent fundraising foundation to succeed. He was adamant about that and said it was going to be particularly hard for El Paso because of the economy and lack of major corporate donors. Has it been?
I’ve seen this hospital through its evolution, and it gets easier every day because they are more and more stable and have created some amazing programs. They are one out of 170 National Cancer Institute certified children’s oncology groups in the United States.
They’ve created a maxillofacial program that is getting children referred to from all over the United States. These guys are amazing in terms of what they do. There’s a great diabetes education program that’s been certified. Children’s is a Level 4 NICU (neonatal intensive care unit).
They really have their land legs. The number of people they are serving, I think it’s 110,000 unique patients, just tells you about the immense need and how underserved we are.
Q: But don’t the major children’s hospitals get the benefit of huge donations?
They’ve also been around, many of them, about 100 years. So I’ll talk to you then.
Q: You’re saying this one is on the same road they are?
Yes, definitely. I feel very positive about the future of both hospitals.
Q: What does UMC have that donations made possible?
There’s the Advanced Center for Gastroenterology. It is something that we contributed a large amount of equipment to.
That’s part of the story of medicine. It constantly advances. That’s one of the great things about it – it’s not static.
We funded this infusion center through a dedicated gift and the boutique. The Scherr Legate law firm put its name on the trauma center and emergency department – a $1 million gift.
Q: Asking for money is hard, and you’ve made a career out of fundraising. Some people are good at it. Some people, like me, are horrible. What does it take to be good at it?
At the core, it means looking at this piece of equipment or looking at this need that helps a stroke victim or something else that helps. Did your father die of a stroke? Did your mother have heart disease? Does a family member have diabetes?
There’s not a health issue that doesn’t cross our doorstep. And so, there is something that can be made real for you about a mission that you care about as a potential donor.
It’s my belief that there are real strides that can be made and that it can be matched with something that’s important to you.
Q: So making the ask was really never difficult for you.
No. I get to ask and you get to say no, and then I get to ask again.
Q: Do you keep going back to the same people if they said no?
Some people have a problem with this, but many people who give will give many times. And they’ll give to both institutions. The benefit of having an open heart is it’s genuinely felt by people who do that.
Q: Have you thought about consulting or teaching other people the ins and outs of what you do?
You know, one of the things that I’ve particularly enjoyed over these years is my own team that I was able to develop.
They are sharpshooters, every one of them. Watching them evolve and watching them grow to what they do has been one of the joys of what I do. And sharing whatever knowledge you have is always important.
Q: Who is your team?
Anna Aleman, who was formerly at FEMAP. She is a major gifts person. I have Miriam Flores who runs events and conferences, and I have Carolyn Williams. I have a grant writer, Teresa McGlone, who is a grant writer extraordinaire.
Then, Children’s Miracle Network is under us and Alexa Velasquez and Veronica Lucero-Drennan. We inherited that Children’s Miracle Network at about $106,000, and it’s grown to almost $1 million.
We also have our own volunteer program. If you’re a volunteer at the hospital, you’ve got to commit to 100 hours, go through the background checks and drug test, and it’s like getting a job.
Q: Who are the largest donors to Children’s?
There’s been multiple million-dollar donors. The Hunt Family Foundation is a million-dollar donor and the Davidson Foundation out of Midland is a million-dollar donor. Pat Gordon, the El Paso attorney, gave a million dollars for the neonatal intensive care unit and Southwest University gave a million and is committed for some additional dollars beyond that.
Q: You took Children’s Miracle Network to nearly a million. Would you talk about what the CMN does and some of the big items that the fundraising has made possible?
Children’s Miracle Network dollars are undesignated dollars. So it’s for the area of greatest need.
They have funded beds and many other things. There are five pages full. It’s a tremendous amount of equipment that they have funded.