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A legacy of giving back: Q&A with Chelsea Johnson, director of community relations

BlueCross 75 years

As a mission-driven company, BlueCross recognizes we have a responsibility to give back to the people and communities we serve, and we demonstrate our commitment through charitable giving and volunteerism.

This year, we’re celebrating our 75th anniversary, and we’re looking back at the ways we’ve supported Tennessee communities throughout the years. We sat down with Chelsea Johnson, director of community relations, to chat about how our philanthropic mission began, how it has evolved over the years and how we’re facing today’s unique challenges.

Where does BlueCross charitable giving come from?

Chelsea: We sometimes get asked by members if their premiums are paying for our charitable work. But our projects aren’t funded from current business revenues. We have three primary ways we give back. The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation and the BlueCross Community Trust provide grants for funding, while our TeamBlue volunteers provide hands-on support for partner organizations.

When were the BlueCross Community Trust and BlueCross Foundation established?

Chelsea: The Community Trust was established in 1999 and began distributing sponsorship funds in 2000. The BlueCross Foundation was established in 2003 and began distributing grant funding in 2005. Together, the trust and foundation have distributed around $100 million in grants since 2005. 

In 2018, the BlueCross Foundation announced a major shift in focus with the launch of the BlueCross Healthy Place Program. Can you explain the program and what led to this shift? 

Chelsea: The BlueCross Healthy Place Program is designed to provide communities across Tennessee with free, public spaces where neighbors can come together to connect with one another and enjoy healthy activity. The spaces include features like playgrounds, sports fields, pavilions and splash pads. Each BlueCross Healthy Place is designed to be accessible for individuals with mobility needs and residents of all ages.

After many years of supporting work throughout Tennessee with a variety of community partners, our board of directors asked the foundation staff to assess where funding had been invested and the true impact of that support on improving health in Tennessee.

We developed a workgroup that included a few board members and senior leaders from BlueCross. We quickly determined that a signature cause would allow us to focus our investment into a particular area of need. After about 10 months of work, we identified creating active community spaces as the cause we wanted to pursue, and BlueCross Healthy Places was born.

Give us an update on the program. How many projects are there currently, and how are they moving along?

Chelsea: Currently, there are seven projects in various stages of completion across the state:

We recognize that it’s important for communities to practice social distancing to help curb the spread of COVID-19, but we hope that when restrictions are lifted, these BlueCross Healthy Places will provide much-needed spaces for them to gather.

What do BlueCross Healthy Places mean to the communities where they’re built? What kind of feedback are you getting from residents?

Alton and Karlisa Cryer

Chelsea: Residents have been sharing with us how much having a BlueCross Healthy Place in their community means to them. From providing a safe place to get exercise to increasing neighborhood pride, these spaces are changing the landscape of communities across Tennessee.

One particular story comes to mind. We learned about a young couple, Alton and Karlisa Cryer, in Memphis. They were expecting their first child, and they chose to move to the Whitehaven area to invest in the community.

We asked Alton about the BlueCross Healthy Place, and he told us, “We are blessed to have this space – it’s a much-needed resource for our community. BlueCross kickstarted something with this investment. It’s going to be a source of pride for our community for years to come.”

What about the Community Trust? How much does it provide annually, and what kinds of organizations does it support?

Chelsea: The BlueCross Community Trust is a separate philanthropic arm that distributes between $400,000 and $500,000  in support to non-profit partners throughout Tennessee each year. Our partners typically use these funds to sponsor special events aimed at fundraising and raising awareness for various causes.

The trust focuses its giving in four main areas:

  • Charitable care
  • Youth development
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Chronic disease management

How does an organization request funding from BlueCross?

Chelsea: We collect funding requests through our online portal. The Community Trust accepts submissions twice annually – May 1 for funding in the second half of the current year, and November 1 for funding in the first half of the following year.

The BlueCross Foundation sponsors a request for proposals (RFP) for BlueCross Healthy Place grants August 1-31 each year. 

This year, in celebration of the company’s 75th anniversary, we’re taking a special approach to project proposals that we’re really excited about — we’re funding 10 projects at $750,000 each.

Additional information and guidelines for applying will be available on in July ahead of the RFP launch.

Anyone interested in applying for funding, either from the trust or the foundation, can get more information on the company’s website.

TeamBlue employee volunteers give thousands of hours each year to causes and organizations that matter to them. How did BlueCross become involved in volunteerism across the state, and how has our participation grown over the years?

Chelsea: It’s fitting that most of our employees live and work in Tennessee – the Volunteer State – because they’re so giving of their time and talents. For more than a decade now, our community relations team has helped coordinate special events and opportunities for our employees to give back. In the early days, that meant one day in each region for us to support organizations like children’s homes or sponsor events like park clean-ups.

As interest grew, we realized we needed to offer more opportunities throughout the year for both individuals and teams. So, our leadership team decided to offer our employees the chance to formally volunteer during business hours, as long as they had approval from their managers.

What started as one formal day a year has now turned into hundreds of volunteer opportunities across the state that allow our employees to offer support to a wide variety of causes and needs.

With each passing year, we receive more and more feedback about how the TeamBlue volunteer program helps our employees come to BlueCross in the first place or why it’s a primary reason they plan to stay. It’s a unique way for our workforce to give back – and it helps them to know they have the company’s support.

How do you all find community partners for volunteer opportunities?

Chelsea: We always want to make sure we offer volunteer opportunities that our employees are passionate about, so each year, we ask them to share the causes and organizations that are the most important to them. This also helps us ensure there are a variety of opportunities in a variety of locations throughout the year. We also work to provide opportunities at a variety of dates and times so employees can find things that fit with their schedules – whether the choose to volunteer during the workday or not. 

Typically, if an organization reaches out with a funding request, we realize there is probably also a need for volunteers. If the funding request is for an event, we can offer extra hands to help them reduce costs.

Sometimes, we’ll have a special request come in for a team event for our employees, and we’ll gauge the organization’s interest in accommodating a group of volunteers.

COVID-19 has changed the way we do a lot of things. How has it affected our giving and our volunteering? What has your team done to adapt to the situation? Are you seeing an increased need for funding or other kinds of support?

Chelsea: Many of our community partners have had to cancel events and in-person volunteer opportunities while social distancing is necessary. In order to continue offering support, we’ve moved to virtual volunteer opportunities. For example, we’ve had employees join a phone bank to call and check in on senior citizens under quarantine. We’ve also created motivational videos for hospital patients, and employees have recorded themselves reading stories for local students.

On the funding side, requests have shifted to being more for programmatic support than for specific events. We’re continuing to consider all requests and working to ensure we make the biggest impact possible in support of our neighbors. 

Thanks so much, Chelsea. That’s a really interesting behind-the-scenes look at how you and your team help guide our company’s philanthropic efforts. Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Chelsea: I’m so proud to work for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. Our company makes giving back to our communities a priority, and I’m proud to play a role in bringing extra support to our neighbors across the state.

About Amanda Haskew, Senior Communications Specialist

A photo of the authorAmanda joined the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team in 2017. Born and raised in Chattanooga, she has a decade of experience in writing for print and the web, as well as digital marketing.

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