Denise Hyater ’98: Fighting Cancer, Saving Lives
By Ann Pauley
Denise Hyater ’98 began working for the National Capital Region of the American Cancer Society just two months after the tragedy of September 11. She was senior vice president for marketing and corporate communications and she had a big challenge: people were making donations to organizations that were helping the victims of September 11, and nonprofit organizations, including the American Cancer Society, were experiencing a decline in contributions and a decline in interest in their causes. “We had to convince people that we still needed their support,” she recalls.
Fast forward to spring 2009. Hyater is now the executive director of the National Capital Region of the American Cancer Society and the downturn in the economy presents similar challenges to her organization. “Cancer research is still needed,” she says. “We still have a huge battle ahead of us. We still need volunteers to transport patients. We still need to raise money to fight cancer.”
Hyater embraces these challenges. She has been engaged in marketing and communications around health care issues for more than 20 years. She worked in the health care group of several public relations agencies and was the director of education and communications for the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the largest nonprofit agency in Washington, D.C., serving people with HIV and AIDS. She is recognized for creating innovative health education and social marketing strategies that have yielded positive behavioral changes. After joining the American Cancer Society in 2001, she became executive director of the National Capital Region in 2004.
The American Cancer Society, established in 1913, is a nation-wide, community-based, voluntary health organization dedicated to eliminating cancer as a major health problem by preventing cancer, saving lives and diminishing suffering from cancer through research, education, advocacy and service. The national organization raises millions of dollars for cancer research, provides extensive resources on every type of cancer on its web site (www.cancer.org), and operates a toll-free call center that provides information to cancer patients and their caregivers, 24 hours a day, seven days a week (800-227-2345).
For Hyater, working at the local level, her focus is to “make the American Cancer Society the number one resource for anyone with a cancer diagnosis, or who is a caregiver. People know our brand, but people also need to know what we do.”
That focus translates into managing a staff of 30 in three offices, coordinating more than 3,000 volunteers, and serving thousands of cancer patients, caregivers and survivors annually in Washington, D.C., and surrounding counties in Maryland and Virginia. For example, staff and volunteers ensure that: wigs, turbans, bras and prosthesis are available when women need them; the medical community partners with the Society by providing state of the art cancer information and services on breast, prostate and colon cancer; and, that corporate volunteers have an opportunity demonstrate their leadership and value by providing worksite health promotion to their workforce. Volunteers provide cancer patients with transportation to chemotherapy treatments – which can mean two to three trips a week for several weeks. Together, staff and volunteers coordinate fundraising events throughout the year – a gala in the fall, several major golf tournaments, and walks called Relay for Life. Under Hyater’s leadership, the National Capital Region annually raises more than $7 million for cancer research.In spite of the size and scope of the American Cancer Society, the organization is also effective in providing one-on-one support to cancer patients: “Volunteers who are cancer survivors are available to talk with patients who are newly diagnosed, or who are facing another round of treatment. That can make a huge difference in someone’s life,” says Hyater.
Having a meaningful impact is a driving passion for Hyater. “I want to make sure that we touch, in a positive way, cancer survivors, cancer patients and caregivers in this area,” she says.
Hyater is particularly proud of the National Capital Region’s outreach to the African-American and Hispanic communities. “It’s been a team effort,” she says. “We’ve been very successful in this region in developing strong relationships with communities of faith that have helped us reach the African-American community. We’ve also created extraordinary programs that reach the Hispanic community. These have been viewed as hard-to-reach populations, but they are not hard to reach if you take the time to learn about them and to reach them on their level. We have found that if we take the salient points of our message and make them accessible to people, they can make life changes that will help prevent cancer.”
This approach is one facet of social marketing that Hyater has been committed to throughout her professional career. “Social marketing means understanding your population’s behaviors, and understanding on a scientific level what methodologies are appropriate to reach that audience,” she explains. “You craft programs that support your key messages, and then you evaluate behavioral change. You have to ask, ‘Was this initiative effective? Did we change behaviors?’ This takes time – you have to evaluate your program over a period of 18 or 24 months, or maybe longer, to determine if you have been effective. You also need to reach out to your audience in multiple ways – you cannot use just one approach.”
Her interest in social marketing brought her to Trinity, where she earned a master of arts in community health promotion and education in 1998. “Trinity was a great experience,” she says. “The academic program validated what I was doing in health care education. I could point to methodologies and research to see what works. Trinity sharpened my focus on evaluation and assessment.” She adds that she was drawn to Trinity’s women-focused atmosphere; “I loved how Trinity supported women in the community to achieve their academic goals.”
Hyater is a fifth generation Washingtonian who earned her undergraduate degree in public relations from Howard University. She was especially pleased to be selected to participate in Leadership Greater Washington as a 2009 classmember. Through a rigorous selection process, Leadership Washington brings together 50 corporate, nonprofit and government leaders and entrepreneurs each year and provides them with an intensive, year-long leadership development and networking program; the goal is for those leaders to give back to the community by improving the quality of life in the greater Washington region. “The program takes you behind the scenes to show you how the metropolitan region works and how it has developed and transformed over the years. The wealth of networking opportunities is incredible – the graduates of Leadership Washington are truly the movers and shakers of this region. I am very honored to be part of the program.”
Away from work, Hyater finds balance through meditation and faith, and she eases her stress at the gym and on the golf course. She also takes pride in watching her son, who is a student at the University of Maryland, “develop into a responsible and thoughtful young man.”
“I know we are making a difference in the fight against cancer”
For Hyater, her top priority is to “make sure that our staff and volunteers are good stewards of our donors’ dollars,” she says. “I want to make sure that, operationally, the quality of service and the level of voluntarism are not diminished.” She also spends a significant amount of time developing and nurturing relationships with corporations and donors, and building networks for the organization. “We look to corporations for support, but we also want them to discover how we as an organization can be a benefit to them. We offer free work-site information and early detection programs that can help their employees.”
That commitment to forging mutually beneficial partnerships is a key to Hyater’s success as a nonprofit leader. “When a volunteer tells me that she provided respite to a caregiver, and another volunteer tells me he provided information about a specific cancer to a patient, and when I see our survivors wearing their purple shirts at a Relay for Life, I know we are making a difference in the fight against cancer in very meaningful and tangible ways.”