Lisa Healy uses corporate skills to steer Catholic Charities

Tracy Haun OwensOur Town Leaders

At the end of her 30 years in corporate America, retiring as an executive with a leading wholesale food distributor, Lisa Healy might have parlayed her experience into a cushy consulting job. She could have started her own business. Or, she could have followed her original plan: retiring with plenty of time for baking, volunteering and enjoying East Tennessee.


Instead, in July 2017, she accepted a position as the chief operating officer of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, one of the area’s largest social-service organizations. Sister Mary Christine Cremin was the executive director, and when she left in December of that year, Healy became interim director. Earlier this spring, Bishop Richard F. Stika named Healy the new executive director.

“It’s awesome to have the opportunity to use your skills and experience to give back,” Healy says.

A graduate of Virginia Tech, she worked her way up the corporate ladder at various places across the country, spending her last four years in that career in Knoxville and making the city her permanent home. With her, she brought her husband of 27 years, Sean, and their son, Joseph (now a nursing student at East Tennessee State University).

“I love it here,” she says. “It’s a friendly town. This is a community that cares,” she adds, full of “smart, giving people.”

Catholic Charities of East Tennessee serves thousands through its varied programs. There is housing for seniors at risk of homelessness through Samaritan House and supportive housing for adults with mental illnesses. There’s a children’s emergency shelter, where children are brought when they are removed from a home during an emergency, such as a death or an arrest. The organization provides counseling for those in need and education for new parents. There is a Crazy Quilt food and clothing bank near Jellico. Catholic Charities also has an Office of Immigrant Services that provides pro bono professional services. Clients in all programs are served without regard to religion or income.

“It’s all built around what the community needs,” Healy says. “We provide help and hope to the most vulnerable.”

Much of what’s needed to run a successful business, she says, is also needed in the nonprofit world: strategic planning, talented people, sound finances and a philosophy of “managing by results.” What is different, she says, is that in corporate America, everyone holds tightly to his or her own turf.

“It’s highly competitive, and the goal is profitability.”

In the nonprofit world, Healy says, collaboration is the norm. “The secret sauce is shared,” she says. “It’s about mission, and the passion for the mission. The community has to make a difference for our neighbors.”

Funding, Healy says, is always the organization’s biggest challenge. Catholic Charities is funded by donations, grants and contracts. Another challenge is figuring out what the community needs and communicating that to donors.

“You have to stay relevant,” she says.

The organization partners with dozens, if not hundreds, of other groups and agencies, including public agencies, to help those in need here.

Rarely is there just one issue to solve, she says. A woman fleeing an abusive home with children in tow, for example, needs shelter but may also need transportation, food, clothes for job interviews, school for the kids and much more. Healy says that’s why her organization always takes a whole-person approach.

“We serve all people in our community, and we serve them where they’re at,” she says. “There are a lot of tough things that happen out there,” Healy says, and her organization helps people transcend those tough things without judgment.

“If you spend all your time judging,” she says, “you have no time for love.”

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