Do you strive to make a difference in the world? Wendy Beauschesne is the CEO of the Alberta Cancer Foundation, which aims to help cancer patients face their situation. She has been in the healthcare industry most of her career but decided to be a philanthropist when she became CEO. This decision required a lot of adjustments and worked through talking to people within the organization for continuous learning. Listen and find out how to navigate your path to change the way people work together and help change lives.
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Alberta Cancer Foundation With Wendy Beauchesne
Our guest is Wendy Beauchesne, the CEO of the Alberta Cancer Foundation. She’s a great friend of mine and The Discovery Group. We are thrilled to have her on the show. Welcome, Wendy.
I’m happy to be here.
We sometimes start these conversations by asking the guests to talk about their organization, but I want to start with you. What’s your first memory of philanthropy?
My first real memory of philanthropy is watching The West Wing. There was a character, and I can’t remember his name. He was the assistant to the president. The president found out that despite him only making $35,000 the year before. He donated something like $2,000 to the charity. I can’t remember the exact, but he was looking at his tax return.
I remember thinking about that because, at the time, I was certainly making a lot more money. I donated $100 to a charity that year. I know it’s a silly pop culture thing, but it stayed with me. It made me think about my giving and the impact I wanted to have. Even though my income had been increasing, I had not been increasing my donation. It had been consistent since I had been in university. That was my first experience in a way where I thought about philanthropy more than a friend asking you to support their events or donate to something they were participating in.
What do you take from that insight into your work now as leader of a very large not-for-profit that raises money on a daily basis?
It’s very personal, and how people want to have an impact is something that as you grow and think about over time. The number one rule is you do have to ask. It starts with asking and having a conversation about it.
That’s good advice to everyone reading and who’s ever done fundraising. I want to pivot a little bit now back to what is the Alberta Cancer Foundation. You have got a unique organization, one of the largest social profit organizations in the province with an impact across the province. Tell our readers a little bit about, as CEO, how you see the role of the Alberta Cancer Foundation in the healthcare system and cancer care in general.
We are the fundraising partner for seventeen cancer centers across Alberta, that includes two big metropolitan cancer centers of the Tom Baker here in Calgary and the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton. Also, fifteen more regional and rural cancer centers and clinics. Our whole purpose is to help create more moments for Albertans facing cancer.
That is something that’s always spoken to me before I came since I have been here. I’m motivated by that purpose, and our donors are too. Now more than ever, it’s safe to say that people want access to the very best as close to home as possible. I think we have the huge privilege of being part of helping to achieve that. It’s a pretty simple answer to describe our organization, but that’s how I see it.
I want to go back to before you came to the Alberta Cancer Foundation. You were very accomplished both in the public and private sectors. It had been at a very successful social profit organization before that. What were you looking for in an organization to take your first CEO position?
It’s funny what you put out to the world sometimes. I remember thinking, “I loved my job and where I was. I’m never going to leave. I’m going to be here. Where else would I want to work? Do you know where I would want to work? I would want to be the CEO of the Alberta Cancer Foundation.” A few months later, a board member called me.
It’s funny what you put out to the universe sometimes but why the Alberta Cancer Foundation? I think a couple of things. The provincial mandate spoke to me. I have spent the vast majority of my career in healthcare, not always on philanthropy, but within healthcare and typically in a provincial or in sometimes a multi-provincial role. I saw the huge power that there is in that like back to helping, achieve the best possible care as close to home as possible, which you can do when you have got a provincial scope. You can be part of that. That was intriguing to me.
There is a lot of power in looking at patient outcomes, provincially but also the cause. In the statistics, 1 and 2 of us are going to face cancer at some point in our life. I would also say, “We all live with it, and it’s personal.” In some ways, when someone is diagnosed with cancer, and certainly this has been my lived experience. When a family member or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, in some ways, the family has cancer. Every test and treatment, you feel it. I felt there was huge power and motivation for me to be part of something like that.When a family member or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, in some ways the family has cancer. You feel it in every test and every treatment. Click To Tweet
I would say the third thing is here in Calgary. The Calgary Cancer Center is being built. If those of you who live in Calgary have not driven by it, you need to. It is beautiful. The design was based on the premise of what if a building could give a hug. For those who are outside of Calgary that have not been by, it’s exciting to be part of building a cancer center. There’s not going to be that many more built in this country. They are generational investments. That was a pretty exciting opportunity I could not turn down.
I like how you begin and end with the purpose of the organization that you are leading and in service to. I want to be being tactical practical here for people who are reading or thinking they want to be a CEO. How did you prepare for being ready for that phone call you got from the board member?
I don’t think I was ready. When I got that call, I remember thinking, “I will toss my name in, but I will not get this job. This is such an awesome job. There are going to be many choices, but this is going to be a great learning for me and I’m going to toss my name into this ring.” I have always believed walk through every door that opens. A door opened and I went through it. I have no regrets. It’s been an exciting and remarkable opportunity.
When you first walked through the door, you had your eyes wide open, knowing there was a significant opportunity for renewal within the organization. I’m curious how you prepared for that first day. Lots of work ahead and excitement. First-time CEO, how did you get ready for day one?
Prior to starting, I had several conversations with external stakeholders, board members, as well as many people on the senior team. It helped me get a sense of the pulse of the organization, both internally and externally. You have to remember I started right in the middle of wave one of the pandemic. It was June 2020. There was no walking through the door on the first day. The vast majority of the team was still at home.
By reaching out to talking to people prior to starting, getting that pause, and internally, you can imagine the incredible trepidation that there was with the team. Not only were they dealing with a pandemic, but a complete organizational renewal, which had been announced a few months before I started, and then a new CEO.
A lot of trepidation and curiosity in the face of unbelievable change. Lots of transitions are underway. Externally, it gets me to get a read on what piece were people sleeping on. What were they looking for the cancer foundation to achieve? What I learned was an incredible amount of passion for the cause, and that’s never a bad thing. It helped me get a pulse from the stakeholders as to what was important. That helped a lot.
I know once you were through the metaphorical door and behind the metaphorical desk, you did spend a lot of time talking to donors to the organization and people that had been donors many years ago. What did you learn from talking to the donors about the importance of the organization and the cause?
I don’t want to repeat, but I think that huge passion for the cause and the purpose of helping to create more moments for Albertans facing cancer. It’s not, “Let’s revolutionize the fight against cancer.” That was not it. It was helping create more moments for people they knew that they loved that we are facing this. Yes, propelling research forward to hopefully improve treatments and find cures, but also helping people nowadays. The duality of that tomorrow and today. That’s what stayed with me and what I learned from people and a huge passion for this cause.
It’s something that I respected about how you approached it, and certainly many other CEOs that I have had the chance to talk with on this show and to work with that balance those internal conversations, learning the organization with reaching out to donors before you know the answers to their questions. Sometimes you may not even know the questions to ask the donors, but there is such tremendous power in showing up. Was there anything that you heard from the donors that you talked to that helped guide the discussions and the pace of transformation within the organization?
It reinforced was the why. Transformations are hard and messy. They are hard on the people working at the organization. It’s not harder for anyone but people on the team, it’s hard. Those conversations with donors and those passionate about the gap that the Alberta Cancer Foundation fills in this world. It was strong that it gives you that why. It helps you galvanize the team that there is a community out there champing what you are doing and where you are going. Yes, it’s hard, but here’s why it’s important. If anything, that’s what it gave me the most.
You have been very aware through this transformation about the pace of change. I have heard you talk at varying times about needing to speed up, sometimes needing to slow down. I’m curious, looking back over the last several months of your tenure, is there anything that you would do differently, anything you would have done faster or slower?
I would say, “Trust your instincts, trust my instincts.” You are going to get a lot of advice as a new leader. I certainly did, and it is a gift. You have gotten to where you have got because you have good instincts and you know your stuff. There is so much power in it. The last thing you should do is ignore your gut instinct. What would I have done more quickly? I would have shored up a few areas internally more quickly.
I looked back, and we were in the middle of COVID-19. We did not know how much our revenue was going to be taking a hit. I started as the first quarter was wrapping up, and we did not have our first-quarter results. We have a legacy system. You are going to hear that a lot from me. I did not have those for several weeks after I started.Transformations are hard. They're hardest on the people working at the organization. Click To Tweet
It was hard to know how you are doing financially to make those decisions to shore up some areas. I wanted the data, but I also knew. If I had to go back and do it all over again, I would shore up some key areas internally that would help accelerate the pace of the transition that we were undertaking. It’s hard for me to think about what I would do more slowly because I have worked with emergency medical physicians for too long to think in those terms. It’s not my nature. If anything, balancing the internal and the external.
Out of the gate, I was wanting to meet with a lot of donors and external stakeholders. While I don’t regret that, what that meant was there were so many hours in a day, and there was less time to get a pulse on the team and where we needed to shore some things up. If anything, maybe balancing out that, going slower externally, maybe a tiny bit.
One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given, and this applies to anyone in an external fundraising role. The best thing you can do when you first start a job is get out the door and start talking to donors. You do not have all of the answers, and saying, “I don’t know, and I will have to get back to you,” is a perfectly okay answer.
What it does is it’s a forced function for you to learn the messaging, organization, what’s on people’s minds, where you are adding impact and can add the most value. Delaying that does not make you stronger. The sooner you get out the door in a major gift officer role, the sooner you are going to close a major gift. It’s proven, and it applies to all roles.
Why do you think some CEOs may be hesitant to do that? Do they want to get the answers first, or what thrives that?
That’s pretty normal to want to be able to go out there with authority, know what you are talking about, and give people that confidence that this person’s plugged in. They know what they are talking about, know what they are doing, and were able to answer my questions. There is a huge vulnerability not being able to do that. It takes a lot of courage not to be able to do that.
I spent the first little while listening, and it did not have all the answers. One of the other things I did was every time there was a media interview because we were in the middle of a lottery. The team would say, “Do you want to do it?” I would say, “Yes.” It was that force function to get me to learn how are we going to answer these questions? You can’t do a redo when you are doing a TV interview. It sped up my learning, if you will.
It is that hesitation, and one of the things I often hear from leaders in help philanthropy, in particular, is, “I need to know more about the science. I need to know more about the standard of care because donors are going to ask me things.” What was your experience? You came from an emergency medical environment to oncology. Were donors asking you to help with diagnosis and chart course of care in your early conversations with them?
They were not. What I found most surprising was how complicated cancer is. There are over 100 types of cancer. Typically, you are driven by cancer that’s impacted you and your family. My big learning curve is wanting to talk about a specific type of cancer. That would have been the first thing, but certainly, no donors expected me to have the answers to treatments to anything like that, but they did want to talk about where they saw the system could be improved. Listening, learning, figuring out how to take that back, navigate and how to be that matchmaker with the system, there is someone who wants to add value in a big way. They have got an idea on how to do it, and how can we marry that up with the area of the system that can have an impact.
As a communications professional, before being the CEO, you have told a lot of stories and helped organizations tell their story so much better. How long into your role did it take for you to start to feel like you have got the story down, that this is the message that I want to communicate as the new CEO?
I’m not sure I’m satisfied with where we are yet. We can keep pushing the bar there. Cancer is a complicated illness. I pushed myself to get out the door. Within my first two months, I was part of a news conference announcing a huge CAR T-cell therapy program for Alberta with the minister of health. Several months ago, I have never heard of it.
It meant that I had to learn the messaging and understand how transformational that was and truly was transformational, but also understanding my role in it. My role was to represent the donor community that enabled that investment. That’s pretty simple. Once you understand your role in it, it can help you with your story and your messaging. There are amazing oncologists who can answer technical questions about CAR T-cell therapy, leverage that power, understand what your voice and role are there to represent.
Was it your instinct or training that told you or gave you the insight to know that you are standing there speaking on behalf of donors and not the foundation? It’s not a subtle difference, and it’s something you did in that last example as you did it many times before. The foundation represents the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the donors. That’s who should take credit for these investments. The donors are those who should take credit for the breakthroughs that happen. Did that come naturally to you? How did you plan that, or how did you come to that?
I will use the CAR T-cell therapy announcement as an example. When you look at the lineup of speakers who are speaking, I don’t want to be repetitive of what people with far more credibility to stand at that podium to speak about or are going to speak about. They understand the impact CAR T-cell therapy can have on patients.The hardest thing you can do in any role and sector is changing the way people work together. Click To Tweet
What’s my role there? How am I different, and what am I representing? It was a combination of training but instinct and a little bit of ego that I did not want to repeat what someone said ten times better than I was going to say. What is my unique contribution here as the leader of the Alberta Cancer Foundation? That is simply to represent and thank the donors that enable programs like that.
That’s a big shift in communications for any health charity. It was certainly a significant change for the Alberta Cancer Foundation. What was the process of shifting that focus from talking about us, the foundation, to we, the foundation, and our donors?
Repeat, you start saying it. There are subtle changes in materials that come to you. Adding those tweaks, changing it, and before you know it, you are not changing it anymore because it’s there, it populates in it and it grows. It’s patience and consistency, and then it starts to happen.
I’m curious if you found the same thing, organizations that are clear in their service role are in service to purpose. It is one of the great unifiers of the culture within the organization. In a foundation that you are leading, where there was a period of transformation and a lot of change happening in the organization. You were consistently coming back to the idea that we are here in service to donors and we are here representing. To what extent did that help accelerate? Did you find that that helped accelerate the transformation or the buy-in that people had? When they saw it, it was not about the boss telling them, “We used to color code this red. Now we color-coded blue.”
I was lucky because I inherited a strategic framework that the board released 3 or 4 months before I started. With that strategy was an area of focus, which was a commitment to being a fundraising organization now. There were five areas of focus. As soon as I read that, to me, that was the anchor, and that drives everything. You could not do those other things without that commitment.
Talking to the team about that and what that meant was the key to the transformation, which by the way, is far from done. We are in the middle of it. We are going to keep moving forward, and transformations are messy, bumpy and not linear. You make mistakes, you retrace your steps, but that North Star of our commitment to being a fundraising organization helps drive everything.
Including driving, what I see as our most important metric, which is the charitable disbursements that we make every year. For me, it’s not about how much money we raise. It’s about how much of that money is going to the system to how to have an impact. We put that metric front and center for everyone on our team as our biggest measure.
It is an important shift in the focus of what success looks like in a fundraising organization. You have come a long way in getting that message out. I hope it’s something that catches on across the sector and has a much bigger role. Speaking of raising money, I want to transition now to a couple of significant fundraising initiatives that you have got going on, in particular, the Calgary Cancer Center campaign. I’m curious how that campaign plays into the renewal and impact it’s having on the organization?
Campaigns are, in many ways, a gift because they give you focus. I’m sure you have heard that a lot, but Catholic campaigns do give you focus. The internal team has something to galvanize around. It improves your messaging. You become a lot clearer in your messaging and what it is you are trying to do. It clarifies the goal setting. You have got clear measurables. It creates excitement and enthusiasm. You have got a love campaign.
When we are going through renewal that we have got anchored in our commitment to being a fundraising organization, what better than the largest campaign that our organization will ever do? It’s a $250 million campaign in partnership with the coming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. We will never do a campaign of this magnitude ever again.
Anchored in our organizational renewal, having this to drive that focus on our commitment to being a fundraising organization. It’s the right thing to do. We have the opportunity to do something special here with the Calgary Cancer Center for all those reasons, but internally it helps foster the renewal and transformation that we are trying to make.
Does the campaign environment change the conversation that you are having with donors?
It gives us focus. There are many needs within cancers. There are many worthwhile projects that where do you even start? When you have got a campaign, especially a campaign anchored in an unbelievably $1.3 billion cancer center that the government of Alberta is funding the infrastructure costs on. It gives you that focus a place to start. Here’s how your gift can have an impact a great place to start. That’s already exciting. That’s where it’s helpful.
The reason why we are coming to talk to you is that we have this campaign going on. How has the campaign impacted the conversation you have had with your board, both about the campaign itself and the organizational renewal?You have to have the courage to continue and move forward, even when it's really messy. Click To Tweet
I don’t want to be repetitive, but if we are talking again about an area of focus, which is a commitment to being a fundraising organization, that is at all levels of the organization, including at the board level, and this was the board-endorsed strategic framework. A campaign shines a light on that and the board’s involvement in our campaign.
We have been so fortunate. We have got a group of board members who are very active members of our campaign cabinet, huge champions of the campaign, what it’s going to achieve, and the scale of the dreams that our partners at Cancer Care Alberta have for the cancer center. It’s been helpful. It gets a lot of energy, attention and focuses at the board table.
That overlap between the board and the cabinet can be helpful as well to keep that focus on what needs to be done. You have shared quite a bit about the renewal project at the foundation. I know you are not finished. You described it as being in the middle, but you have done a lot of the hard work. What advice would you give to a CEO at the beginning of a renewal project, whether they are new to the organization or new to this transformation that needs to happen?
I would say, “Compassion, conviction and optimism.” Transformations are hard. They are difficult, messy, clunky and not linear. There is a lot of hard work, and it’s hard on your team. I have always felt one of the hardest things you can do in any role or sector is changing the way people work together. That’s what we are doing here.
It’s a complete change of process, technology, and how people work together to achieve our goals. That’s what it is, and that’s hard. Having compassion for and change, but also having conviction. It’s the right thing to do, and some days it’s hard, “Why are we doing this again?” It was so much easier when we did it this way like, “Why are we doing this?”
You have got to stick to your guns and have the courage to continue and move forward, even when it’s messy, and you have made some mistakes. Finally, I’m optimistic. The job of leadership, after all, is to be optimistic. Nobody wants to follow a pessimist. You have got to be optimistic about where you are going, what you are doing, and how this is going to help you fill that gap that we fill in the world, which is to help create more moments for Albertans facing cancer. Optimism is important for anyone in a leadership role and in a big transformation.
Let’s wrap up our conversation right there. What are you optimistic about for the year ahead?
It’s going to be an exciting year. I’m not going to make any crazy predictions about COVID-19 because we have all tried that and been terribly wrong. We have spent time setting the table, putting some foundational pieces in place. I’m excited about the momentum that we can create with this campaign in Calgary.
We are talking about doing some exciting things that some of the other cancer centers in Alberta, which I think will also help propel that momentum forward, and we have spent 2021 building that. Momentum and to start to see a lot of the painful work, not the glamorous work that people see, but to see some of those efforts start to come to fruition and move things forward. I’m excited about that, and I’m excited about in-person real-life meetings again.
Wendy, thank you so much for sharing and giving great advice to others that are entering a similar transition as you have been through at the Alberta Cancer Foundation. I appreciate having you on the show.
Thanks for having me. It was fun.
About Wendy Beauchesne
Wendy has spent the majority of her career working in the health-care sector and continues on that path in her role as Chief Executive Officer of the Alberta Cancer Foundation.
Wendy joined the Foundation from STARS Air Ambulance, a helicopter ambulance service providing critical care transport to patients across Western Canada. She initially joined STARS in 2011 to help build the program in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and soon assumed the role of VP Corporate Services, providing leadership for HR, IT, Communications and External Relations. In 2017, she was named Executive Vice President for the STARS Foundation with a clear mandate: to transform the Foundation for long-term sustainability and to execute on a $130 million capital campaign. Previous to STARS, she spent a decade working within Alberta’s health authorities.
Wendy has a passion for fundraising, a track record of building high-performance teams and a clear ability to turn strategy into results. In the Foundation’s case that means connecting donors to meaningful priorities in cancer that will make a difference. Beyond the opportunity to join an organization with an inspiring purpose to create more moments for Albertans facing cancer, Wendy is looking forward to delivering on the Foundation’s new strategic framework that clearly articulates a path forward for game-changing transformation. Embarking on one of the largest health campaigns in western Canada to support the new Calgary Cancer Centre is a key priority for the organization, as well as continuing to inspire Albertans to support the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton and the 15 other cancer centres across the province.