For this month’s Board Profile, HCIF was thrilled to interview Natalie Levkovich, CEO of the Health Federation of Philadelphia. Natalie joined the Health Federation in 1984 and has been the Chief Executive since 1987. She also sits on HCIF’s Board of Directors as Vice Chair and leads HCIF’s Strategic Implementation Planning Committee. Her remarkable career that spans decades is fueled by an insatiable love of learning, purpose, and in her own words, a little serendipity.
What are some of the responsibilities in your current role?
I joined the Federation within a year of its founding. My role has really evolved and changed over the intervening decades, as the environment has changed and as we have gained capacity and grown to meet those environmental needs and changes from both a population health standpoint and a healthcare industry/marketplace standpoint. My role used to be somewhat more hands on programmatically but leading the growth and change process, making strategic decisions and strategic relationships and making sure the internal operations keep up with growth and demand are my main current responsibilities.
What drove you to pursue a career in healthcare?
Like a lot of things in life, some things are just accidental. I have related and useful background training, but zero formal training related to healthcare. I’m of a different generation, so things were possible for me that are less likely to occur today for young emerging professionals.
I was interested in health care for a couple of reasons: one is family background—I have a lot of family in medicine. The other reason is related to civil rights and social justice. I believe that access to quality care is one of the core measures of equity in society. I didn’t pursue anything related to healthcare academically, but when the opportunity to join the Health Federation came up, it really brought together a lot of the interests and ideologies that I hold related to social justice with my skills as a hard-wired problem solver. So, the opportunity to join a start up in this space of nonprofit healthcare and to support access to care for undeserved and marginalized communities all came together. The rest, in terms of content, I learned over the last 38 years by doing — by listening, doing, reading, observing, and through critical thinking and exposure. Public health, which I identify as my professional home, has all been acquired through practice.
My academic education was in English Literature and Anthropology, and I consider both to be quite relevant because both provide an exposure to the vast variety of ways in which people live and organize their institutions and practices. Both involve attention, analysis, critical thinking and communication, and all of that is fully employed on a daily basis in my work. My path is somewhat less likely in this generation because we have evolved, for better or for worse, to kind of a knee jerk expectation of formal credentials, so I wouldn’t necessarily advocate reliance on my example of serendipity as a career strategy, but I benefited from it.
What has been your proudest professional achievement?
I am most proud of the and how the relationships and partnerships with other organizations and people are of very longstanding and recurring. Implicit in that is a level of trust, credibility, and integrity that has been established and reinforced. Our product is reliable: we only say we can do what we can do well, we don’t compete with our partners, we support our partners. The same can be said for internal staff— we have very low turnover. We have lots of people with ten plus years of longevity at the Health Federation. I think that our relationship-based culture, reputation, and performance that reflects reliability and integrity are probably the things of which I am most proud. Programmatic systems change and capacity building accomplishments that I have advanced are all enabled by strong relationships.
What is a recent memorable experience you’ve had as a healthcare professional?
The Health Federation is a partner among many in an international project to support the recovery, resilience, and expansion of public health systems in Ukraine. The exciting, rewarding, challenging, overwhelming, and daunting aspects of that make this a very engaging process. The project was originally conceived well before the war in Ukraine and was more focused on Covid and public health emergency response, but now has expanded to include all of the impacts on population health and health systems resulting from the war and it is meaningful on multiple levels. It’s meaningful in terms of contributing to the improvement and better future for another country and population, but it’s also meaningful on a personal professional level. When you do that kind of work, you learn about your own systems and your own skills. What is truly transferrable and what is purely contextual of the experience that you bring to the task? What are the various ways that you have to adapt what you know to a different context whether it be cultural, regulatory, or economic? There is also the exposure to multinational points of view on best practices, so in doing this kind of work there is an opportunity to contribute something meaningful and also to gain something meaningful.
What inspires you?
Purpose. Something that needs doing that I believe I can contribute to.
What is something you’ve learned being a part of the HCIF Board?
Through HCIF, I’ve had a lot more exposure to how health systems operate than I do in my day job, which is really focused much more on primary care, community-based services, and public health issues as opposed to health system operations. Over the years, I’ve also met smart, strategic people on the Board, which is always value added under any circumstances. Some of the programmatic approaches and content of HCIF projects are often unlike what I deal with day to day, but how collaborative work is structured is not new to me. Any exposure to the way other people think or operationalize ideas is always useful and is always an opportunity for learning.
What excites you most about being a member of the HCIF Board?
The opportunity to bring a more community provider-orientated prospective to the discussions. That’s why I was recruited originally for the Board and I have been able to find opportunities to expand that lens. Of course, I am also excited to gain insight into the creative programming that HCIF sponsors.
When you’re not busy working to improve the lives of others, what do you like to do?
I love art and I have nine performing arts subscriptions. I am interested in food as an art form. I am also an avid traveler. I like to travel anywhere, but particularly to places that are not necessarily reflective of a familiar Western culture. Some places that I’ve been, like Southeast Asia or South Africa or Morocco, really expand the lens on culture, history, infrastructure, arts, and interpersonal interactions.
And of course, hanging out with my son and his family when I have the opportunity to visit them in Brooklyn. I have a 7 ½ month old grandson.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I don’t know— I’m an open book. Maybe that I speak Russian! Whatever people don’t know, they can just ask.