Richmond Academy of Medicine's executive director, Jim Beckner. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Life is about serving others, for Jim Beckner.
He’s been a leader at various nonprofits in Richmond since the late 1980s. “You’ve got to make a difference” was a phrase ingrained in him when growing up in Rockbridge County. It was a byproduct of life with parents who regularly volunteered and worked for the community and in church.
Now, he’s executive director of the Richmond Academy of Medicine, which has been the go-to resource for local health care providers since 1820, when a gaggle of doctors began meeting once a month by candlelight to discuss issues and concerns of the day. The academy serves its 2,400 or so members with a plethora of services, but it’s also a great resource for the city, providing an array of programs and initiatives including Honoring Choices Virginia, an advanced-care planning initiative; and Access Now, which seeks to provide specialty medical services to the underinsured and uninsured.
It’s rare for innovation to trump tradition, but that’s happening at the academy. Its membership increased more than three-fold under Deborah Love, its former executive director, who retired after more than 20 years of service.
“It’s action-oriented and willing to innovate,” says Beckner. “That’s what kept it going. It’s a culture of creativity.”
Access Now is a great example of the academy’s outreach and depth of resources. The program, which was created in 2008, provides access to specialty care for patients served by free clinics, community centers and health departments. Each of the primary care providers had their own list of specialists from which they drew, but Access Now offers an enlarged network of volunteer providers (more than 800) who donate specialist services. In 2014, the program provided $3.2 million in free care to 2,389 people in need.
With Honoring Choices, the academy is working with Richmond’s three largest health care systems (Bon Secours, HCA and VCU) on a common project. “The Academy is in the wonderful position of being a safe place, a Switzerland, where all can come together,” says Beckner.
Honoring Choices is a way to help people have the conversation about their preferences for end-of-life medical care, and to put their choices down on paper to ensure their wishes are honored. “Everyone has an idea of what you want to do, so you need to put it in writing,” Beckner says. He’s doing his part, having recently completed training as a facilitator for the project.
The academy also provides traditional supports to its members, including networking opportunities, educational sessions and legislative initiatives. It also offers a paid service verifying physician credentials.
Beckner, who is approaching his one-year anniversary as executive director, says the academy thrives because of its members and their spirit of giving and openness. “The culture of this organization is very welcoming to new ideas and change,” he says. “Somewhere early on, the members created that culture [that’s] endearing and enduring.”
Academy members are equally as pleased with their executive director. “We’re certainly delighted to have him on board. We’re really excited,” says Dr. Peter Zedler, president of the academy’s board of trustees and a partner in the Virginia Women’s Center.
It’s in the Genes
Giving back to the community was an everyday part of life from an early age for Beckner.
“I didn’t have a choice,” he says.
Growing up in Rockbridge County, his parents, Wallace and Lula, were active in the community and in their church. Even in retirement, he says, his mom would do what she could to help out, for instance holding snapping parties, which sound more exciting than the reality of folks sitting around snapping beans and prepping them for canning. The canned veggies were donated to feed the hungry.
Like his mother, Beckner became a schoolteacher (as is his wife, Valerie), earning a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Bridgewater College near Harrisonburg, then a master’s in education from Union Theological Seminary: PSCE (Now Union Presbyterian Seminary).
He taught for three years in Bath County, and enjoyed it, but while in graduate school, he began work as a volunteer at the Fan Free Clinic in the late 1980s. Something clicked, and Beckner, in his last semester before graduating in 1989, found himself serving as executive director for the nonprofit. He served there into 2004, and along the way was named founding president of the Virginia Association of Free and Charitable Clinics in 1993, and in 2003 became a founding board member of the National Association of Free Clinics.
In 2004, he was recruited to start RX Partnership, a nonprofit that serves as a virtual broker that works with pharmaceutical companies to secure no-cost medications for free clinics and nonprofits. He started with a bare-bones operation, in space borrowed from the Medical Society of Virginia, where he walked in on his first day with a folding table and a lawn chair.
It was a novel concept in that RX Partnership was a clearinghouse for the individual agencies that previously each had to engage in the cumbersome process of completing paperwork and jumping through assorted convoluted hoops to secure medicines for patients, one at a time. “It solved that horribly arduous process,” Beckner says.
The partnership currently serves 22 free clinics, and in fiscal year 2015, it helped more than 12,457 patients in need receive free medication, according to its website. His efforts with RX Partnership drew praise from his successor, Amy Yarcich, the current executive director. She notes that Beckner’s background, connections and his willingness to be innovative and try new things helped him to be effective in getting people on board.
“People trusted Jim,” she says.
Beckner says that four years later, he was recruited to work with the nonprofit Instructive Visiting Nurse Association, a home health care agency. He led efforts there to streamline and reorganize, basing it on a model of a free clinic without walls.
Sue Speese, current chief executive officer of IVNA, notes that Beckner helped revamp the nonprofit’s care program, and praised him as a “fabulous fundraiser and a great board liaison.”
“He’s lovely,” she says.
She also cites as cutting edge his work in RX Partnership in getting much-needed medications to the under-served in Richmond.
“I think he’s a real progressive thinker, not afraid to step out of the box,” she says.
On the Job
The medical academy’s office on Emerywood Parkway off West Broad Street has old medical paraphernalia and photos and plaques of past members on display, befitting an organization approaching its bicentennial. The old blends well with the academy’s modern office park setting, though; a nod to the rich history of a group that adapts with the times.
Beckner’s office is a similar blend of old and new, with complex, abstract art pieces from a Fan Free Clinic patient, a portrait of a horse that his daughter, Linley Beckbridge, drew as a child, and assorted old, cobalt-blue glass work intermingled with mementos and images acquired over a lifetime.
On one shelf, there’s a plaque from some of his students in the 1980s (he still keeps up with them).
Beckner, 53, is always looking ahead. He wants to maximize staff strengths and fine tune what they already do well and work on a strategic plan. He wants to call out and celebrate success, to build upon them, to keep the momentum flowing.
The learning curve, he says, has been profound, but academy members have been willing to help him with any request.
“No one has turned me down,” he says. “That’s amazing. I consider myself extremely fortunate."