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Building Credibility Through Campaigns & Board Engagement with Judy Savage

By July 8th, 2023No Comments21 min read
Home » Building Credibility Through Campaigns & Board Engagement with Judy Savage

DSP 20 | Building Credibility Through Campaigns

Many organizations are confounded with the problem of having their boards support them. Judy Savage, the CEO of Lions Gate Hospital Foundation, has successfully veered from that by building credibility through campaigns and letting the boards actively engage. The meteoric rise of Judy’s foundation over the last number of years shows this, and she lets us in on how they have nurtured the relationships from campaigns with the donors and boards. Moving us into what happens behind the scenes, Judy shares the structure of their high-level discussions and how they get the very best out of the boards.

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Building Credibility Through Campaigns & Board Engagement with Judy Savage

On this episode, we have Judy Savage. She’s been a leader, a consultant with a national firm and for the last few years, she’s been the CEO of Lions Gate Hospital Foundation in North Vancouver. Thank you for joining us, Judy.

Thank you, Doug. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

For those who haven’t been following the meteoric rise of the Lions Gate Hospital Foundation over the last number of years, walk us through some of the things that the foundation has been doing and the impact you’ve had on healthcare in North Vancouver.

We have been on a very exciting journey that I would say started many years. That was when we launched our first capital campaign to build a new emergency department. In doing the campaign, it was the first time that we’d have to implement a campaign structure by way of having a campaign team, a campaign chair, prospects and what have you. We learned a lot from that campaign. We did a couple of things really well and some perhaps not so well. The thing that was key to our success is how we nurtured the relationships from that campaign all the way through the campaign journey through to when the campaign was completed. Also, on the anniversary dates of the opening of the emergency department, we would communicate back to donors the impact of their gift. How it has helped to transform patient care, the impact on the physician and staff morale and working in this beautiful new contemporary facility. That created the momentum for our successive campaigns, which we’ve done six in the few years with increasing goals and with $100 million to build a new medical and surgical center. Each campaign has built on the success of the previous one, all primarily I’d say through donor stewardship activities in nurturing relationships.

It’s one of the things we see a lot with clients here at The Discovery Group that are wanting to significantly increase the role of campaigns or major gifts in their organization. It really is about establishing your organization as a place where that type of philanthropy happens and building up that credibility with donors. You mentioned donor stewardship there. That seems to have been a hallmark of the program that you’ve built.

It has. There are a couple of key components to it. Our philosophy at Lions Gate is to treat every donor like a major donor and treat every donor well. We’ve seen many times over that often the large gifts will come from the most unlikely places. Also, it’s the right thing to do, I should say too, is to treat everybody well. I think the stats in our last $100 million campaign that I pulled for our board, we have 40 people who gave over $100,000. We looked back on their track record of giving, 80% of those people, their first donation to our organization was between $100 and $500. Forty people whose initial gift was between $100 and $500, who through nurturing and building trust and continually to nurture that relationship ended up in our $100 million campaign of giving over $100,000. In fact, even our $25 million lead donor, his first donation was $100. That was a long time of the search. Some of those gifts dated back to a pre-2001. In looking at prospects for a campaign, it’s not to overlook anybody.

Treat every donor like a major donor. Click To Tweet

One of the things we always talk about here on the show is the relationship between the CEO and the board. You’ve referenced already that you have a great board. I want to talk a little bit more about that. As you’ve been in your role for a longer period, are there decisions you’re finding that you’re more comfortable making on your own without your board than you would have been, say, ten or more years ago?

I would say that, for sure, I’m more comfortable. I’m way more comfortable in the role than I was obviously when I started way back when. I’m more familiar with the organization and with all the players. In terms of making decisions by myself, I like to involve the board. We’re in this together and I think our board feels a great deal of ownership, both the foundation and their role at the hospital. In terms of me making decisions by myself, I like to consult with our board or there may be situations where we have one, the cannabis issue. Do we accept proceeds from the sale of cannabis? In that, I’m taking a recommendation to the board rather than saying, “What should we do about this?” I’m taking a recommendation, which is going to be that we do not accept it at this time for a variety of reasons. There may be issues where I’ll make a recommendation and say, “This is why we should go this way,” but part of the power of our board and why people really enjoy it, this is towards the end of our year and we’ve just done our board survey, which we do every year.

I was so heartened by the number of directors who said they’re so fulfilled by their role and it’s one of the best things that they do with their “free time.” They are a thoroughly engaged board and I think that’s because of the discussion we have at the board table. They’re very high-level. Our board is not an operational board. That’s my role. It’s very strategic. The meetings are incredibly well-planned and well thought out. We’ve made it a really enjoyable opportunity. My short answer is, yes, I’m more comfortable, however I rely on our board. It’s a two-way street in terms of our discussions. Does that answer the question?

Can you give us an example of how you structure those high-level discussions to make sure you’re getting the very best out of the board as they’re sitting around the table?

We do have an executive committee and one of their key roles is setting the board agenda. Our board chair is two years and the chair is always focused on ensuring that everybody has a voice at the table and that we provide everybody with an opportunity to share their ideas. We’ve built into our board agendas a fair bit of time for what we call the open forum. In my experience of speaking to others in the industry, sometimes board meetings can be a series of committee chairs giving reports. Our directors, before they come on the board and their roles and responsibilities, they’re expected to read their board package, which goes out of a week in advance to do any required research. We provide them with what the motions are going to be, that we expect them to come to the meeting informed, prepare for the discussion and to vote accordingly. I would say that a lot of planning and thought goes into our meetings which starts with the executive committee level.

I was working with a board and a veteran not-for-profit board member said that he wanted to see the organization move away from an assault by PowerPoint at the board meetings. I thought that was a good way of framing what a lot of organizations do which is, “Here’s the finance report, the governance report, the marketing report and the event report. Any questions? No? Okay.” “Here’s a presentation and we’re done.” To really get the most out of the people sitting around the board table, there has to be space for them to think, to understand and to probe the issues facing the organization. Otherwise, they’re sitting on their hands and you’re not getting what you need out of those bright people that want to be engaged.

DSP 20 | Building Credibility Through Campaigns

Building Credibility Through Campaigns: To get the most out of the people sitting around the board table, there has to be space for them to think, understand, and probe the issues facing the organization.

Where we came up with this open forum section in our meetings, we do a board survey every year where directors evaluate themselves. They evaluate the group and they provide us with feedback. We heard that there wasn’t enough time for discussion and that’s why we’ve built in this discussion section.

Let’s be really tactical. What happens in the open forum? How is that structured?

The open forum is in the last three-quarters of the meeting. One of the things right up front is if we’ve had agenda items that are starting to run over time, topics that require more discussion, the chair will say, “Let’s move that into the open forum of the meeting,” so that we can keep the agenda on track. If you have an agenda item that’s up near the beginning that you don’t think it’s going to have a lot of discussions but people have a lot to say. In order to keep the agenda on time, we’ll move the discussion into the open forum. If nobody has anything to say, what are some things that we can plan to stimulate some discussion? We will always have a couple of key points. Our directors are very engaged and I think they feel incredibly comfortable to speak their minds. I’m very fortunate in that regard that it’s not a divided board in any way and we’ve created that space to be open and transparent and share any ideas. We’re never at a loss as to have a discussion during open forum.

Does your board also do an in-camera work at the end of the meeting as well?

Not every meeting. They will do one probably once a year around the time that the CEO performance review is done. All of our other standing committees do as well once a year, the governance, the finance and the executive.

It’s important that this idea of the open forum to give directors the opportunity to ask questions, to bring up perspective or point of view, and to ask for more background in particular issues that are facing the organization. Doing that in an open forum, in an open meeting, all of that discussion is actionable and works very well. What we see too often is the in-camera being used as a way to re-argue or reopen a lot of things that had been decided and voted on in the open meeting. I think that open forum concept to something that a lot of organizations could really benefit from and the decisions that you’re more comfortable making as a CEO as time has gone on. Are there decisions or areas that you’re more open to the board stepping into than you were perhaps when you first became the CEO?

Sometimes we just have to shift the way that we look at something. Click To Tweet

I’m going back in my mind quite a bit. I’ve just grown so much in the role, as you imagine after many years. I can’t say there is anything specific because we’ve kept our board as a strategic governance board as opposed to operational. I would not take HR issues to the board. I wouldn’t take any issues, the things that the foundation staff need to solve. Lately and this would be more operational, we’ve had a case with our $100 million campaign where we had two pledges that were quite lost. One was about a year and the other one was several months. We had done everything we could to secure these pledges. I took it to the board because I knew that some of the board members would know the individuals who were heavy pledgers. The last thing I said to the board was, “I am not expecting any director to become a bill collector. I’m sharing this with you because it’s an issue that we’re starting to face. I’d like your input on how we approach this.”

I don’t know if that’s a good idea, but that it’s an operational issue. We’ve resolved it, we’ve plucked it on the money or if there’s been an issue with any estates, which is typically an operational issue. I share with the board simply because they’re coming from the private sector, they have different experiences and they’re going to look at something through a different lens. I really value that. Sometimes we just have to shift the way that we look at something. It’s not looking to the board necessarily to solve the problem, but that’s why we have a board. They’re there to help us with our job, help us to be successful, and they can bring a very important different lens to some issues that we’re facing.

How would you describe that culture?

I would say it’s very respectful. We’re all playing for the same team. We all have the same objective, which is to the foundation to significantly enhance the patient experience at Lions Gate Hospital. We are respectful of each other’s experiences and opinions and we have a lot of fun. It truly is. In our board meetings, typically we would have been nineteen directors and I would say 80% of our meetings we’ll have 100% attendance. We do a planning day once a year. It’s on a Saturday in January. We have directors who are CEOs of companies, people with homes all over the world. People fly in for this. We will have 100% attendance is our planning day. People know that’s the expectation before they come on the board. It’s been made very clear and they’ve seen that through their committee work.

It’s viewed as a privilege to serve on our board and to be in a company of the other directors who have also worked for the board and are highly respected people within our community. I think we put all that together and we have an exciting discussion at our board. In my experience, there has never been an issue that has divided the board. We have robust discussions where we land on a decision that we all at the end agree this is the right thing to do for the foundation. The other thing too that I’ve experienced with some colleagues is the board gets way too involved in operational issues.

I can say that when I first started, one of the toughest jobs I had to do was make a recommendation to the board at an event that had been held for ten years. It was called the 911 Relay. It was the big fundraiser for the foundation. I made a recommendation within my first year that this event had to stop. When I looked at the numbers, I can say it wasn’t a fundraising event. It was losing money. It seemed like it was raising money. Lots of people were involved and sponsors and what have you, but when I took a close look at how many people took to organize that event, the cost of the fundraising was ridiculous. We could be allocating our resources in a far more effective way. I met with some of the sponsors who had sponsored for ten years and they were all too happy not to have to sponsor this event again. We were coming up to the tenth year.

DSP 20 | Building Credibility Through Campaigns

Building Credibility Through Campaigns: The CEO is far better off laying out the criteria and the expectations upfront to save anybody any pain because at the end of the day, it’s going to weigh on them.

I said, “Why don’t we celebrate the tenth year, celebrate the great run of this event and let’s move on?” I do remember one director getting his back up and saying, “This is the hallmark event at the foundation and we should keep it. What makes you think that you can just recommend we cancel?” I said, “I think that’s why you hired me.” They had hired somebody to steer the ship and make recommendations and make sure that the organization was effective and that was what I was doing. That was one person who spoke out. After that I had members of the executive calling me and saying, “Don’t worry about that guy. You’re doing the right thing.” It’s a tough thing to do because the organization loves this event. When they looked at the hard numbers and every event has a life cycle. When is the right time to move on to something else? You don’t want it when you know you can’t get enough sponsors and the participation is declined to the point where you have to cancel the event. This wasn’t a cancellation. This was a celebration of ten years of a wonderful fundraising event.

The framing there is beautiful. It’s perfect to say it was a celebration.

I did agonize over it because it was a hallmark for the hospital and the community all knew about this 911 Relay and then here’s the super suit comes in and says, “We’re not doing it anymore.”

I’ll ask you one more question about the board. You described how committed they are in terms of attendance and seeing how hard their colleagues are working to contribute to the organization. I’m sure you’ve seen other places in the sector where boards will recruit people saying, “You don’t have to do very much. It’s not very much just a couple of meetings a year. It’d be great to have you on the board. Time and time again, at The Discovery Group, we see boards that are built that way really struggling to support the organization because that culture, that ethos of hard work isn’t there. If you had to bring it down to one element, what does that one element about your board culture that keeps them focused and keeps them so dedicated?

We have a document called roles and responsibilities. I have two parts to this question. I have lived that as well. We have had the occasion where a director has come on where they’ve come to leapfrog over the committee process because they were a big name fundraiser what have you and it hasn’t worked out. I think you’re far better off to be clear to every nominee coming on and say, “I know the roles and responsibilities. We spell out absolutely what is expected of a director. You’re expected to come to these meetings, do your pre-reading. You’re expected to identify so many prospects, you’re expected you to recruit your successor.”

I’ll say that if you don’t think you can fulfill all of these roles and the responsibilities of a director, I don’t think our board is for you. You’re far better off to lay out the criteria and the expectations upfront to save anybody any pain because at the end of the day, it’s going to weigh on the CEO. It’s going to be tough to get rid of that person if they don’t show up for 50% of the meetings. Being really clear in what you’re expecting you to the director and shortchanging by saying it’s only these many meetings. At the end of the day, it’s going to be a detriment to the organization. I think you’re better off to have fewer directors who are committed than trying to fill the seats with anyone with a beating heart just to say that you’ve got people around the table.

If we want to be treated as executives and professionals, we need to dress and act the part. Click To Tweet

How many of your very significant donors are on your board?

Let me say this to you, that every one of our directors is a donor right up front. If you haven’t been a contributor, then you will because 100% contribution or participation is a criterion. We’ve gone through phases where we’ve had some of our very major donors, but they haven’t been on the board because they’re a major donor. They’ve come on the board because they have other criteria as identified by the governance committee. We have a board matrix that spells out the different qualifications, skills and experience that we’re looking for to be represented on our board. We also include in that gender balance, ethnic diversity and geographic location. We try to have our directors spread across the North Shore. If they happen to be a major donor and they have those other qualities, then we invite them to come on the board. We had a $10 million donor. We wouldn’t say, “Come on our board.” They would need to also meet some of the other criteria.

That is an excellent point and I really want to underline that we see all the time boards that have very significant donors on it and it’s great to have those people. They’ve shown their commitment. The risk that can happen over time is that every board meeting turns into a stewardship opportunity and not into a governing board discussion. It becomes even more difficult to put the hard issues on the table or to make those hard decisions. The donors, even though they’re just one of the number of directors, are viewed by their colleagues as having a disproportionate voice or vote in terms of the organizational direction.

I would think very carefully for having one of our very major donors for that very reason, because I would think, “There are certain things that we wouldn’t want this donor here.” I can’t think what, but I would be very wary of that.

I describe it sometimes as not every person who goes to a Michelin star restaurant wants to see what happens in the kitchen. I think our donors can sometimes want that stewardship, want that celebration. They would want to feel good about their gift and their connection to the organization. The fiduciary and governing responsibility being a director, in some ways for some people, interferes with the enjoyment of their giving. Moving away from the board down to the advice that you would give to others in the sector. Your experience as CEO and your track record is enviable, to say the least. Looking at the changes that have happened in the sector in your time at Lions Gate, are there trends that you’ve seen that are really encouraging that are making you feel good about the way the direction of social profit sector is going?

Absolutely. I love working in the sector. It provides so many exceptional opportunities to meet incredible people and to work with a broad array of individuals. It is a profession. I would encourage people to get their CFRE. I’d also say one of the philosophies I’ve always held with my role is that yes, we’re the not-for-profit sector, social sector. We are a profession and I run our foundation or approach as if it was a business. That is being a professional at all times and showing up as a CEO. Showing up to work dressed as if $1 million is going to walk through the door that day. If we want to be treated as executives and professionals, we need to dress and act the part and that will carry through to the rest of the organization too in how they “show up for work.” It’s having a genuine interest in people, a genuine passion for what they’re raising money for and always acting as a professional. I don’t know if that answers the question that you’re looking for, but just because it’s a charitable sector, social profit, doesn’t mean that we should conduct ourselves in any other way other than the private sector does.

DSP 20 | Building Credibility Through Campaigns

Building Credibility Through Campaigns: Being able to make it clear what being a member of the board means and what the expectations are enables people to bring their full professional and personal selves to the board and advance the organization.

My next question is going to be for someone who is starting or has just been named CEO of an organization, taking on their first CEO role, a lot of people spend time thinking, “What’s my 30-day, 60-day, 100-day plan?” What would you say to somebody who was sitting down, pen to paper, thinking about what that plan is going to look like?

I think one of the first things I do is probably find somebody to be a mentor. Somebody else that they knew on the sector of a similar size organization that they can get some advice from. I know that when I started my job, I talked to a lot of other hospital CEOs. I came from a consulting firm where I did a lot of interviews. Interviewing somebody wasn’t a challenge for me but learning all that I could in how others have found success in their roles and words of advice for me as I was starting out. When I started in my role, I met as many people as I possibly could just to get the lay of the land, understand the personalities, understanding each of the staff on what their roles were and not making any judgments and really listening. That was probably for at least the first six months.

Slowly I started forming my plans on how to shift the organization. We were a very events-heavy organization when I started and very reliant to them direct mail. I had come from major gifts and campaign background. All the pieces were there. There’s a fabulous foundation that had been for me to step into and then it was a matter of taking it to the next level in terms of nurturing the relationships which we have seen have really led us towards success. The key thing I think is listening and understanding the culture of the organization and having a mentor and talking to others, learning from others as you develop your plans.

At the end of these conversations, I like to find the three great nuggets of information that people should take away. I want to go over those three that I’ve taken down through our conversation. The first was to treat every donor like a major donor and really focus on that stewardship and being a place where significant philanthropy happens. It happens because of the relationships and the connections that you build. The second was in working with your board was to be open to seeing things through a different lens. You share the concept of the open forum as part of the board meeting as a way to encourage that generative discussion, that strategic conversation that builds bonds between the board members and their connection to the organization. Finally, the very important and tactical piece had a very clear set down a list of the roles and responsibilities for board members. Being able to make it really clear what being a member of the board means and what the expectations are, enables people to bring their full professional and personal selves to the board and advance the organization. I want to thank you for sharing those three concepts and a lot of other great nuggets in there. Thank you for being a part of the show.

Thank you. It’s my pleasure to do this.

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