Office Doors: A Day with Suzanne Pfister

Posted By on January 8, 2021
Suzanne Pfister, president + CEO of Vitalyst Health Foundation


I get up in the morning and get going. I check emails and hit the ground running. I’m always listening to KJZZ to get the latest news and, in a COVID world, I’ve been working out of my home three to four days a week and in the office a couple of days. In my family, we joke that there is a genetic defect toward community service, including elected office, that goes back generations. I have that genetic defect and serve on a lot of boards. Many of these boards and commissions meet early in the morning, including my service as chair of the Maasai Environmental Research and Conservation Institute in Kenya.


Much of my day is spent either in team meetings with my 12-person staff or working with my 20-member board. It’s been vital during COVID to have many one-on-ones with my team because I believe you cannot communicate enough. Not so much for the information that’s exchanged, but for the camaraderie it builds. We have worked hard as a team to fine-tune how we work as efficiently as possible, how we keep collaborating because that’s one of the things we’re good at, and how we keep up morale. We’ve been inordinately flexible and very intentional in making sure there’s fun and whimsy.

At any given time, I am working to prepare for board and various committee meetings we have throughout the year. There are many moving parts, and I have a very good board that is great at asking how do we do more, how do we think about what we’re doing, and how do we increase focus? We have an operating budget of $5 million and this year, for the second time in the foundation’s 25-year history, the board dipped into the endowment and allocated an additional $1 million for COVID-related relief to community partners around the state.


Pre-COVID, I would lunch with partners, friends or colleagues. Now, I walk our 2-year-old rescue dog, Coco. We flew her here from Puerto Rico with a rescue group that assisted during the hurricane. Coco is black and white, and we think she is a mix of border collie and spaniel. The person who fostered her until she was 9 months old named her Coco Chanel, and we now call her Coco.


I’ve been jokingly referred to as a pollinator because I am someone with many networks from previous jobs and I usually connect people or help people find information. Vitalyst Health Foundation is an organization known for being a catalyst for community health and seen as a convener. We’re smaller than other foundations, but what we do a little bit differently is programmatic work where we coach, serve on committees, provide our own technical expertise, as well as give money. In some cases, technical assistance is more valuable to the nonprofits than money because having those connections, leverage and influence can be very beneficial.

We give very few grants to individual organizations. The foundation has really moved upstream and is now looking at what we call the social determinants of health: how housing is health, how access to healthy foods has health components, and how they intersect with each other. The foundation’s directors and I often give presentations talking about these intersections and helping people understand. We look at those upstream issues that are harder to change but that can really impact a person’s life expectancy and longevity.


Before the pandemic, the foundation was moving down a continuum called trust-based philanthropy. This says I trust you know what you’re doing and will monitor things to ensure we are working together and there’s accountability. It speaks to letting nonprofits use their lived experience and knowledge to be more effective at getting things done. It’s fewer requirements, less reporting and fewer guardrails.

Many nonprofits are still reeling from what’s gone on and the foundation is trying to help them go at the pace they can. We’ve done a lot of listening and co-created grant applications that have been taken to the board. We do a lot of health policy and coalition work. If you want real systems change, you can’t go at it alone, so we’ve come up with technical assistance for keeping a coalition healthy and thriving. This is a different skill set than providing technical assistance, such as board development or fundraising for an individual nonprofit.


In the evening, I am usually with family and friends. I have an active social life and a very good network of colleagues I consider friends, both in the nonprofit and funder communities. For months, my partner and I Zoomed weekly with a group of friends, and now we can see our friends outdoors as well.

I am a landscape photographer by avocation. This began about 16 years ago when I went on my first safari to Kenya. I fell in love with travel and have been all over the world since. I also took photography workshops through Arizona Highways and would now call myself an intermediate photographer. Even though we’ve traveled a lot less this year, my best trip is always the next trip I have planned!

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Karen Werner

About Karen Werner

Karen Werner is the editor of Frontdoors Media. She is a writer, editor and media consultant. She has interned at The New Yorker, worked at Parents Magazine, edited five books and founded several local magazines. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Mental Floss and the Saturday Evening Post.