Leader in Kindness: Spotlight on Donn Sorensen
Donn Sorensen is kind and compassionate, with an easy disposition and a tendency to laugh frequently. The business executive, author and philanthropist serves as the president of Mercy’s Eastern Missouri region. He’s tall and broad-shouldered, and once dreamed of becoming a quarterback for an NFL team. “I fell a little short,” he says with a laugh.
His first job was actually as a cashier for the Mayo Clinic, located in his hometown of Rochester, Minnesota.
“I got the job and I was like, ‘I’ll make a couple of bucks, this is all I need.’” Sorensen says. “I wasn’t really going anywhere. And one day, two senior leaders were walking by and I overheard one say to the other, ‘You’re going to be a national expert in reimbursement.’ And I sat back and I said, ‘I want to be a national expert. I want to do something big. I want to do something remarkable.’ And from that moment on, I got the passion and I worked my way to here.”
Here is the head of Mercy east region’s vast network of doctors’ offices, clinics and hospitals__a leap made after more than 25 years of experience in health care and leadership rolesat Mercy’s hospitals. Under Sorensen’s stewardship, Mercy has won an unprecedented number of quality awards, which Sorensen credits to extremely dedicated caregivers and co-workers. Looking ahead, Sorensen, 55, views technological innovation as the lynchpin to Mercy’s future. “We are innovating in a big way around virtual care,” Sorensen explains. “Our virtual care center is the first of its kind not to care for patients inside its four walls; The future is care closer to home, more centered around the patient, meeting our patients when and where they need our care, and keeping them out of the hospital.”
Until recently, Sorensen’s exposure to the healthcare field was limited to his professional life. That all changed this past December, when he underwent surgery for an inguinal hernia repair and became a patient for the first time.
“I felt what our patients feel and since then I can see myself acting different and prioritizing our work differently,” Sorensen says. “That is, I felt scared, vulnerable, embarrassed. I think about that every day now, that when our patients are coming to us, that they have these feelings and we need to continue to improve to help ease that anxiety.”
Improving patient experience is just one aspect of the job that Sorensen refers to as his calling. He cites “clinical quality and low cost” as other benchmarks. To achieve these goals, he explains, “I believe a lot of leaders think that technical and business acumen is enough. It’s technical and business acumen and compassion that provides a better environment.”
Sorensen is so moved by the importance of kindness that he recently authored a book called Big-Hearted Leadership, which is about success through compassion. He is devoted to charity, and currently serves as Board Chair for Make-A-Wish Missouri and Care To Learn St. Louis.
Sorensen’s philanthropic roots took hold about 15 years ago. “I started believing more deeply that I’ve got a lot of gifts and blessings in my life and there’s a lot of people that don’t, so I need to do something about that. I need to give back.”
From that belief grew a commitment to improve the community. At the time, Sorensen was living in Springfield, MO. “I started an organization inside Springfield called Force For Good. The idea was that doctors and employees within the Mercy system were of the size to right some wrongs, to fix some things.”
Whether it was providing shoes for needy children or paying a family’s electric bills, the organization had raised $1 million after four years in a fundraising blitz that Sorensen describes as a “wonderful cultural time because it brought everyone within Mercy together. We’d determine what we wanted to go fix and then we’d fundraise.”
Around the same time, Sorensen teamed up with Doug Pitt to launch Care to Learn, a nonprofit that provides “health, hunger and hygiene” essentials to needy children so they can focus on education. “You can only break the cycle of poverty by education,” Sorensen says. “So if these kids, because of poverty, can’t get an education, well, that’s on us. We need to do something about that.”
Care To Learn has grown since its inception in Springfield, and in St. Louis now encompasses 52 schools within four school districts, serving a total of 28,000 kids. “It’s going to be a legacy,” Sorensen says. “It’s going to be time to really leave a mark and do something great.”
Sorensen resides in Clayton, and enjoys spending time on Table Rock Lake with his children, Alec and Jenna, and friends. When asked how he has time for all of these charitable endeavors on top of his career and hobbies that include boating, running and riding his Harley Davidson, Sorensen throws his head back and laughs heartily. “I don’t know, but it’s who I am; I enjoy it. It’s not work. It’s fun. It’s what I do.”