What changes can you implement in your organization so you can make a difference? Listen as your host Douglas Nelson sits down for a conversation with Malcolm Berry on BC Children’s Hospital Foundation’s philanthropic success. Since March 2021, Malcolm Berry has led the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation as president and CEO, bringing with him a proven track record of philanthropy and leadership accomplishments in pediatric health care. In this episode, he stresses the importance of a purpose, vision, making an impact, and changing the community for the better. Tune in as he brings in powerful messages that could help you take your leadership to the next level through a practical approach designed for success.
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BC Children’s Hospital Foundation With Malcolm Berry
Our guest is Malcolm Berry. He’s the President and CEO of the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation in Vancouver, British Columbia. We are thrilled to have him on the show. Welcome, Malcolm.
It’s a pleasure to be here with you.
We have been wanting to get you on the show for a long time but the advantage of waiting is that you have been in your role for a while now, you’ve probably had some deeper reflections through the conversation, and I’m looking forward to getting into it. Before we get into that, we have been asking guests this season to tell us a little bit about their first memory of philanthropy, giving, and service in the community and connecting that to the work you do.
That’s forcing me to think a long way back. One of those memories that sticks out is of one of the first Terry Fox Runs that was coordinated across the country. I remember my parents being at the heart of organizing the Terry Fox Run in Toronto. It was 1981 or it could have been ‘82. What I remember was not so much the money that we raised but the community that was brought together to celebrate something that was fundamentally bigger than any one of us.
I remember that moment in time but when I think about philanthropy or service, I’ve often reflected on the roles my parents played as coaches and managers of sports teams, parent associations or establishing youth sports associations. I never thought of this as service or philanthropy. This is what you do. My mom was a volunteer at a large community hospital for many decades. I had a great model in front of me. I thought of this as part of the ethos of what we do as human beings. Going back to being 7, 8, and 9 years old, and this being part of the DNA of our family unit.
That’s a great reflection and shout-out to your mom. It was remarkable as we asked people about their first memory through these conversations. That name Terry Fox has come out a lot of times. In Canada, there is such an inspiration in such a powerful symbol there of people coming together. I’m sure your kids have had the experience of the Toonies for Terry and taking dollars to a school to do it even to the state. What do you think it is about that legacy that’s galvanized the community around that concept? What does it say about the work of our sector?
Learn to not just survive but to thrive through and benefit from the opportunity of taking a leap of faith by trying something new.
It could be that it talks to inspiration. It celebrates the moment that we are in and what we are able to achieve as a community. It speaks to the legacy that needs to be enabled. In this case, it’s the medical healthcare science research around cancer and seeing the potential that we need to aspire to and coming together to bring that to life.
That isn’t about philanthropy. That’s philanthropy, enabling vision, catalyzing new ideas or doing that by bringing partners together to have the right sessions to think about how we together can enable a future state that isn’t different than now, but it’s better enabled. To me, it’s pretty simple. Terry Fox is one of the thousands of amazing, extraordinary examples across the country, but this one is neat and galvanizes us across the nation. It’s the power in the collective effort that’s inspiring to me.
That collective effort in that sense of community is something I’m sure we will get into talking about what you found when you came to Vancouver. You were at sick kids in Toronto for many years. You went to the United States. I want you to talk to us a little bit about that transition and what it was like to come back. You are in Toronto. You are at one of the largest, best well-known social profit organizations in the country, and you decided, “I’m picking up stakes. I’m going to America.” What was that like for you?
We had an extraordinary experience living in St. Louis through all four of Mr. Trump’s years in office. Living in a state that’s extraordinary but where racism, violence, and the individual are in the spirit of community is very real. Professionally, I was able to experience one of the most successful healthcare systems in the US and be able to understand how that business model works working for one of the best children’s hospitals in the US. That’s part of the point of the best medical schools in the world.
The professional experience was amazing. That was supported by helping to rebuild a philanthropy team in St. Louis like the Terry Fox idea. It is thinking about what could be possible, bringing it to life, and celebrating the impact that, in many cases, that community wasn’t as aware of. From a family perspective, it was an adventure in the truest sense of the word.
Think about the gift of different cultures, contexts, and places, all the experiences, relationships, and friendships that get developed that otherwise wouldn’t, while also learning how to be resilient, how to lean on each other, and have you immersed yourself meaningfully into these new contexts. Be able not to learn and survive but to thrive through and be able to benefit from the opportunity of taking a leap of faith to try something new. You transitioned back to Canada, and we couldn’t be more delighted.
Before we come back to Canada, one of the things, particularly in philanthropy in Canada, we look at some of the mega gifts and the role that philanthropy plays in driving innovation in the United States. That’s a bigger stage. I had that thought before I went to San Francisco a number of years ago, and I’m curious about what you found when you got there. Was it stepping onto a bigger stage? What did you find?
Mega philanthropy is a real thing. There’s a complexity in the philanthropic landscape, not from the service side but certainly with all the competitors and the great causes. There’s a complexity that’s at least tenfold what we had been used to here. When I think about many of the associations with the work that we do collectively from philanthropic organizations, there’s a greater dependency on collaboration in Canada and the necessary ones exemplified in the US.
It’s much choppier, more complex, and harder to navigate but mega philanthropy was a real thing. What was not unique, and the fact that mega philanthropy and philanthropy don’t just happen? Probably it’s based on an idea, vision, and impact that can be enabled and being able to demonstrate that authentically over time. It comes back down to the purpose of the organization and the ability to make that happen.
That wasn’t unique to the extent that we see all these massive gifts. When you look at the difference, we have the MasterCard Foundation in Canada, which probably is a prime example of a philanthropic organization that would be comparable to many of the large organizations or philanthropic mega-givers in the US. We see some more examples in Canada of mega philanthropy but the landscape is different.
Did you find your conversations with donors were different in the United States than they were in your experience in Toronto?
Probably, yes, but at the root of it, it’s no. The donors wanted to make an impact. They would have a vision. We would try and align their vision with our vision-aligned values. At the root of it still came back down to what is the difference that we can make and how do we attribute build the right capacity and match that against a donor’s desires. At the end of the day, it still came down to purpose, vision, and impact.
Donors want to make an impact and a vision aligned with a foundation’s vision-aligned values. At the end of the day, it still comes down to purpose, vision, and impact.
People who want to change their community for the better.
There’s pride and passion that’s palpable, and it may be a nationalistic US-centric concept but people in St Louis have immense pride for the community. They want to invest in the community. They want to be the best. They want to preserve the best and the brightest to build community. With that pride comes a desire to be laser-focused on how we invest in ourselves to elevate but not to keep that within ourselves.
Certainly, to be able to say a lot and bring the best of our learnings to the rest of the broader nation and work community. There’s a pride in place, and it’s all about people, stuff people, and building people. I don’t think it’s unique to the US, St Louis or Vancouver. That’s part of what makes the work that we do unique and rewarding.
Let’s bring you back to Vancouver. You are in St Louis, and the opportunity comes up at BC Children’s. What were you thinking as you were moving to assume that role?
I was thinking probably, first and foremost, a dream came true. I had always wanted to move to the West Coast, and BC Children’s was a place that I had long admired. I thought of myself as being so fortunate even to have the opportunity to consider having been at sick kids, which is an extraordinary place. St Louis Children’s Hospital and Washington University is an extraordinary place. I had to come back home to Canada, to the West Coast.
Several months before, this even became the sparkle in our eyes. My son said to me, “Dad, Mr. Trump wins. We need to move to Vancouver.” It came right out of the blue. I inquired and said, “They’ve got great fishing. There’s hockey,” because, as a Canadian youth, hockey is an important thing and the best mountain biking in the world. The attributes were fairly simple and certainly well expressed by my then fourteen old.
But I think back to the leap of faith, in the truest sense of the word. We were privileged to be invited to come and consider an opportunity to join one of the best children’s hospitals in the world. That happened to be in one of the most extraordinary cities in the world. Different contexts, back to a culture that we are more familiar with, a city that we weren’t, and an organization that was still somewhat new. The benefit of the lessons, experiences, and relationships that otherwise wouldn’t be enabled is what is truly the gift of coming to Vancouver and being here at this moment in time.
What did you find when you came to Vancouver in terms of the philanthropic culture? You have been in an amazing hospital. There is a lot of pride of place and pride around BC Children’s Hospital. There’s been a significant philanthropic success in the past and so much opportunity ahead of the organization. What were those initial conversations with donors? What did you find when you got here?
I had a deep appreciation for the extraordinary philanthropy that was the reality of Vancouver, BC but the reconciliation, as you refer to speaking with donors, seeing the impact that was enabled was clear and obvious. It was an important consideration as I thought about this move when I think more literally that BC Children’s, as an organization, has been blessed with one of the broadest donor bases of any pediatric children’s hospital across North America.
It was clear that not only was the organization extraordinary, the community supported and believed in it. Talking to donors and they would share the same passion, love, and desire to enable the purpose. I have seen that with our hospital teams as well, that are not only donors themselves but believe deeply in the work that they do and enabling a vision to move it forward. I would say plain and simple, philanthropy in British Columbia, philanthropy in Vancouver has enabled a place like BC Children’s as an example, to really be a crown jewel in the province. More importantly, certainly across the nation.
For that, I would say we are blessed to have an organization like that as an example of world-class in our backyard to care for us but there’s also a value to the community socially, economically, and intellectually. I don’t think we can underscore that. When you think of that as one organization and multiply that times, the many other hospitals for other social organizations that are enabling the same in philanthropy have been incredibly impactful.
Think about the change that has been driven, the new ideas that have been enabled, the campus discoveries that are certainly coming out of research institutes like ours, the advances, and the people that have been powered. I pause and think, “That’s all extraordinary.” But then layer on, the frailty that’s been exposed over the past few years. It’s not the pandemic. It’s not just opioids and mental health crises that have been laid more clear but let’s think about social justice, racism, violence, and the political discord that certainly we hear about every day in the US. We are not immune here North of the border.
It takes a team. It’s a cliché statement to make, but the power of the collective effort and the thinking of the whole that enables us to move forward.
I am incredibly inspired by the community that has continued to lead in. They lead in with compassion. They lead in with passion, empathy, and courage to continue to support places like BC Children’s or others where the need hasn’t stopped. Kids still get sick. There are kids that are still dying. There’s potential that’s not being enabled. That needs culturally defining times, as our community is laser-focused on how we lift each other up. I’m inspired by what philanthropy has enabled, and what our community is focused on supporting.
Thinking about your first year, was there a moment in time or a story you could share with us where in conversation, you thought, “This is going to work, this was the right decision, we are in the right place, and we can make a difference here?”
Some of those moments began before I even arrived in Vancouver. When I started to meet some of our donor community and my team members at the foundation and certainly, meeting with leaders at the hospital and our research institute, I don’t know what the light bulb was or what moment in time it went off but it was early. It might have even been the first conversation I had with the recruiting committee to think about the opportunity to build from a platform that was already extraordinary. Even the privilege to be invited onto the team to do some of that work.
One of my first memories of you coming to town that I was impressed by, and it’s an example I’ve referred to I’ve mentioned with a number of leaders over 2021, your announcement, Malcolm Berry, coming to be the President and CEO of BC Children’s, wasn’t just a picture of you. Those of you that know us both, we have great haircuts.
It wasn’t just a picture of you smiling. It was a picture of you with the team at the foundation and a powerful symbol of the approach you were taking to leading the organization. That announcing you was about showing the whole leadership team. It was impressive. What went into that? What message are you trying to send by using that photo rather than a standard headshot?
I’m a head of one. I’m just one person that contributes to the thinking, and it takes a team. It’s a cliché statement to make but the power of the collective effort, it’s the thinking of the whole that enables us to move forward. It’s not about me. I’m one person that has the privilege of working alongside extraordinary people. We are laser-focused on the team and how we can work well together and do things together. It’s a simple example of the ethos that’s important for me as a leader to focus on.
It’s more than a small example. It sends a powerful message. I am curious how you approach building that sense of team. One of the things on the show and our work with clients across the country, we often hear CEOs, particularly in the first couple of years, wanting to communicate either a change from what’s come before or their sincerity about it takes a team. “We are all in this together.” How do we get people to believe that message of trust that you want them to tell you when your tie’s crooked, or you got something in your teeth or you are making a decision they don’t agree with?
Building that confidence can take a long time. How did you approach that as a new leader of this team? You have great credibility coming through the door based on your past experience and where you have been, but that gets you through the door. How did you build that trust in your team, and how did you approach that?
I think that’s the secret sauce for any organization is that you don’t walk in as a statistic of one and think that you know it all. Listening, asking questions, seeking advice, being in relation, being present with presence, and all things that are vital but that speak to the value of the team that is in place, that has experienced, that has their own shared experiences, individual experiences, and expertise.
Trying to understand from the perspective of those that are there and can see potential in terms of let’s build the future together. I’ve got some ideas. They’ve got some ideas. How can we think about not owning ideas but collectively thinking about creating an ecosystem that values all the contributing ideas and puts them in a blender together? We can get out to develop a platform, place, and ecosystem that combines the collective intelligence of the whole, and that’s a laser focus on people.
We’ve got extraordinary people that I’ve joined as a team. And shame on me if I don’t expressly lever that core strength of enabling the magic that we do, but to think of it this way. If you think about the way that we act and behave, the culture of the organization manifests externally in the type of experience that we want to provide to our donors and community.
If we don’t have the best team collectively working as well as they possibly can, then we don’t manifest that experience externally. We can’t celebrate the impact of the work that we do. We don’t share the stories as compellingly as we could. If that’s the case, then we don’t realize the potential for our organization to reach its best potential.
If we don’t have the best team collectively working as well as they possibly can, we don’t manifest a meaningful experience externally. We can’t celebrate the impact of the work that we do.
It’s plain and simple. If you’ve got the best people working together well… and let me give you this idea: if leadership is a verb and not a noun, that means that we are all leaders and we lead different parts of the organization but it also gives us permission to act as leaders. The onus is on us all to be leaders. That collectively lifts us up and creates a more organic bin organization that is aligned more because we create that alignment and vision together. We create the ecosystem that we want to work within together.
You have been in the CEO role a couple of times. Was there anything you learned from that first time you walked through the door as CEO in St Louis to walk into the door again here in Vancouver? Did you do it differently? What did you take from being a second-time CEO?
The approach and philosophy were fairly similar. The innovations and people are different, which means the way you approach it, it’s going to be different. It needs to be focused on individuals and those who you are relating to in that context, which is going to be slightly different. What’s similar is it puts people at the heart of the equation, and it’s being present with the presence or being in a relationship with those that you are with. Understanding the context and the potential of the moment and looking at it together. You make lots of mistakes along the way. You learn and evolve. That broad approach, which is one that engages a broad group of stakeholders, was similar in both times.
It is slower. It takes more energy and effort but it’s always more powerful as an outcome, particularly when it means that we can build that future plan together. Everybody is onboard and sees themself in it. It’s easy to say and describe but hard to do. What was different is the team here in Vancouver was a little bit more than twice the size of the team that I worked alongside in St Louis. You’ve got more people and complexity but the approach and my approach have been fairly similar.
I think you’ve put your finger on one of the big challenges that I see in our sector, which is when leaders move into a role, they want to show and demonstrate that the board made the right decision, “I’m the right person to lead this organization.” Hustle and do things quickly. Reorganizing the senior management team in the first two weeks or watching a strategic planning process at the beginning of the second month.
What I’ve observed in my role now on the other side of the table is the leaders that get the most done, maybe not in the first 3 months but certainly in the first 3 years, are the ones that prioritize patience out of the gate. There are certainly lots of work to do and busy but recognizing that growing culture and organization takes time and making space for that time and not letting impatience drive decisions.
It sounds like you’ve got that patience button mastered and close at hand. You can slow yourself down. Are there times when you think, “I know we need to be patient? I want to do this one thing now. Can we hurry on this?” How do you balance those impulses or sometimes there is an urgent need for change in some instances? How do you hold those two things’ in tension in your mind?
I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. It comes back to understanding the ecosystem you are in, the barriers and constraints, and being able to prioritize what you can do versus what you can’t. Being in relation and asking lots of questions, these are things that need to get prioritized and are quite challenging in this COVID environment where we are having lots of meetings on screens but not necessarily benefiting from being in relation in the room.
I will give you two examples. Early on when I joined, the board said, “We are at the end of our five-year strategic plan. We will give you a grace year to get your feet wet and understand the organization.” I said, “That’s fine.” However, given the environment we are in and the complexity of the moment, this is the perfect time to be stepping back and asking who are we and where do we want to go? Let’s think about how we can engage the team in a strategic planning process, which can be an academic exercise.
And it could often be something that the CEO or the executive team comes in this and hammers out with the board over, of course, on the weekend and have to go. But we intentionally crafted what turned out to be about an eight-month journey with many stakeholders, with our internal team and hospital partners and involved everyone in crafting that future plan. We accelerated work that we could have rightfully said, “Yes, this is a challenging moment in time. Let’s focus on products for a bit.”
We did that in parallel with ensuring that we have a robust brand strategic framework, which we’ve come to call our purpose framework. Not only do we have a roadmap for what brand strategy will look like or how we will evolve that over time. When we think about the imperative nature of mission, vision, values, understanding our purpose, having a north star that aligns us all in the work that we do and help guide the decisions that we make. This might have been an outcome or an outcome of the work we would’ve declared needs to be done out of the strategic planning process but we did them in parallel.
And the annual operational planning that all organizations do, also got lumped in there, and it was a bit of a messy process. Understanding that none of the three pieces quite lined up perfectly on timelines of what would be ideal. But we did it all within 2021 and did it collectively as a team. I felt the desire to move it forward. But we did it with patience and could have probably accelerated on a number of occasions.
Focus on people, purpose, and connection. Ensure you have the right people and right tools to create the right experiences.
But I think the fact that we took more time, and engaged more broadly, meant that now we could have a better product coming out that people are bought in on. People understand the plan, their place in the plan, and how their work is contextualized within the whole and ladders up to have one team, one goal approach to the work that we do at the foundation.
I like that perspective and approach to planning and engaging the team in that. I’m sure there are many stakeholders that you brought into that process. One of the things I’ve seen that is most effective for strategic planning or a purpose framework, is: “what is it we are here to do” or asking those questions? It’s the organizations that start with the understanding that the answer is probably within the organization.
We need to talk to other people. We need to understand what we think matches what other people think and expect of us and will trust us to take on. That’s secondary. Primarily, how do we start with who we are in the work that we can do together and the change we want to make in the world together. Those organizations that start there end up in a much stronger place and have a much more compelling value proposition to stakeholders, communities, and donors because they have confidence in that purpose.
Where I see some organizations struggling is they start with the idea that they need to ask the world, do an environmental scan, see what everybody else is doing and see how they might fit into it. Instead of building their own box and definition of self, they look for someone else’s definition of the workplace where they may slip in, and it often takes organizations down the wrong path.
It’s encouraging to hear you describe the process that you undertook there at BC Children’s Hospital Foundation. It is such a unique place, as you said a number of times. What do you get to do with that now? You’ve had a messy operational plan, purpose framework, and strategic plan. You’ve got them all ready to go and gather dust on the shelf. What is it you are looking forward to plans for the foundation and for your work in the year to come?
Let me step back and say that the plan is pretty simple. Focus on people, purpose, and connection. People, how do we ensure we have the right people, the right tools, and enabled to create the right experiences to share a purpose that’s clear, compelling, and aspirational where impact is understood, whether it’s big or small philanthropy.
We can enable that external experience and create the relationship, not just internally but externally, that brings that future vision to life. I’m not answering your question but what we didn’t do, was say we are going to raise a gazillion dollars as the leads to our plan. What I would like to think of is we need to, as you’ve asked, describe that future vision, that future state, that place that we want to go and be able to tell the story in a way that inspires people to come along for the ride or want to join us in this effort. The outcome will be that we’ll back into the philanthropy or the dollars that are required to bring the vision to life.
First of all, there’s a tremendous legacy at BC Children’s Hospital Foundation that we celebrate and honor but it can’t be an excuse for complacency or thinking that we’ve done enough. That’s an obvious statement. I acknowledged that we are part of a healthcare system that has probably never been more enabled than it is. It’s not perfect. We all know of countless examples where it’s not perfect but it’s better than it has ever been. Let’s leave it there.
The third thing that I think about when I think of your question is that we’ve never known so much about the disease. We’ve never had so much advanced technological capability. There have never been so many new treatments or ways to look inside patients. Life expectancies have never been longer. Our ability to survive illness has never been greater, and yet, especially as I think about our future or how this plan will look to the future. I recognize we have never spent more on healthcare but we are at this crossroads where our kids, in particular, have never been more important to the future of our community, country, and world. That’s a plain fact.
I think of everything from poverty and violence to preventable injury illness, chronic serious, rare, life-threatening diseases perspective. We need to take our plan and walk in lockstep with our hospital, experts and visionaries, our research institutes, and leaders. Ensure that we have the right people in the right ecosystem, with the right tools, and the right programs. And ensure that from our perspective, kids, but I would also say, our future leaders, have every opportunity to not just survive but to thrive and reach their potential.
What does that mean? We’ve got a challenged environment but we also live in this world of more. I alluded to that a little bit. You’ve got more complexity, cure, and advanced technologies. The need for more collaborative efforts from our healthcare teams and our complex health system. That gets constrained by an ecosystem where there are environmental and economic challenges. The government only has so much money to be able to invest in a whole myriad of critical, important things.
We need to make sure that we are laser-focused on the limited resources that we can invest in the right strategic capital projects. The patient family experience, not just within the walls of the hospital but within the ecosystem that we all live in, we need to make sure that we are a destination for the best and the brightest talent to not only create that intellectual capital, that leads to better therapies and outcomes for our kids. We need to have that research enterprise that allows for those destinations count to have the resources to bring new ideas to life.
That’s what’s in front of us, which is how do we reign that future state and bring it to life? More specifically, I could say things like mental health is obvious, holistic lifelong health or looking at what we do through a lifelong health lens. I think of the novel, personalized approaches to care. The healthcare system transformation, this province has a complex ecosystem. It has been thoughtfully designed but it’s complex.
How do we create a more frictionless and seamless environment for people in the province to be able to navigate care and needs of the patients before us. What does it look like if it’s together-centered? We are all enabled to create that experience that anticipates the needs to make it simpler and have better outcomes.
I love that together-centered. You’ve talked about being in relation a lot through our conversation. That’s a wonderful way of summarizing that approach.
What I think it means is that together, if we are valuing the diversity of experience or the different strengths that we all have together, and that as caregivers can translate into that experience, that is better for our families. For example, I don’t care if you are in Richmond, Surrey, or Northern BC. You can have access to the right people at the right time and the right expertise. That doesn’t get enabled unless we work together. We can’t think together internally without thinking together externally.
I hope our readers take from this not only the content of your message but the approach that you’ve taken to your leadership and being a member of your leadership team and leadership defined throughout your organization. Thank you so much for being on the Discovery Pod.
Thanks, Doug. Be very well.
About Malcolm Berry
Since March 2021, Malcolm Berry has led the team at BC Children’s Hospital Foundation as president & CEO—bringing with him a proven track record of philanthropy and leadership accomplishments in pediatric health care.
Malcolm previously served as chief development officer at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri. During the four years he spent there, Malcolm was instrumental in driving the hospital foundation’s strategy focused on rebuilding and growth, overseeing its first fundraising campaign in over a decade, and increasing the organization’s revenue by more than 45 percent.
Prior to this, Malcolm spent over 10 years at SickKids Foundation in Toronto in many roles—most recently, as vice president of major gifts, where he oversaw major gifts, gift and estate planning, stewardship and donor relations.
An active community volunteer, Malcolm has also served in leadership roles with The Woodmark Group, a North American organization of premier children’s hospitals, and the Canadian Association of Gift Planners.
Malcolm has a Bachelor of Science from Queen’s University, a Bachelor of Education from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Business Administration from McMaster University. In his personal time, Malcolm’s passions include coaching and watching hockey, wine (especially Australian varieties), theatre, music and his family.