The Humanitarian Executive
A life of leadership and service—for Brenda Gibson, it’s as simple as connecting the dots between causes and contributors.
By Kurt Dusterberg
Brenda Gibson has a talent for bringing in money. She enjoyed a successful career, first in banking, then later in commercial real estate. But after years of cultivating business skills and contacts, she turned her attention to causes that could use a helping hand.
She has played a role in countless local fundraising campaigns, but two causes are especially close to her heart. She has served on the WakeMed Health and Hospitals Board of Directors for 10 years, chairing it for the last four. Prior to that, she served on the WakeMed Foundation Board for 10 years and chaired that board for four years. Her other passion is Transitions LifeCare (formerly Hospice of Wake County), where she has served in various capacities for 20 years. Her work at Transitions resulted in the administrative building being named the Brenda C. Gibson Community and Education Center. And she’s still going strong, helping people in her community with important contributions that touch people’s lives.
I understand this area has always been home for you.
I grew up on a farm in North Raleigh. My first job was in 1970, when I was 14 and worked as a candy striper at WakeMed. My parents instilled a very strong work ethic in me. My mother grew up in Durham and had always wanted to be a nurse, but couldn’t get her nursing degree because she was working to help her family. She worked at Duke Medical Center for 17 years before moving to Raleigh to marry my dad. That may be where my interest in healthcare and helping others came from.
Your early career started in the business world—with positions at Wachovia, BB&T, and Highwoods, which was led and cofounded by your future husband, Ron Gibson.
After Ron and I were married, I remained at Highwoods until 2003, when I started a commercial real estate consulting business. In March 2016, I joined CBRE as a senior vice president in the brokerage division doing business development.
But you ended up changing the focus of your working life, right?
Since 2003, my life has really switched. I wanted to do more in the nonprofit world, giving back and raising money for different charities. I felt such reward from doing the charity work, and that’s something that was instilled in me young. When I left [my career], I had the freedom that I could do other things. I think it was realizing there is more to life than commercial real estate every day.
You’ve been working on behalf of Transitions LifeCare for 20 years. What kind of work have you been doing?
Most of the time you’re out raising money, so the first thing you’ve got to do is feel good about the organization and support it yourself. I am very proud of the hospice work Transitions does for the members of our community. Their leadership and commitment to people has made me want to be involved. I have served on the board, and worked on the first Capital Campaign, where we built the administrative building and the hospice home on Trinity Road. I co-chaired the second campaign to raise $6 million to add 10 beds to the hospice home. In September of 2017, they named their administrative building for me for all the work I had done for 20 years.
Your other main focus has been WakeMed. Tell me about that.
WakeMed has been an even bigger commitment, and one that I am extremely passionate about. I’ve been on the hospital board for 10 years and chaired it the last four. I co-chaired the campaign to build the first children’s hospital in Wake County. We raised about $20 million. I moved to the hospital board in 2009. It’s a big time commitment, but also very rewarding as I see how well the health system is doing operationally and in serving those in need. WakeMed offers the people of Wake County services not available anywhere else.
It is the only Level I trauma center in Wake County, the only children’s hospital, rehab hospital, and more. We get the sickest patients, the accident victims, a large majority of the behavioral health patients, and we do the majority of the charity care in this community. In May, I will retire from all of my WakeMed responsibilities.
What is the secret to getting commitments for that kind of financial support?
Most people give to a charity they are passionate about or they are experienced with. With Transitions, there are a lot of people who have experienced hospice care in the home or at the hospice home. In 2012, my mother needed hospice care, and I became more passionate about it because I experienced it first- hand. I may meet with community leaders, wealthy individuals, people who can give; usually you want to meet with them face-to-face, especially if you’re asking for a significant gift. I do try to narrow my asking to one charity a year. My husband’s friends would say, “Don’t answer the phone if Brenda calls!”
Why is it so necessary to have people like you and the people whose support you seek?
Because there are huge needs in our community that aren’t being met, and I know there are many in our community who have the ability to give. Having access to healthcare is a huge issue for many in the Triangle area and beyond. Health insurance costs are so high and people who purchase their insurance will sometimes choose a plan with a high deductible, and when they have a healthcare crisis they have a hard time paying that deductible. There are needs for hospice care, and some insurance companies do not have a hospice benefit.
In the last couple of years I helped raise the money to start the first pediatric hospice in the Triangle area. Most children aren’t covered by a hospice benefit. A lot of these programs wouldn’t exist without fundraising. A lot of people think WakeMed is still the county hospital, that we still get money from the county—but we don’t, and haven’t for more than two decades. There are so many services—like a behavior health initiative that I am working on—that we wouldn’t have if it weren’t for philanthropy.
You’re involved with another enterprise that is a success story, both for an individual and for the community.
You and your husband, Ron, opened Marta’s, a luxury women’s boutique, in North Hills. How did this come about?
I shopped with Marta Dziekanowska when she worked in Chapel Hill. I was one of her customers. My husband went to see her to buy me something at Christmas, and he was very impressed with her drive and initiative. She had immigrated here from Poland several years ago, and he just saw a real future with her. She wanted to have her own business, so she manages the store. Marta’s will be open two years on March 1st, but for me, the fun in this is not helping Marta in the store. The interest for me is how I can use Marta’s as a tool to give back. So, we have Marta’s Matters, which takes place on several shopping days each year, and during those events 15 percent of sales are donated to charity. We may have up to 100 people in the store across a four-hour time frame, and we provide the wine and hors d’oeuvres. Women enjoy the shopping experience while we are able to support several charities throughout the year. It is just one way we are able to give back.
The focus at Marta’s is on the lady over 35 who wants to be trendy, comfortable, and stylish. We have clothing and accessories, including handbags and scarves, and we have jewelry. The women who shop in our store love shopping during the charity events, when they know they’re helping a worthwhile cause as well.
What do you do to relax when you’re not raising money?
I have way too much energy. I don’t sleep much. I work out a lot, I do Pilates at least two days a week and try to get in a personal training session or some kickboxing another day or two. I have two yellow Labradors—they are my babies! They get me up about 5 am every morning. I’m in a book club and an investment club. I like to oil paint and actually have a studio at home, but lately that has taken a back burner. I go until at least 10 o’clock every night, always thinking about something. My husband says, “Your mind works too much, you need to calm down. (Laughs) I am extremely organized. That probably helps me the most. I feel great. A lot of that is because I stay so busy and positive-minded; I love helping others, I don’t watch the news, I don’t worry about things out of my control, and I work out. That’s the key.”
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