A lot of people who grow up professionally within an organization wonder at some time or another whether they need to leave the organization in order to advance their career. Saifa Koonar, however, chose to stay. Saifa is the CEO of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation in Calgary, Alberta. She’s been at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation for many years. Today, she joins Douglas Nelson to share her journey with the organization from her first day to becoming the CEO.
Listen to the podcast here
Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation With Saifa Koonar
Our guest is Saifa Koonar. She’s the CEO of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation in Calgary, Alberta. Welcome, Saifa.
Thanks so much for having me.
It’s great to have you here. It’s rare to have someone on the show who’s been with an organization quite as long as you have. You’ve been at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation for many years. Tell us a little bit about your journey from your first day to becoming the CEO.
It has been a long journey for sure. I have to say it has been such a privilege to be part of such an amazing organization. When I first started, the group was rather small. What was great about it is when you are that small in terms of staff size and what you’re raising, you get to do it all and have the opportunity of being in corporate, giving special events. I had the chance to work on the campaign for the new hospital. I continued to move within the organization. I feel like they took me under their wing and gave me every opportunity to grow and learn. Here I am now as CEO and it’s been several years. I never had that in mind or have that ambition. I could do anything for that organization and feel pretty pleased with the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of kids and families.
A lot of people who grow up professionally within an organization wonder at some time or another whether they need to leave the organization in order to advance their career. You chose to stay. What was it like making that transition from the number two position into being the CEO several years ago?
I was very nervous about taking that leap. My kids were young at the time. I didn’t feel I was quite ready. I remember having a pivotal conversation with one of our directors several years ago. I had been asked to take on the role of CEO even prior. At the time, it wasn’t for me. Here we were again having this conversation and the director said to me, “If you take it on and you realize it’s not going to work for you, at least you can say you tried and you took the risk. You took that leap of faith. If you don’t do it, you may live with the wonder or the question in your mind of what could it have been like.”
Here I am several years later. I took her advice. It was the best decision I made. When you make that leap from number two to number one, because that wasn’t my personality, I always saw myself at number two and I loved supporting the person in the lead role. That’s what I did. Now that I’m in this role, I’ve grown. I’ve become more confident and I’ve learned so much. I do have an amazing team supporting me in what I do and that absolutely allows me to do what I need to do. That’s because of the team that I have in place. A leader is honestly as good as the people around him or her.A leader is as good as the people around him or her. Click To Tweet
That’s very true when you look across the sector. Can you tell us a story about that first day you go in as the CEO?
I remember being overwhelmed by two things. First is how I was feeling. I’m certainly nervous and intimidated. I was a young CEO perhaps in age and in experience as well. I went in with a little bit of that nervousness for sure. What I was so overwhelmed with on that first day was the amount of support that I had with the team that was there. That support gave me the courage and confidence to know that it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be great because I had a team of cheerleaders in that shop. I also had such a supportive board. They were there to support me, help me to grow and take that organization to another level. They believed in me and that was a game changer for me.
Here at the Discovery Group, we work with a lot of leaders who are making that transition. They don’t necessarily always have that support from their board. I know that makes a huge difference. You came into the role of CEO after the new Children’s Hospital was completed there in Calgary. The Alberta Children’s Hospital is seen as the gold standard organization in health philanthropy in Alberta as a result of that campaign. How did you approach the priority setting or what’s next for the organization when that capital campaign came to a close?
When the hospital opened, the next question was, what’s next? Where do we want to go? The relationship we have with Alberta Children’s Hospital is a very strong one. We were able to work with them to ask them that very question, “Where do you want to go next? Where do you see child health in the next decade?” We had identified a number of priorities. We look at priority setting in five-year increments. We have developed a strategic plan that identified a number of priorities in the area of cancer, brain health, genomics, lifesaving care. It’s more disease-based but certainly more focused and starting to become more intentional about where we wanted to go next. We invested quite heavily in some of these areas for the first five years after the hospital opened.
Like any organization, we evolved and we grew. If we look at how we are funding now, it’s even more strategic where we’ve had that child in the center of where we want to fund. Our funding across continuum now from prevention, promotion, lifesaving care or what we call advancing care that’s in the hospital, moved to the community and investing in the community for child health. All of that is underpinned by research, education and family centered care. Our priority setting has evolved as the system has evolved, as the focus on the child has evolved and the focus on the community has started to take shape.
It’s a fascinating journey. It’s one that a lot of organizations have talked about. I’ve seen lots of strategic plans that call for something like that. Very few organizations are able to get there. One of the reasons is that push back from their donors. The donors in your case wouldn’t put the child at the center. They would put the hospital and the four walls of the hospital at the center. What would the conversations with your donors be like that allowed you to make this transition?
It was our ability to articulate that care for a child and the family needs to be in the right place at the right time and for the right investment. Donors can absolutely understand that. We’re able to back that up by the testimonials and input by kids and families where we’ve asked them where should care take place. If you look at our mental health center, the kids and families have said, “We don’t want to be in an institutional setting. We want to be in an environment and in a place that is in the community that’s closer to our home.” Our job is to listen to the feedback of the kids, their families and the caregivers. That helps the donors feel that we’re doing the right thing because we’re going to equate to the beneficiaries of that.
It is so important to communicate the complexity of health and social issues to donors in a way that they feel like they can do something about. You mentioned adolescent mental health. How are you approaching those conversations with donors to explain the need that it’s not about being in the institutional setting but it’s about this new facility that you’re building?
If we look at mental health as an example, 1 in 5 children and adults suffer from some mental health concern. You start off right away that the need globally is great. You bring it down to Canada, Alberta and Calgary. If we look at what we’re dealing with here at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, there aren’t enough subacute community-based services. What happens is these children come to the emergency looking for help and we haven’t had enough services in the community to support their issues.
As they escalate, there’s nowhere to go. Donors understand that because what I’ve also realized is in all of these conversations with our donors, we all have a story. I feel like our campaign has given permission to the unity that we open about their own journeys, families, children, grandchildren or people that they know. This center is a great opportunitynot only to address the need and integrate services in the community, but even with the University of Calgary because it is going to be an integrated clinical research center like no other.
It’s clear this was a campaign that wasn’t about the dollars and cents. Is that how you experienced it?
The mental health campaign for us was not just about raising the funds to build the building and support it with research and programs, but it was also about raising awareness and the opportunity to talk about mental health and the stigma that accompanies mental health. The money and awareness went hand in hand. I feel like that objective was achieved. People are talking about it. They have been talking about it. I feel very fortunate that as a foundation, we’ve been able to also add our voice and support all the many agencies that have been caring for kids with mental health issues for many years. We are standing in solidarity with this group to do the work together.
That’s a very powerful story and a powerful example of telling that community-wide story with the child or the adolescent in the center and seeing the donors come to it. We work a lot with boards. With this expanded mandate, I’m curious how your board has felt as the mandate has moved beyond the four walls of the Children’s Hospital to take on these larger community projects. How have they been supportive or have you had to bring them along?
It has been a fantastic journey with our board. The benefit of being around that board table in this organization for as long as I’ve been is that you get to watch this journey and help shape where this organization needs to go. Several years ago, so much of what we did was centered around the hospital. After all, we are called the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, but the journey hasn’t involved redefining who we are. That comes by even looking at our mission. If we look at our mission from a number of years ago, we used to define ourselves as the fundraising arm for the Alberta Children’s Hospital. What we started to realize is that we are truly about inspiring our community to invest in excellence in child health research and family centered care.We are only as successful as our ability to collaborate with others. Click To Tweet
If that is what our mission is, that would occur inside the hospital and outside of the hospital. That occurs in fundraising. We’re not just a fundraising organization. We are truly about creating an impact on children. We do that through fundraising, through advocacy and through serving as a catalyst. It’s redefined who we are. That’s been such a wonderful exercise of going through with the board and they’ve come along in this journey. We’re better for it.
I’m sure it hasn’t been a straight line with the board. Were there along the way where they wondered, “Why are we looking to have a partnership with the Board of Education? Why are we looking beyond our partner to fund our mandate?”
There have been lots of debates around the board table. Questions like mandate or scope creep. There’s only so much that we can raise and that can satisfy the needs. The needs are greater than what we essentially have the capacity for. The realization was that if the child is in the center, how best can we utilize our resources that you get the greatest return on your investment. For example, us entering into the mental health literacy space, which sits in that prevention and promotion part of that continuum of funding that I described. We had to ask ourselves the question, outside of the home, where do kids spend most of their time? It’s in the classroom.
Schools were the logical place to start working with them on learning about living with and seeking help for mental health concerns. It seems like a great place to invest dollars that would have the greatest return on the investment and create impact. If we think about even where philanthropy is going and what donors expect of us, they expect us to cooperate that we can create more impact. Partnering with the Calgary Board of Education through Alberta Health Services made so much sense.
It is good to hear that the board is having those conversations about scope creep because we’ve all seen and heard organizations that have gone far off the path. It sounds like you’ve done a good job of keeping the discussion narrow enough and focused on the child at the center that you haven’t gone off that path. Had there been times when you wondered whether, “Is this a bridge too far? Is this too far?”
We always have to ask ourselves that question in all of our funding agreements with our system partners. I would say without sounding esoteric about it, we ask ourselves, what’s the end goal? What’s our vision? If our vision is about providing the best health and the best future for children and families, all of our investments are a means to an end. We have to ask ourselves, are we meeting our end objective? Is that line of sight clear? If we can answer that with confidence and we have the metrics, we back that up, then we know we’re making the right decisions.
Frankly, we’re starting to look at ourselves as well as a bit of a portfolio of investments where there are going to be investments that need to cross the continuum. Some have larger investments. Some have smaller investments. Some of our modest investments have had huge return in a very short timeframe. Some of our larger investments have a longer runway and have a longer time to fruition. All of those investments have that end in mind in our sight.
That’s a great example of using the mission-vision value proposition of the organization as a North Star for your funding and the conversations you’ll be having with donors. That’s probably what’s kept you from that scope creep is being able to stay anchored in what you’re there to accomplish.
It’s a journey for all organizations. We all evolve and our board is backed with incredible community leaders that are brilliant, big brains and big hearts, as I like to refer to them. I remember early on, there are number of directors, but one in particular said to me, “Saifa, you need to leverage the talent around that board table. There are many incredible minds and perspectives. We need to leverage that.” That’s what we tried to do. Our whole executive team that sits around that table. I don’t think I ever come out of a board meeting or a committee meeting not having learned something from them. I love the fact that we can debate about where our funds go, how we raise funds, our partnerships, governance and risk. We debate honestly and integrity. We don’t always agree. That’s the great part of the effectiveness of our board is that we try not to get into group thinking because there are such great perspectives around that table.
For our audience, what are the strategies or the tactics that you use to bring out the best in your board members say in ethic committee meeting?
A lot of it depends on certainly the topics that we bring forward. Ones that in some ways is what keeps me up at night. What are some of the strategic issues that, issues that are going to set the stage for where we want to go as a foundation. Those are the topics that we bring to our committee for discussion and debate. I would also say too if I was to back up, we do annual surveys, board assessments and director self-evaluation and again not unique to any organization. We do the same but what we do is we take that feedback from our board assessments in terms of how they’re functioning and couple it with the individual directors’ own self-evaluation and we create these action plans. What they do for me personally and my team is it helps us to identify what are the issues they want to discuss at a committee level or at a board level where they feel that they can add value.
That has been super helpful because even though I might be bringing the right topics, I may not be leveraging them, what value they think they can bring. I’ve heard from the directors. They want to be more involved in those strategic issues and the strategic direction. We’ve tried to honor that feedback with how we then structure our board meetings, our retreats and the committee meetings. The last comment I would make is a membership around the committees and the board. It is critical to stack those committees and the board with people with different experiences, different skill sets and different perspectives. Someone may not be a subject matter expert that sits on a finance and audit committee, but that is great because then I will get a very different perspective from that person in the context of finance and audit. It’s nice to have different skills, perspectives and talent for sure around the committee table.
Going back to making sure that they’re talking about issues that they can contribute to in a meaningful way. A fairly noble strategy you shared there was asking them what issues they want to see discussed at the committee level or at the board. Was there ever a time where you were surprised by the issues that came back from asking them what they wanted to talk about?
It doesn’t surprise me but what keeps coming up year after year is how we interact and work with our system partners. When I talk about system partners, it’s the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services. They are very complex organizations. How do we fit into that ecosystem? That is the feedback that comes back each and every year is how do we help our board understand that relationship? How do we situate ourselves more strategically within that system? How do we continue to advance our work and support their work within a system that is very slow to move? As nimble as we are, we can only move if we are in sync with the University and AHS’ priorities. To be able to work in harmony, that takes so much effort and so much time.Redefining your mission and vision is a game changer. Take the time to ask yourself what is it that you stand for. Click To Tweet
We recruited a new director and he was quite surprised how much time and effort we spend in this partnership with our system partners. About 50% of our ethics at the board table is working with the University and Alberta Health Services. It’s a big part of why I feel that we’ve made great strides in identification of our priority and impact is because we’re trying to be lockstep with these organizations. That would be one piece of feedback that comes back year after year is help us understand how these organizations run.
If it was simple, you could do an FAQ and be done with it. I’m sure that the nature of the partnership has changed a lot over the last several years and probably changed a lot in the last several months.
We’ve redefined ourselves as a foundation in these three ways that I described earlier, that we fundraise, serve as a catalyst for change and impact, and that we serve as a voice for children’s health. If that is how we define ourselves, we have to understand how this works. We have to be able to partner effectively with both of those organizations.
I’m sure those conversations with board and with your system partners take up a lot of your time. How does that impact the team around you when they’ve got a CEO who is necessarily dedicating such a great deal of her time to those kinds of partnership conversations?
I’d like to think for our team that they see value in it. I certainly do. I have different members of our team that take on different areas of the business. We have an entire work stream focused on strategic partnerships. We have our fundraising, communications and finance, but the leader of the organization has to be closely tied to those system partners because our success in fundraising truly depends on successful partnership with our system partners. We then know what we were raising funds for. We can ensure that we can create impact. The money will follow where the impact is. Who implements it? It’s the university or Alberta Children’s Hospital. It’s our system partners. It’s the researchers and it’s the clinicians. They’re the ones that are going to help define where they see child health going. Fundraising will only be as successful as the vision that’s in place.
That’s a great example of knowing exactly how your organization fits into that very complex system and maximizing the value that you can deliver into that system by being clear about what you’re there to do.
As a CEO over the last several years, my understanding and appreciation for that has also grown. I’m a born fundraiser. I love to fundraise. That’s the other thing. As much as I work with our system partners, truth be told, my real passion is raising money and building relationships. I try to find the balance certainly for both because I love to fundraise. I love to be in the trenches with our fundraising team, strategizing on all our gifts. It’s a big part of what gives me joy as well. I also know that we are only as successful as our ability to collaborate with others. It’s beyond our system partners. That’s the other point I’d like to highlight is that when you’re starting to fund across that continuum of prevention and promotion into the community, this gives us a unique opportunity to partner with other organizations, partnering with other agencies outside of AHS.
There are a number of fantastic organizations that are delivering care for children in families where we can partner with them. For example, we look at the Mental Health Center. We are partnering with the Mental Health Association with their peer support program. It’s fantastic because they are the subject matter experts in delivering peer support programs. Why wouldn’t we partner with them? What I’m excited about is as we do more in the prevention and promotion space, CBD is a great example. In fact, to our mental health literacy programs, we’re partnering with 24 different education boards throughout the province. That is what collaboration can look like if you decide you want to be in the prevention and promotion space or in the community space. It affords us that opportunity like never before.
What advice would you give to a CEO of an organization that is trying to move beyond the four walls, whether it’s the four walls of a secondary institution or a hospital? How do you move the organization, move the message in a way from what donors may have expected in times past?
I do think identifying or perhaps redefining your mission and vision. I know that sounds like strategic planning 101, but it was a game changer for us. Take the time to ask ourselves, what is it that we stand for? What is our longer-term vision? Where do we see ourselves going? I feel that once we redefined our mission, it gave us permission to look outside of those four walls. We developed this vision for ourselves which is best health, best future for children and families. That has helped us to have that end in mind. When you have that end in mind, it gives you permission to say, “If that is our North Star, then we have to be looking outside of those four walls.” I feel going through an exercise of defining and redefining your mission and establishing a vision that becomes that company. That would be my one suggestion. The other is patience in that journey. You can’t get to that place without going through that journey and being patient. You educate, work through it with your board, with your own staff team, with your partners. Patience does pay off. It is the long game.
My dad used to say to me, “Delayed gratification takes longer than you think,” as a reminder that patience is important in all things.
To add to quotations and it sits on my credenza and it’s an African proverb, “If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to travel far, travel together.” That’s what we do. That takes time. It takes patience and it also takes focus. The art of focus is important and that allows you to go over there for sure.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your journey at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation. You’ve left our audience with a lot to think about and a lot of lessons to take away. Thank you, Saifa.
Thanks a lot, Doug.
About Saifa Koonar
Saifa Koonar was appointed President & CEO of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation in June 2009. As CEO, she is accountable for the leadership and executive management of the organization. Saifa is responsible for the overall direction and operation of the Foundation
Saifa has been with the Foundation for 22 years, holding positions of Chief Operating Officer, Chief Development Officer, Senior Vice President, and Campaign Director for the building of the new Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary.
In addition to her professional achievements, Saifa devotes herself to a number of voluntary activities. Saifa has served in a leadership capacity within the Ismaili Muslim Community for over 25 years in the areas of sports development, international development, youth development, media and public relations, the arts, and advancement in education.
She is a Member of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada National Committee. Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) is an international development organization and registered Canadian charity working to break the cycle of poverty in Asia and Africa in partnership with the Government of Canada and diverse Canadian institutions and individuals. Most recently she received an appointment to the International Advisory Committee, Global Encounters (IAC-GE), which oversees all international programs for the Ismaili Muslim Community.
Saifa is also a member of the International Women’s Forum and Canadian Children’s Hospital Foundations. She holds a holds the ICD.D designation from the Institute of Corporate Directors, a Masters of Business Administration as well as a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Finance from the University of Calgary.