Tracy Yellen

A group of prominent El Pasoans has formed a new public charity to raise money and grow the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, the largest private foundation in El Paso and one of the largest foundations on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The new public charity, called the Paso del Norte Foundation, was established earlier this year to support the similarly named Paso del Norte Health Foundation, which was founded in El Paso in 1995 from the proceeds of the sale of Providence Hospital.

The health foundation now has more than $200 million in assets and supports everything from community gardens to sexual health programs in the region and is probably best best known for its “Smoke Free” media campaign.

Yet the region’s health needs still far exceed the health foundation’s resources, and the foundation is not equipped to do fundraising, which is why the new charity was formed, says longtime non-profit executive Tracy Yellen, who began work as the charity’s first executive director in August.

The charity is small – Yellen is its only employee so far – but it has big ambitions and plans to grow. As if to make the point, Yellen’s business cards are printed on seed packets filled with tiny wildflower seeds.

There are some big names behind the new charity. The founding board of the Paso del Norte Foundation includes El Paso businessmen Woody Hunt, Bob Skov and Bob Hoy, as well as lawyer Allan Goldfarb and CPA Carolyn Mora.

The board is chaired by Sandra Sanchez Almanzán, director of outreach and fulfillment for Fannie Mae in El Paso.

The new charity will lead fundraising efforts and channel money into the Paso del Norte Health Foundation in support of its mission, but it will also support economic development, education and quality of life initiatives in the region.

Yellen, 43, grew up in New Jersey. Her father worked for an international company, and Yellen attended high school in England.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she played basketball. Her husband, Steve Yellen, played basketball at the University of Texas at El Paso under coach Don Haskins from 1977 to 1981.

The couple met while volunteering at the Sun Bowl about 20 years ago, shortly after Tracy moved to El Paso to work on border environmental issues. They now have two kids, ages 10 and 13.

Years ago, it was Myrna Deckert, CEO of the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, who first recruited Yellen into the non-profit world. Back when Deckert was CEO of the YWCA in El Paso, she hired Yellen as development director.

Yellen later served as campaign director for the World YWCA Global Campaign, raising a permanent endowment fund for leadership development of women worldwide.

Most recently, Yellen was managing partner of MJD & Associates, an El Paso-based company that provides management and fundraising consulting services to non-profits.

She was also CEO of the Foundation for the Diocese of El Paso, a position she had held since 2006. Then a fledgling organization, it now has assets of almost $12 million and raises about $3 million a year for the ministries of the diocese.

Yellen sat down with El Paso Inc. in her new office on the 19th floor of the Wells Fargo building in Downtown and talked about her vision for the new charity and why the health foundation needs another foundation to fundraise for it.

Q: I know it’s not an unusual arrangement necessarily, but why does a foundation need another foundation to support it? Why can’t the Paso del Norte Health Foundation just go out and do the fundraising itself?

The health foundation is a private foundation, and donors don’t get the same tax benefits contributing to a private foundation as they do to a public charity.

The health foundation is not set up as a fundraising organization. Their job isn’t to do fundraising and expand their resources. They were set up as a private foundation to distribute resources according to their mission.

So they set up a public charity that is in the business of raising money, to be able to accept gifts and provide the tax benefits to donors. We are also better able to win grants and government funds.

Q: What is the Paso del Norte Foundation?

It was established this year to advance the mission of the health foundation. Why? That’s the big question, right?

The health foundation has a great track record of success. It started in 1995 from the proceeds of the sale of Providence Hospital to Tenet Corporation. That provided the initial corpus of $130 million.

The board at that time decided that they needed to use those dollars to support prevention, because there was very little being spent on prevention at the time, even though the return on investment for prevention is so much greater than treatment and cure. So they were very focused on activities that would help people be healthier.

There are so many examples. One is the Smoke Free El Paso initiative. They helped write the policy that made El Paso one of the first smoke-free cities, and smoking has gone from 24 percent to 13 percent.

Q: And now people are ‘vaping’ with these new electronic cigarettes, and hookah has become more popular with the younger crowd.

Yeah. The work certainly isn’t finished.

Another successful program they had was called CATCH to improve nutrition in schools and to improve physical education. They found the kids in that program became healthier and fitter.

So the point is it is working, and the next step then is to help the health foundation do more. So why does a $200-million foundation need additional resources?

The needs of our community related to health, as well as economic development, education and quality of life, are much greater than even the health foundation can provide for. It gets 5 to 10 more requests from non-profits for funding than it can provide each year.

There’s a lot more work to be done, and so we are hoping to bring additional resources to the table. That may come in the form of contributions from individuals, families, corporations and foundations. It may be government funding that we can bring to the community. It may be in areas outside of health – economic development, education or quality of life.

Q: So you would support the health foundation but your mission could be broader.

It could be broader because there are so many factors that contribute to health. We want to be open to those possibilities, and donors may have certain passions and desires that they’d like to fulfill.

Q: What is your vision for the new charity? How much do you imagine raising?

If we could bring in – you know, fundraisers never like to name specific numbers unless they are going to have a campaign because you always want to reach it – but if we could build another corpus of $100 million over the next decade, that would be a big success. The needs are great.

Q: How much is the health foundation giving out each year these days?

It’s about $10 million a year. That depends on the market. They give away 5 percent based on the prior year’s assets.

The health foundation started with $130 million. And in the 18 years since, they’ve distributed $130 million in grants to all their various partners and their corpus has grown to more than $200 million.

Q: Although it sounds counterintuitive, I’ve heard it said that giving away money is at least as hard as fundraising. And that’s really what the health foundation does, conducting assessments to identify the most pressing local health needs then recruiting experts to develop programs to meet those needs.

That’s the other benefit of this partnership: that we’ll also be able to benefit from the grant-making expertise of the health foundation. So while we may be very good at raising and managing contributions, we’ll also be able to rely on their expertise granting money, particularly in the health arena.

Q: How is the new charitable foundation related to the health foundation?

At least half of our board is made up of board members of the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, so we have a very close working relationship. They will also provide the back-end administrative support to our office.

We don’t have to hire a CFO and accounting support and payroll; we’ll contract with the health foundation to provide those services to us.

We’ll also benefit from their investment expertise. So instead of creating a separate investment infrastructure, we’ll also use the investment system that’s in place at the health foundation.

As we get donations, we will give them to the health foundation’s investment advisors and they will manage those.

Q: Do gifts made to the new charitable foundation just get passed along to the health foundation then?

As we receive funds that are dedicated to the mission of the health foundation, we will give those to the health foundation. If we have gifts that come in for other purposes, then we will have an allocations process to make those distributions – it could be for scholarships or initiatives to improve the quality of life here. Donors may also designate gifts for certain purposes. So they may have a charity they want to support and they set up a fund for that charity.

We are more than health. We’re here to support the health foundation, but we can do things beyond health.

Q: Who is paying your salary?

We’re initially funded by the health foundation. So they’ve given a small grant to our foundation to cover our startup costs. I imagine that will happen for a few years and then eventually our corpus will grow large enough for us to be self-sustaining, knowing that we are going to be able to keep our costs down because of our ongoing relationship with the health foundation.

Q: What is your budget now?

We have an initial budget of $150,000 for 2013, and we have gifts already at about $100,000. All of them have been for the health foundation’s work. We expect to grow pretty fast.

Q: How big is your staff now?

We have a staff of one.

Q: I take it that’s you.

Just me for now, and of course the support we get from the health foundation. I feel like the guy from Verizon, you know those commercials, where he has “the network” behind him – he’s standing there with a crowd of people standing behind him. It’s one person, but the health foundation is helping with a lot.

We’ll have another employee next year. We want to be very careful, and be very frugal with the resources we have. I am a big believer… working at the YWCA, you’re trained to be as frugal as possible and stretch the dollars.

The other big thing we would like to do is leverage charitable giving in the community in general. So I would expect to provide matching funds in the future to organizations so they can then inspire giving. We are not here to compete with non-profits and their fundraising efforts but to add to what they are doing.

Q: You said you loved your job as CEO of the Foundation for the Diocese of El Paso. What interested you in this position?

It’s a great challenge. I love this work, foundation work, and the fact that we can address such a big issue like health in our community, but we can also do more. We have a lot of flexibility to define what “more” will be – improving the economy, providing more scholarships to students, contributing to quality of life in our community.

It’s been fun working Downtown. I’ve not worked Downtown before, and it seems like it is really taking off. I had lunch at a food truck my first week here, you know. It’s great.


Contact reporter Robert Gray at or call (915) 534-4422 ext.105.