Meet Rick Geswell, CCFA President & CEO

September 11, 2014 at 12:06 pm Leave a comment

As many of you know, I am a big supporter of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA). I am an alumnus of its Take Steps and Team Challenge programs, sat on the board of its Connecticut Chapter, and I am currently helping its New York City and Fairfield/Westchester Chapters develop communications strategies. I believe that they are the organization that has the most amount of clout in the inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) field and has the ability to create the most change and bring us closer to finding a cure for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

I recognize that there is some discontent in the IBD community over how CCFA engages with them. There have definitely been times when I have been unhappy with how they have responded to a certain article, their use of levity about a serious topic (clown shoes in the Escape the Stall campaign), and how slow they are, at times, to jump on the bandwagon with social media campaigns. That being said, with a $70 million budget, they remain the biggest player in the IBD world. Therefore, I believe that, regardless of your personal experiences with CCFA, it is an organization that we all should rely on for the well-being of those with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

I was recently given the opportunity to sit down with Rick Geswell, president and chief executive officer of CCFA, to learn more about him, about CCFA and its initiatives, the future of the organization, and the future of IBD treatment. I will be relaying my interview with him over several blog posts in the near future and to start, here is the first in the series- Meet Rick Geswell.

Disclaimer: The details I am reporting below are directly from Rick Geswell of CCFA and do not represent my personal beliefs (although many are aligned). If you want to know if I agree with something, please feel free to ask me in the comments or email me at caringforcrohns@gmail.com.

The CCFA national offices are located in midtown Manhattan, just blocks from Grand Central Terminal and the United Nations. In what appears to be a luxurious building, the offices are on the 5th floor and are unassuming- you walk in to the logo on the wall and a small reception area immediately to the right but nothing screams excessive or gaudy like some other offices I’ve been to before.

I can say the same about Rick Geswell. I haven’t met him before but I, of course, have heard a lot about him. I was extremely excited to have the opportunity to sit down with him and pick his brain on an array of topics related to inflammatory bowel diseases and CCFA. Rick is very personable, dressed in a suit sitting in a corner office that, while decorated to an extent, isn’t flashy or over the top. We sit down across from each other at a small table and get started after I quickly tell him about my connection to IBD (my husband).

Photo courtesy of CCFA Rick Geswell, center, with two pediatric patients during the Napa to Sonoma Half-Marathon race weekend

Rick Geswell, center, with two pediatric patients during the Napa to Sonoma Half-Marathon race weekend. (Photo courtesy of CCFA)

Rick started at CCFA about eight years ago after stints at other major health nonprofits- the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, March of Dimes, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to name a few.

“I was an interpersonal communications major and a business minor in college. I went into sales after graduation but hated it,” he told me. It was at that time that an adviser of his suggested he look to work for a nonprofit.

“I was told to find something I am passionate about [and work for it],” he said. At the time, his mother had heart bypass surgery and went through a critical point in her recovery, landing her in the Intensive Care Unit. He realized then that he wanted to do something really important with his life.

“I started looking for a job at a nonprofit and when I got my first one with the American Cancer Society, within three months I realized it was the perfect job for me,” Rick said.

Once he made the transition to the nonprofit world, he never regretted it, as he loves the idea of being mission-focused and mission-driven at work.

“It’s an emotional job but it’s important to keep that at bay when hard decisions need to be made about the best way to lead the organization forward,” he said.

For Rick, it’s the volunteer management that he loves the most about working at a nonprofit. “I love the idea of working with volunteers because I believe that groups make better decisions than individuals,” he said.

Each of his jobs taught him something different about working in the nonprofit health agency arena.

“The American Cancer Society taught me about volunteerism. The American Heart Association was really good at staff development- developing young people into [long-term] careers. The March of Dimes was a big family. And the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society was a machine that could raise money faster than you can blink an eye. It was quick and nimble, and could move on a dime,” he said.

While working for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Rick received a call from a headhunter recruiting for the position of CEO of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.

“I did some homework about the organization, interviewed for the position, and hit it off with the Board of Trustees,” he said. However, before he took the position, Rick wanted to learn more about Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis by talking with patients to understand the scope of the diseases and figure out how marketable the organization would be.

“I needed to understand whether the organization itself had the wherewithal to turn around. So I interviewed three patients who gave it to me as straight as they could. I realized then how badly people suffer who have these diseases. All three of the stories were different but equally compelling,” he said.

Rick joined the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America over eight years ago to raise public awareness and money for research of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Rick Geswell (third from left) joined by Ashley O’Connor (third from right) and husband Mike McCready (second from right); Roberto Martinez (far left) and fiance Ali Fedotowsky from The Bachelorette (second from left); and Bob Van Dillen, Meteorologist for HLN’s Morning Express with Robin Meade (far right); at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon in December 2010. (Photo courtesy of CCFA)

“[Since coming into this role,] I’ve tried to take the best of all that I learned [in my other jobs] and use it to help benefit CCFA,” he said.

Rick became personally invested in CCFA quickly after starting- he has a niece and a cousin with Crohn’s disease, and his best friend’s son has ulcerative colitis.

When he began, the number of patients being penetrated by the organization was limited. His goal was to change that, engage and educate more patients, and raise awareness.

“I had to take an organization that was under the radar and try to get it above the radar into a position where it can do really well fundraising and [succeed] on the research side.”

CCFA was founded in 1967 by Irwin M. and Suzanne Rosenthal, William D. and Shelby Modell, and Henry D. Janowitz, M.D. According to Rick, after years of being a founder-run organization, CCFA’s Board of Trustees made a commitment to bring in a chief executive officer to run the business.

“Margins were tight,” he said. “You need to be a good business person to squeeze out net dollars.”

The Board of Trustees is made up of 21 members from across a variety of sectors- business, healthcare, law, and telecommunications- who serve six-year terms providing guidance and oversight to the staff at CCFA. The best part is, while some places struggle to enforce board term limits, the CCFA Board of Trustees is adamant about theirs.

“[The Board Trustees] do their time, give 100 percent, take it to the next level and then [after six years,] we find new people to do it,” Rick said. “No one on the board now was here when I arrived [eight years ago]. I am proud of that.”

After eight years in this position, Rick still feels that the number one priority is helping patients in need.

“I couldn’t be in a better place to help people,” he said. “The nature is such that there aren’t many champions out there working on inflammatory bowel diseases. CCFA’s job is banging the drum until we find people to make a difference for them.”

Stay tuned for more blog posts from my interview with Rick about CCFA, its programs and initiatives, and the future of IBD research and treatment!

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Entry filed under: Advocates, General, Interviews. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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