Celebrating five years with Cory Sbarbaro: ‘Learning from and alongside this team has been a remarkable gift’

Dec 7, 2022

Until Feb. 1, 2023, we were Group Health Foundation. This post was written under our former identity. To learn more about our new name, read our announcement HERE.

From left: Former Group Health Cooperative trustee and Current GHF Board Member Sue Byington, Executive Vice President Cory Sbarbaro, President and CEO Nichole June Maher, and Research Director Emma Noyes gather in Bingen for a recent board of directors meeting.

Up until 2017, Cory Sbarbaro didn’t stay at one place for too long, but that was simply part of the job as “interim CEO.” For 16 years, Cory worked as a leadership and organizational change consultant and served as the short-term executive leader for nine different nonprofit organizations in the Pacific Northwest. During this time, he also provided counsel to more than 100 boards of directors, guided dozens of organizations through complex transitions, and supported the development of hundreds of nonprofit professionals as the lead instructor for both the nonprofit management certificate program and the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute at the University of Washington.

This specialized expertise was why Cory was called upon years ago by a group of Group Health Cooperative trustees who had a long road of complex organizational transitions ahead of them. First, there was the acquisition of the cooperative by another nonprofit health system, Kaiser Permanente. Then there was the process of forming a new, independent 501(c)(4) foundation with the proceeds from Kaiser’s acquisition.

“When the trustees first called me, I hadn’t quite grasped the significance of what the foundation could do for Washington communities,” Cory recalls. “I had just completed a very intense interim CEO assignment and I almost said, ‘I’m not sure I can help.’”

It started out as a consulting assignment to help the trustees think through what it meant to “stand up” the foundation, and then evolved into another interim position: this time, as the acting president and CEO for the newly formed Group Health Foundation. Cory played a central role in supporting a small group of cooperative trustees as they established the governance framework for the foundation, clarified the foundation’s values, and recruited a racially and geographically diverse board who would steward GHF’s early work and hire its inaugural president and CEO. He also created the foundation’s operational systems and infrastructure and established a set of human resources practices that would, he hoped, enable the foundation to recruit and support exceptional team members.

So, when President and CEO Nichole June Maher came on board in 2018 and eventually asked Cory to stay on to oversee operations, his response this time around was unequivocal. “I was excited about Nichole’s leadership, and the foundation’s deep commitment to learning and centering communities. It took me five minutes to make that decision,” he says.

As the executive leading the foundation’s operations over the last five years, Cory has nearly done it all. He set up GHF’s communications, finance, human resources, technology, and legal functions and brought on early team members to lead the work. Fondly known among his colleagues as being “obsessed with details,” Cory also oversees the contracts and operations for GHF’s offices, including the newly opened Pasco location.

Cory, left, takes a selfie with Human Resources Manager Mitchell Chen, center, and Human Resources Director Dion Asbury, right, during a team retreat in Seattle last year.

And, in GHF’s start-up years, he could be found with tools in hand putting together office furniture or fixing the communal refrigerator. Cory admits that perhaps some of his early choices were “penny wise and pound foolish,” but he is plenty proud of other decisions he took part in that have made a lasting impact on the foundation as it grew and evolved.

One was the foundation’s approach to recruiting, hiring, and onboarding. Every job applicant receives frequent communication about their status in the process. Candidates have ample opportunities to get to know team members and explore how their values align with the foundation. The HR team, under Cory’s leadership, regularly explores opportunities to implement more equitable hiring practices.

“It takes time and constant iteration to ‘get it right,’ but we keep moving closer to a model that really centers and respects candidates and helps us find people who match our aspirations for who we want to be as a team,” shares Cory. “We have a group of exceptional team members who value relationships and share a commitment to our core values. Learning from and alongside this group of people has been a remarkable gift.”

Most of all, Cory is proud to be part of the very early chapters of GHF’s story. “The most remarkable thing about the early unfolding of this organization is how a series of events led us to where we are today: unapologetically focused on equity, justice, and community power,” he says.

The series of events included the decision by the Group Health Cooperative board of trustees to make Group Health Foundation a 501(c)(4) grantmaking organization, which would allow grant recipients greater flexibility to pursue a wider range of advocacy, power-building, and political work. There was the decision to make GHF a statewide foundation, serving every region in Washington. There was also a series of discussions that moved the trustees to see the potential of taking a broad and comprehensive view of health—greatly expanding the type of work the foundation would support to advance community wellbeing.

“Any number of decisions along the way could have resulted in a more conventional approach to philanthropy and taken us down a more cautious or moderate path,” Cory says. “Thankfully, this didn’t happen. It was a joy to witness, and an honor to be a part of the inaugural conversations about how we wanted to support nonprofit leaders and advance community aspirations.”

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