Catherine Freeland, Communications Director for the RECOVER Initiative, is a dynamic healthcare marketing communicator and passionate public health champion. In this episode, she shares how her 15+ years’ experience has shaped her into a lifelong learner who has led communications strategies across the county. She also has the claim to fame of giving our host Dawn Crawford her first gig in nonprofit communications when they both lived in Denver. Listen to this spitfire of a lady who has inspired so many careers.
Catherine brings broad healthcare marketing communications experience and a passion for public health to Vibrent Health. She has more than15 years’ experience leading communications strategy for major academic medical centers in New York City and Denver, Colorado. She most recently served as the communications officer for the All of Us Research Program New York City Consortium. Catherine successfully deployed paid digital and social advertising, outdoor placements, direct mail, email, and SMS campaigns to recruit and retain nearly 26,000 NYC participants across the NYC Consortium. With a strong focus on inclusion for underrepresented communities in biomedical research, Catherine is committed through her work at Vibrent to securing the improved health and vitality of marginalized communities through increased accessibility and equity. Catherine has extensive experience leading institution-wide initiatives including the implementation of content management systems, customer relationship management tools, and digital asset management. Her work in both the public and private sector includes developing and implementing public health campaigns on issues such as child abuse and neglect prevention, smoking cessation, and public health funding. She has experience interfacing with federal, state, and local governments to implement public health campaigns and initiatives. Catherine received her Master’s in Public Health from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. A native of Colorado, Catherine and her family live in Washington Heights in NYC.
Brian Crawford 0:02
Welcome to the Create Good podcast. I’m Brian, and I’m Dawn. And we’ve spent the last decade plus working with passionate communicators activist and do gooders around the country. We also host a conference called Create Good, where we gather folks to share their work, and create a community for people trying to make the world a better place.
Dawn Crawford 0:25
The Create Good podcast is a conversation with changemakers and rabble rousers to find out what makes them tick, and how they create good. Let’s get started.
Well, welcome to this episode of the Create Good podcast. I have somebody who’s definitely shaped my career. I have Catherine with us today. And she was actually my very first boss at my first nonprofit that I worked for, which is the Kempe Children’s Foundation in Denver, Colorado. So thanks for joining us today.
Catherine Freeland 0:57
Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Dawn Crawford 0:59
Yeah. So tell us about your organization you’re currently working for now. And your title.
Catherine Freeland 1:04
So Dawn, you were my first employee, and oh, only gone up from there because I think I was probably the worst manager ever. And I pride myself on being a good manager. And I think it’s because I probably did such a bad job in that first situation. I describe it as I was really prickly, because I was like, Well, you know, I’m 25. And she’s What 22 or something? Yeah, show her that I’m boss. Yeah, I outgrew. So. I am Director of Health Research Communications at a company called Vibrant Health. And we are the health technology partner for the National Institutes of Health, All of Us research program. So the All of Us research program was founded many years ago by Dr. Francis Collins and President Barack Obama, under the Precision Medicine Initiative, and this was the goal to make sure that right medicine, right person, really understanding social determinants of health. So it’s not just what medicines you take, but it’s also where you live, where you work, your lifestyle, cultural impact on your health, and all of those different factors contribute to whether we stay healthy, or we get sick. And so the goal is to enroll a million people into the most diverse cohort ever assembled. And we provide all the technology tools for the All of Us research program.
Dawn Crawford 2:33
Very cool. So your title doesn’t have communications, isn’t it? But you do still touch the communications world a lot,
Catherine Freeland 2:39
actually. Director of Health Research, communication.
Dawn Crawford 2:43
Oh, there it does have it in there.
Catherine Freeland 2:46
Like I did take a breath, because it’s such a long title. Yeah. Yeah. Interesting. Yeah. All I do every day is public health communication.
Dawn Crawford 2:56
Okay, cool. Very, very cool. Great. Okay, so we’re gonna get into the bulk of our questions. So first off, how many years have you been in nonprofit communications now.
Catherine Freeland 3:07
So really, I’ve I’ve really only worked in nonprofit communications in some way, shape, or form. So whether it was with a public affairs firm, while it was a for profit, we were doing public health, we were doing public health and public good work. I’ve worked in academic medicine for almost 20 years, and now I’m at a for profit. But again, our mission is so focused on making sure that we’re we’re driving innovation and equity in health care.
Dawn Crawford 3:39
Okay, so in 90 seconds or less, tell us about your career and your path and how you’ve got here.
Catherine Freeland 3:46
The through-line is public health. And whether I was doing lobbying at the Colorado of state capitol are running political campaigns for doing issue advertising for tobacco cessation or child abuse prevention, where we work together or trying to get additional funding for public education for medical schools to what I’m doing now is always had public health as a key focal point. And it’s really sort of revolved around health care, medicine, medical schools, research and driving health care.
Dawn Crawford 4:29
Interesting, very cool. Very cool. But you have you have your master’s degree that you completed, correct towards your master’s degree.
Catherine Freeland 4:36
Awesome. Midlife crisis. So instead of cheating on my, my husband, I went and got my master’s in public health. Yeah, at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, which I received free tuition and was able to do that it was a full it was a Executive Master’s program. I was with the same cohort for 24 months. And we met from Thursday through Sunday, 24 months and once a month for 24 months. And I had colleagues from Poland, from Houston. from Emory, Atlanta, I mean, people came from all over the country. And they are, to this day, some of my closest friends.
Dawn Crawford 5:22
That was a longtime dream that right for you to get your master’s degree and it was something you felt like you needed, right?
Catherine Freeland 5:28
Yeah, because if you’ll remember, I started off in theater, which obviously, is not for profit, married to theater professional, there’s just not a lot of money there. Right. It’s really not about the money. But I, I’ve always, you know, been interested in communications and, and healthcare and starting off in theater, and then I really wanted to prove to myself that I could get that master’s degree, a bonafide master’s degree, and thought about doing an MBA in healthcare marketing and then realized I really wanted to do something bigger. And that’s why public health,
Dawn Crawford 6:09
yeah, perfect. Okay, so why nonprofits why this work?
Catherine Freeland 6:15
Um, I think I could sell anything. If I put my mind to it. I fall in love with ideas, and I get so enthusiastic. I don’t like this term, but I’m referred to, as you know, a cheerleader. And I’m definitely a promoter when I fall in love with an idea. And so, for me, it just feels a lot better to put that passion and energy and sort of natural key strength towards a mission. And that is really where you’re, I think nonprofits.
Dawn Crawford 6:46
Excellent. So what’s your favorite thing about what you do?
Catherine Freeland 6:53
Connecting the Dots. I love coming in assessing a situation. And all of a sudden, it’s like, the roadmap just shows for me. And then it’s my challenge to try to communicate that vision, or to move people in the direction that I think we need to go measure it, continually iterate, and just move things forward.
Dawn Crawford 7:17
Great. Magic wand time, what’s one thing that you wish you could change about your professional life?
Catherine Freeland 7:26
I wish I had all the time and the money to go get my doctorate. I love learning. I just got to, you know, I got addicted as a as an adult learner, balancing kids and marriage and elderly parents and work and school. It just was so invigorating, and my mind felt 20 years younger. Just being in that in that world. So I’d love to be able to keep learning. Interesting, very interesting. In a formal way. Obviously, I’m always reading and things like
Dawn Crawford 8:00
that. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So what’s one thing you’re looking forward to the next year?
Catherine Freeland 8:05
To starting another position.
Dawn Crawford 8:08
Catherine Freeland 8:10
I’m going to be heading up the communications for the Recover program, which is long COVID. And I’m so excited to start something from scratch, and work nationally on this really important initiative. So I’m excited about, you know, taking all that I’ve learned over the past 27 years and putting it towards this initiative that will have tremendous impact, both long term and short term on people who are suffering from long COVID.
Dawn Crawford 8:38
Interesting. So is that within your current company, or is that a new organization?
Catherine Freeland 8:42
I’m actually going to New York University. Okay. So they are the lead coordinating center. So I’m finishing up it Vibrant.
Dawn Crawford 8:53
That’s interesting. Yeah, that it’s such a, it’s such a very well funded arena for a long time. That’ll be it’d be so fascinating what happens. I think that’s, that’s the hardest thing about COVID right now is I think people thought it was going to end. And in public health, we all knew it wasn’t going to end. We’re like, Oh, it’s just a new cause of death. I’m so yeah, that it’s not gonna go away. And how do we live with this? And what does that mean for people and creating, yeah, better lives through this new problem that we have.
Catherine Freeland 9:24
Right. And it’s interesting, there was this article in the Washington Post a couple weeks ago about similarities between Long COVID brain fog, chemo brain and Alzheimer’s and my mom has Alzheimer’s and just to say, Oh, we now have an understanding of long COVID brain fog. We now have an understanding, you know, about chemo brain we know about Alzheimer’s and just to have those definitions will enable us to hopefully move all of those diseases.
Dawn Crawford 9:59
Yes. Oh, absolutely. It’s been
Catherine Freeland 10:02
treatment of diseases. Yes, the treatment?
Dawn Crawford 10:05
Yes, absolutely. Yeah. And I think that’s, I, I’m so thankful that this infusion of cash into COVID is helping us discover so many things. Yeah, about Alzheimer’s and diabetes and heart disease and all these other things that, yeah, that even just inflammation drugs, right of helping people deal with daily inflammation and how that could help so many people too. So I think it’s it’s amazing that this money, yeah, is doing so good. And there’s only so many trails from this money from COVID money that people don’t understand or be able to appreciate.
Catherine Freeland 10:39
Yeah, and, you know, I love medical research, because it is it seems to be and obviously, it really changed during COVID. But it seemed that medical research was the one thing that people could agree on, Republicans, Democrats, both House and Senate, that there was this uniform desire to advance our understanding. And you’re just given that there’s so much vitriol in the world, that it’s it’s lovely to be a part of something and of course, it became very politicized. Yeah. COVID. But I’m optimistic that that decision makers long term will really take this as a lesson that we all suffer from illnesses and ailments, or family members do or loved ones. And this is so important for us to continue to infuse funding, and do good work.
Dawn Crawford 11:31
Absolutely. Yeah. Okay, so you’ve achieved a lot, you’ve definitely leapfrogged your way to more and more responsibility. So what do you feel like you still need to achieve.
Catherine Freeland 11:40
So I had a couple of goals, I’m not quite 50. And I had a couple of goals. And you know, I want the big fancy titles. But I also would love to start my own agency. And I really admire what you have done with your company, I just don’t know if the guts to do it. And you know, as a mom, and you know, what you’ve been able to do, through good and through bad you make it. So I would love to have my own agency, I’d love to bring really smart people that I love together, and go and solve lots of different problems. I get super passionate about my, you know, different issues. Like if I’m in child abuse prevention, I’m super passionate about that. And if I’m in tobacco cessation, I’m really passionate about that. And there are just so many issues and causes that I think deserve adequate time and airtime that I’d love to bring really smart people together to solve problems. And maybe more rapidly than you could do in a specific job.
Dawn Crawford 12:40
Yes, yeah. That is definitely the agency world. Yeah. i My job is to produce a product, right. And so we drive towards completion all the time. Because yeah, like, yeah, that was what I had been asked to do. So yeah, I think I do agree that consultants and agencies and that sort of does accelerate because the clock is ticking. Right. And with an employee you like, another year, what’s that? You know? So that’s
Catherine Freeland 13:06
also, you know, you have outcomes. So it’s like the product, but it’s also it’s not just product, it’s not just, you know, a pretty presentation is outcomes. And I love that, you know, I don’t like doing work for work saying, Yeah, I love work that’s meaningful. And so I really admire that about you.
Dawn Crawford 13:24
Yeah, yeah, it’s been, it’s been a fun thing. I think. I mean, my biggest advice on any of that, when people are thinking about how to go into business for yourself, is that really, your only barrier is health insurance. And you just live into it, right? Like, it’s the one thing that everybody’s like, but what about health insurance? And I’m like, Well, right now, it’s better than it’s been before. So you know, and it’s terrifying. And we live six months at a time, right? So we know for the next six months, we’re okay. And so it really kind of shortens your, your outlook, but it’s great, it’s fun, you know, and you get to get to impact so many different issues, and make such a difference. And you really do feel like you get to change the world. Because every day you talk to five different people about how they’re changing the world. So it’s pretty great stuff. So thinking of that, what’s your advice for somebody who’s starting out in their career, as I started out my career with you? And then also, or somebody who’s transitioning into nonprofit life, what’s your advice for them to have a successful career?
Catherine Freeland 14:27
Okay, I’d say this for anything is find the thing that you love. And the thing that you don’t even feel like is work and as a parent of a kid who’s about to go to college. You know, that’s your only wish is that you find work that just feels like fun and joy and whether that’s truly accounting, God love the people who love accounting, or, you know, I think that our society needs really talented, capable people in mission focused organizations. Like nonprofits and just painting that thing that that makes you sing and makes you just work to all of your talents, and maybe minimizes the things that that you’re not as good at. Right?
Dawn Crawford 15:15
Absolutely. Okay. So the next section is around feedback, it’s around receiving feedback on your ideas on your work is not necessarily giving person like, personnel feedback, or like, annual feedback. But this is more about because I think communicators, we have ample opportunity to receive review, right? And how we have to express your ideas to people all the time. So, you know, how do you personally process feedback and criticism on your work?
Catherine Freeland 15:44
So I’m probably my harshest critic. And so I’m always ruminating on what I could do differently or better. And so what really is helpful for me is really direct feedback. And, you know, maybe it’s because I’m from the West, but I like things being very straightforward, articulate, succinct, and, and actionable. Right. And so that’s really important to me, if someone’s sort of futzing around or putting too many superlatives, or something in the description. It’s like, let’s just strip this down. Because that clarity is just so incredibly important, not only in communications, but also in feedback
Dawn Crawford 16:27
I do wonder, yeah, if it’s, if it’s a communicator thing, or a Western thing that’s an interesting thing for me to explore with people is their regional kind of upbringing. And if it does change, how they like to receive feedback, that’s interesting. It’s interesting idea. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this, that’d be interesting.
Catherine Freeland 16:44
And I’ve been in New York for you know, almost nine years. Yeah, people now who countered me are saying, Oh, you’re a New Yorker. And I’m like, I am not a New Yorker. I’m from the west. Yeah. It’s just, we are just straight. And it’s not a Midwestern, you know, sort of passive aggressive, whatever. Yeah. And it’s not a New York or, you know, fuck you. It’s, it’s just like, let’s be direct, let’s be honest. Let’s move things forward. Let’s raise that barn and, you know, go harvest the crops or whatever.
Dawn Crawford 17:13
Yeah, get her done, man. Absolutely. Um, so how do you like to receive feedback? And how do you communicate that to your team?
Catherine Freeland 17:23
Again, really direct. Yeah, I love direct feedback in terms of my team. I, I’m very open with them and candid, and I hope that they are with me as well. And so just articulating. When I feel like things are going well, and being very specific, and saying, I think this is really on track, and you handle this really well, or, Hey, let’s debrief on this particular presentation, or the way that this was messaged, and think through how I could do it differently, or they could, so I think it’s always touching base, someone described it as like the old timey radio as you’re driving through like an old town. And like, you have a radio station and all of a sudden, you’re like, oh, I don’t know what we use station anymore. And you gotta tune it in. It’s just, you’re never done. You’re always driving across the country and turning that radio dial.
Dawn Crawford 18:14
Wow. Just thinking about like, what age will understand that reference? Maybe here, maybe
Catherine Freeland 18:19
Brian can get rid of that. I’m sorry.
Dawn Crawford 18:31
I love it though. No, I think it’s funny. I was just like trying to it’s that’s the thing about communications right is like you have to constantly think about how are we going to people going to interpret it and be able to relate to that? That’s so amazing that it’s funny. No, I love it. That staying I love it. Because yeah, I think yeah, it’s important though. It’s a pointless I was just trying to think of like, how else would you tell that story though? That’s funny, right? Like, I know, it’s like what you like when you’re self curating your Instagram account, because you don’t get enough likes on
Catherine Freeland 19:02
like, Oh, I just love the idea. I guess I’ve done way too many road trips, you know, growing up in the West. Yeah, like six hours together the damn state. So, you know, you’re like, constantly having to adjust that radio dial. So okay, yeah, really old now. And I’m gonna hang up.
Dawn Crawford 19:20
Okay, um, so what style of feedback does not work for you? Um,
Catherine Freeland 19:25
Abuse. Okay, unfortunately, I’ve had that. I hope I’ve never given that. Although Dawn would be the the judge of that.
Dawn Crawford 19:36
First, maybe the first and last. No, I don’t remember any specific but I do remember a specific feedback from our executive director that was probably misplaced.
Catherine Freeland 19:45
That one will have to happen in another podcast. But yeah, I mean, I think that sometimes, abuse is sort of concealed as constructive feedback. And the older I get, the more I realize, Oh, I’m not going to tolerate that. So I love feedback. I love making myself better. I love making my team better and striving for more. But again, there’s this really fine line where it’s actually not so fine. But there’s a lot of people cross that line. And especially when you’re talking about, you know, Ivy League institutions or New York City, or fast paced, it’s like it’s not okay.
Dawn Crawford 20:34
Absolutely. Next couple of questions around burnout around, and also just how you keep coming back. Right. So yeah, you’re juggling a lot, you know, and especially when you were getting your master’s degree, without being able to just pause your life. Yeah. So how do you how do you avoid burnout? How do you keep going?
Catherine Freeland 20:54
For me, it’s just continually finding new things. I really hate doing repetitive things. I love starting new things, setting up the systems, the policies, you know, the vision, and then going on to the next thing. So I’m just maintaining, I’m going to be burned out pretty damn fast. And so the way I really do it is take on a new challenge. And so it’s really the term of leaning in or digging in to say, what’s the new opportunity, challenge obstacle that we’re going to overcome? And it’s just like digging in and figuring it out.
Dawn Crawford 21:33
Yeah, absolutely. So what makes you come back to work every day?
Catherine Freeland 21:37
Again, it doesn’t feel like work most the time. Of course, there are times when you have to fire somebody or it’s you totally blew something and you got to just fess up to it. But for the most part work should not feel like work and I’m really lucky to have built a career that feels that way.
Dawn Crawford 21:59
very cool. Okay. These are rapid fire questions. So you should be giving a just one answer. This is more James Lipton in the you know, actor studio style questions. What’s your favorite word?
Catherine Freeland 22:13
Dawn Crawford 22:15
What’s your least favorite word?
Catherine Freeland 22:17
I’m good. That’s what my kids always say. I’m good. Like, no, no, thank you. Not. Whatever. It’s I’m good.
Dawn Crawford 22:26
Oh, that’s funny. What’s your personal nonprofit cause, passion
Catherine Freeland 22:31
equity in health care?
Dawn Crawford 22:32
What nonprofit cause gets too much attention?
Catherine Freeland 22:36
None of them. Oh, you’re so kind.
Dawn Crawford 22:40
What’s your favorite curse word?
Catherine Freeland 22:42
They’re so good to kill. But it’s flaming.
Dawn Crawford 22:48
Okay, there we go. Very good. Okay. What profession other than your own? Would you like to try?
Catherine Freeland 22:53
Oh, my God, so many. I’d love to be a real estate agent. I think that would be so much fun. I’m always like fantasizing about going and like, I don’t know, being a trash collector for a day or like working at a pharmacy for a day. I don’t know. I just think it’s like fascinating think what other people’s other people do.
Dawn Crawford 23:12
It was a reality show with Paris Hilton. And yes, yes. There. They tried. They’re
Catherine Freeland 23:17
like God, I think I’d be a little more capable than Paris Hilton.
Dawn Crawford 23:21
May be. But I remember. Yeah, Nicole, Richie and Paris Hilton. And they did a show where they like tried on different jobs.
Catherine Freeland 23:27
I’m sorry. So that shows your age that you’re talking
Dawn Crawford 23:31
to probably probably. Okay. And then what nonprofit professional organization would you like to hear on this podcast?
Catherine Freeland 23:41
Partners in Health? Okay. Paul Farmer just recently passed. And he has done so much remarkable work globally, in terms of public health, and, you know, losing that leader, I’m just really interested to see how they’re surviving. Because I really believe strong leadership is tied should not be tied to an individual. Right? Yeah. Because like, I should leave Vibrant Health and everything should be going well, because that’s a sign of a leader. Right? We should be replaceable. And he was just such a dynamic, brilliant it man who inspired so many. It’ll be interesting to see how they do.
Dawn Crawford 24:21
That’s cool. Very cool. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. And also thank you for giving me my first chance at nonprofit communications. Certainly cutting my teeth at Kempe was a huge thing and learning so much about child abuse was interesting at age 22 so much with all the things but it really did set me up for this career of service and caring and truly having you as a leader and that position was huge. And having Yeah, a young spitfire lady that was you know, doing it and doing it well was huge for me so thank you so much.
Catherine Freeland 24:58
And wearing bright lipstick very well
Dawn Crawford 25:03
Yeah, but thank you so much. And thank you for Yeah, contributing to the sector and just continuing to kick ass. So thank you,
Catherine Freeland 25:12
baby girl, you too.
Dawn Crawford 25:14
Well, thank you for everybody who’s listening out there, and have a great rest of your day.
Thank you for listening. If you want to get all the new episodes sent to you as we release them, subscribe on your favorite podcast app. And until then, keep creating good.