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CHEO Foundation: How Transparent Leadership and “The Trailing Edge” Contribute to Success With Kevin Keohane

By July 8th, 2023No Comments25 min read
Home » CHEO Foundation: How Transparent Leadership and “The Trailing Edge” Contribute to Success With Kevin Keohane

Kevin Keohane, the CEO of Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Foundation, talks about CHEO Foundation’s mandate and how they strive to serve the community and help CHEO deliver the care that children need. Kevin shares the fundraising strategies and activities that keep the Foundation moving forward, and discusses the importance of building a diverse foundation around the community it serves. Learn how Kevin approaches leadership, and why he believes that aligned leadership and being on “the trailing edge” is critical to the Foundation’s success.

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CHEO Foundation: How Transparent Leadership and “The Trailing Edge” Contribute to Success With Kevin Keohane

Our guest is Kevin Keohane. He’s the CEO of Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Foundation. Welcome, Kevin.

Thank you. It’s great to speak with you.

Tell us a little bit about what’s going on at CHEO and what our listeners should be paying attention to.

Unfortunately, CHEO is always a busy place. We are fortunate that we have the opportunity to serve not only the Ottawa region, Eastern Ontario, Northern Ontario, Western Quebec and Nunavut. We serve a vast region and that’s a great honor for the CHEO team to be able to do. It’s also a big challenge because when you touch the lives of 500,000 children a year, you need to have a lot of people behind you, helping you to make sure that we deliver the care that these kids deserve.

With a mandate that broad, I would imagine you’ve got a diverse donor base that supports the work of your foundation.

We do. More than just a diverse donor base, we have likely the most diverse line up of fundraising activities of certainly any other foundation in our region. It’s something that we would probably share by that fact that we support children’s health and the population we serve. We’re forced into a more diverse line up of fundraising activities. A number of my colleagues across the country would be in a similar situation.

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As CEO, how do you keep coherence? How do you keep all of that organized when you’ve got that diversity of revenue experience happening?

The key to any success that we have is the fact that A, we have a great team. B, we support an incredible organization that is respected and cherished within the community. We have an unbelievable line up of people who I call partners or donors. They’re volunteers, they’re event organizers, they’re sponsors, they’re corporate partners. You name it, we have. If I want to point to what our success is, they are the reason behind our success.

With that broad spectrum of activities going on, how do you pair that with setting priorities for fundraising, where you think donors or your partners can make the greatest impact on Children’s health in your region?

This is something where we may be a bit different than some others. I’ll have to explain. I’ve seen the foundation as being on the trailing edge in terms of alignment with CHEO. We aren’t here to execute our own mandate of initiatives to support CHEO. What we do instead is we’re here to support the work of CHEO and CHEO Research Institute and also Roger Neilson House. What we do is we align behind their priorities. Our fundraising activities are designed in order to provide us with obviously the capacity that we need to meet our commitments to CHEO. Also, create, not a mutual fund of activities but certainly something where not all of our eggs are in the same basket. We can hopefully withstand years where there are greater or lesser returns in one particular stream, that our other streams will be enough to elevate us up to where we need to be and in many cases in most years above that.

That’s one of the great advantages of having that diverse revenue stream. I like the phrase, “We’re on the trailing edge.” I want to ask you a little bit more about that. We align behind the priorities of the Roger Neilson House, CHEO, CHEO Research Institute. They are great ideas. Are there ever times when you are going to your partner and saying, “We need you to articulate your priorities clearly?” How do you broach that subject?

It’s a common challenge not only for our organization, but I’d say a lot of foundations that support organizations both in healthcare and otherwise. We are fortunate that there is tremendous alignment between the leaders of the organization. We understand that the only way that we’re going to be able to accomplish the goals that make life better for kids and families is by working together. There’s a really open and honest dialogue that goes on between myself and Alex Munter who’s the President and CEO of CHEO. Jason Berman, who’s taken over as the CEO and Scientific Director of CHEO Research Institute. Also, with Roger Neilson House where the Executive Director Megan Wright is also the Head of palliative care here at CHEO.

It’s making sure that we have alignment between those people that we have a shared vision of what it is we’re trying to accomplish and how we’re going to do that. From our standpoint, we believe that the thing that we need to adhere to is making sure that the money that’s used by our organizations is used with the type of intent that our donors have. We’re always mindful of being reminding everybody that when we have discussions around the things that the foundation can support, that the foundation and the word community are interchangeable.

We, the foundation are a reflection of the community. That is interchangeable. We are fortunate to live in a community where there’s a sense of an ownership stake in the hospital in CHEO. We are constantly putting that focus on the type of support that we provide. We’re not like a government back account where you would go and draw on things that would not necessarily match with donor intent. There are great recognition and appreciation for that among the leaders of the organizations we support. That’s a big hurdle. What we do is we have discussions around, what are the things that you need the support with? What falls within our scope that we are able to support? We’re able to align and make sure that things that are important to take CHEO from being a place that provides good care to one that provides exceptional care, is largely filled by what donors and the community help us to do.

That orientation of being the voice or the vehicle of the community support is challenging for some foundations to get their heads around or to put themselves in that place. The perception is that lessens the importance or the prestige of the foundation. My experience across the country both Canada and the United States, is those organizations that position themselves as that vehicle for community support are the ones that are raising money most consistently, most sustainably in moving things forward. Has that been your experience?

Yeah, from the day I was lucky enough to come into this job, I made it a priority to make sure that myself and the leaders of the hospital and the research institute were well aligned. Part of that is, I see myself and I see our role as being here to support them. When we have events where we bring donors together, I want people to hear from, “I want to thank our donors.” I want the CEO of the hospital to share with us and share with them the impact that community support is having within the hospital.

I want the thanks to come not to the foundation. I want the thanks to come to the community. People don’t love the CHEO Foundation, they love CHEO. We’re here in order to help the community to exercise its desire to make life better for kids and families by collaborating with them. Connecting them with opportunities to make improvements within CHEO, to support research at the research institute. To make sure that children that are at life-limiting situations receive all of the care, support and love that they need.

It is a complete honor for our team and me to work in support of those amazing people that provide that care and conduct that research. Maybe it’s from growing up in a family of eight kids, everybody was treated this, everybody was the same. You needed to find in different situations what your role was in that. I recognize that in this role, my job is to help to make sure that CHEO has everything that it needs, that the community has a chance to participate in that, that they understand the importance of the role that they’re playing. They feel appreciated and that they can see themselves inside the walls of the hospital in the things that are happening here. For me, it’s an absolute honor and privilege to have a chance to play that role. That’s how our team feels.

That sounds like that’s a very natural role for you as a leader. Are there ever times where you are pushed to maintain that perspective or you feel like, “I need to be at this table,” we need to be considered? We need to be positioned in a different way in order to continue to do the job we’re doing.

Our support is broad-based. We have a huge number of community events which both large and small collectively add up to an awful lot of money that we put into CHEO each and every year. One of the challenges is always to make sure that we are able to be out there and to be actively engaged in as many of these events as we can so that we can adequately thank people in the community. The challenge is not of a lack of desire to do it. The challenge sometimes is the bandwidth to make sure that you could get to all of these events and still do the work that we need to do in our offices. For our staff to do that and still maintain family life, it is supporting one another and divided in some ways. Split up the job and make sure that we have enough leaders on our team to get out and be able to adequately represent the foundation in the community in the way that they need to.

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One of the important parts of representing the community comes down to your foundation board. What percentage of your time would you say a CEO is dedicated to working directly with the board?

Probably less than some of my colleagues from what I understand. I would probably say it’s only 10% of my time. We’ve got the good fortune to have a history of working with a board that views the foundation as a fundraising organization. They come on to the board with the idea that their role, while important in the sense of oversight and making sure that the foundation is run responsibly, ethically, that it is not exposing itself to undue risks. It is upholding the reputation and the values of the organization. All those things, we’re very confident that we have the confidence of this board and subsequent generations of boards. Where they also see the importance of their role is that they are for us important connectors to different networks that they each have. We have representation on our board from some of our corporate partners. We have representation on our board from different communities that support us. What each of them does in a very different way is a help to be advocates for CHEO. They help to open doors for the staff so that we can get in and share the important work that CHEO has to do and see if we can connect people with the work we’re trying to do at their desire. To make sure that every kid in our region is able to live their best life.

On behalf of all of your colleagues and social profit organizations everywhere in the world, congratulations on getting 10% of your time being spent with the board, that is truly a feat. You’ve been in the role as CEO for years, you’ve been with the organization for much longer than that. As you’ve been in your role, how has your conversation working with the board changed?

It’s changed quite a bit. It’s probably important for me, any time I’m talking about my involvement with CHEO to wind back before I was at CHEO. I was very lucky to be working in the world of media. I was in marketing and sales and in my career with the Ottawa citizens. It was a newspaper industry. I had incidents that made CHEO special to us. That was, I had two kids. My daughter was born and was a frequent user of CHEO for asthma. We would be here frequently. A few years later, my son was born nine weeks prematurely and came to CHEO in a nice select transfer near to the NICU. I discovered that he had more challenges than we thought when he arrived. He soon went into surgery and developed a respiratory ailment and CHEO saved his life.

I cannot think of a more powerful incentive to have somebody be buying into the mission of an organization that has cared for one of your kids and saved another one. A few years later when I was given the opportunity to come to CHEO, I came here for a specific role, I was not from the charitable sector. I didn’t have a lot of the knowledge and experience within the sector that one might expect to come into a vice president of development and corporate relations role. I had come from media marketing and sales and had worked with a lot of organizations, both through agencies and through major contacts and corporations across Canada. I had an unusual contact list to come in to support things like our lottery. One of the main reasons that I was brought in was to work on CHEO’s dream of a lifetime lottery and take responsibility for that, and some other sponsored programs and the types of activities that don’t qualify for a tax receipt.

When I got here, it was evident to me how much I had to learn, and how lucky I was that I was surrounded by a group of people who were willing to share what they learned and what they knew with me so that I could catch up. First thing I admitted to them, “Everybody here that is working for me, you know more about this job than I do. I’m going to learn about it through you.” I was very lucky and they helped me to do that. As long as you’re willing to admit what you don’t know, it’s the best way to go. I can tell you to this day, I’m still admitting all kinds of things that I don’t know and I mean that.

I’m learning from our team. I continue to learn from our team every day and from people that are members of our board or people that are supporters who do things for us, who provide for us unique perspectives on what we’re doing and how we might do things differently. I love to be able to take advantage of other people’s thoughts and ideas. I like to share my own and get people to provide feedback on them. I like to make people comfortable in knowing that if you don’t like what I’m saying, I’m okay in hearing that. I may not agree with you, and I might do what I was going to do anyway. At least I value the feedback that comes and I’ve hopefully avoided some situations which would not have had good outcomes by listening to others. Hopefully, we’ve had some experiences of trying to do it better because we didn’t listen.

The best leaders in our sector understand and take to heart the idea that they don’t need to be right as an organization. They need to find the right answer. It does change the tender of the conversations around the senior management team or around the board table, to have a leader that is open. You’re learning from your senior management team, as you’ve been CEO for a few years, are there issues, ideas or projects that you’re more comfortable letting them run with than you were in your first couple of years as CEO?

I was lucky to have been here for years by the time I had taken over as the CEO. The people that I had the opportunity to work with and watch, I’d already gained a great deal of confidence in. What I knew was, if you give these people the right type of support and the opportunity to do their work and don’t try to micromanage it, but be there to help and support. Provide feedback and at times move in and offer opinions which may or may not have been solicited, that’s my job. I’m lucky to have an amazing team. I’ve got people who I never need to worry about where someone is. If I don’t see them, I’m not worried that they’re not working. I know they’re working and they’re working out in the community where I need them to be.

When I come into the office on the weekend, I find the office looks like a weekday. These are guys that are in here at times when you’re in this business. We’re heavily event-driven that I have people here that I need to pull them aside and say, “How is your time off? What do you need? Are we being fair with people?” All these guys want to support our event partners and they don’t want to do anything that doesn’t reflect well on CHEO. They don’t want to do anything that lets down our event partners that have them feel I’m not supporting. They understand the importance of what the money is doing within CHEO. I am blessed. You always assume that this is the way it is everywhere, but I’m very lucky that I go to events and activities that people are to articulate your priorities clearly saying to me, “You have an amazing team.” I feel proud when I hear that and I quickly agree with them. I attribute the success of the organization to the leadership we have across the team.

One of the challenges that we often hear in the sector is that it’s very hard to find people who are ready to move into an executive director or CEO role. There’s quite an industry of searching consultants who work to fill chairs when CEOs vacate them. What advantages do you think, or what’s your perspective on having been in that organization? What did that allow you to do when you became CEO as opposed to if you’ve been coming in from the outside on that for day one?

In this case, for me it was a massive advantage. It’s been good for the organization. The reason I say that is because if I had not worked in some of the areas, I was responsible for running some of our major events before moving out of those and having people come in behind me. What it’s allowed me to do is consult with the people who are running activities I used to do, or use our lottery as an example. The person that’s now running our lottery, Dan Champagne, had taken that to a level that quite frankly it was not at that level when I was doing it myself. He’s made massive improvements in it. That’s where I brought him in to do. He’s looking at it with some different tools available to us, the analytics and other tools that we now have which we didn’t have when I was doing it, he’s taken advantage of that. Our team has taken advantage of those things.

We are constantly trying to innovate and trying to find different ways to connect with our supporters to make that goal. To put that into dollars and cents terms, it’s possible that we netted over $4 million with our lottery. This is not a huge market. That is quite an achievement that I’m proud of, we could have cracked $5 million. I’ve done this. I know how difficult that can be and to see the increases we see in that area to me speaks to the strength of our team. I’ve been able to offer feedback and at least put historical context of why some things were done because I was here, and then get out of the way and let Dan and the rest of people on the team look and say, “How can we modernize this and take it forward and utilize the tools that are now available to us?” To consider the things that we did in the past and why, but to evolve them and take them forward. They’ve done that. That’s one example. There have been many of those examples across our team.

What advice would you give to somebody in an organization who is anticipating a change with the leadership in the next couple of years, to prepare themselves to be ready to step into that CEO role?

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In my role, it’s incumbent of me to be as open and transparent with our senior leadership team as I can possibly be. We all like to think that we’re going to be here forever or that we get to come and go on our own timelines and schedules. The reality is that life happens. If something was to happen to me, I would not have felt that I did my job if I didn’t think that I could go away from here. At least for a prolonged period of time, this place would continue to flourish because the leadership across the team is strong. They were already well in tune in the direction that we’re going, that we would not be disadvantaged by my absence. I feel strongly about that. I feel confident that we have incredible leadership across the team, and without trying to be self-deprecating or anything of that nature. This team could move this ship forward extremely well with or without me. They will need leadership obviously but the leadership can come from within.

What advice would you give to someone either on your team or you can think of a hypothetical person that thinks well? When Kevin is ready to move on in many years or whenever you’re going to move on, what advice would you give to that person to be ready to step into a CEO role there at CHEO or to move on to another organization to be the leader?

I don’t think I would limit this to what I would say to aim for the CEO. I would say what I’ve said and I continue to say to people at every level, “You can’t become a job opportunity time superstar.” What you need to be is somebody who is a leader on the team at whatever level you’re at every day that you’re at work. I’ve been fortunate that opportunities that have come my way were not necessarily things that you applied for. They were something where I’m like this and I know many people are like this. You know that you’re going to need to have changes in your team through a variety of causes, whether it is retirements or good people getting opportunities elsewhere.

You need to be looking at, “Who do I know that is a great performer? I know their style, how they work with a team.” They’re simple things. It’s, how do they interact with their coworkers? Are they the first people to embrace change and to help make sure that the change happens properly? Are they people that offer constructive concerns in the right environment to caution us from going down the wrong path? Are they people that go off and try to cause division in the team and upset the team? All of those things that your mom and dad taught you when you were kids, don’t lie. Be honest. Be fair with people. Those are not complicated, they’re basic values that will serve at every position, it will serve you well.

If you want to get to the next level in any organization no matter what level you’re at, do the best job you can in the one you’re in now. That’s the best preparation you could get because there’s only going to be one new CEO at this foundation but there’s going to need to be a great team. Either as the leader or someone supporting the leader, do the best job you can. Keep focused on what our mission is. Let’s all be thinking, let’s try to keep egos in check and keep goals and objectives in line. If we do that, we’re going to have a lot of success and we’re going to have a lot of great leaders within the team.

A good friend of mine, Veronica Carroll, her advice is for people wanting to step up is show up. Whatever that means to you, on whatever day of the week just show up. Your advice to show up with integrity and intention is a nice addition to that. Where do you find new ideas or inspiration as a leader?

Through a lot of discussion with our team, I was finding when I first came into the job that there were things, especially with our senior leadership group. You’d be forced to have the same conversation two or three times over the course of the day. This sounds basic but everybody has coffee in the morning. This is nothing innovative to have a coffee meeting with people. The fact is that if we’re in here and get together and during the course of the coffee, you have a little chat. You might talk for a minute about what the game was on last night or something that occurred in local news then you get on to here are the things that happened yesterday. Here are some things that are happening now. Keeping it so that the communication, there’s not long lag times between communication flow between people.

The supposed talk of the organization at the bottom, I like to look at it as flat as possible across the organization and not have those. The idea is when you do that, the idea is it gives the opportunity for communication to happen fairly easily. Some of our greatest ideas are some ideas that we’ve built upon, have come from people who are not fundraisers. They’re people that work as part of our team who have provided great ideas that we’ve been able to work together and build upon. It gives everybody a real sense of achievement to the input. Hopefully, they know through every part of the organization that they’re valued.

I want to reflect back on a couple of the things that you said. I love the concept of being on the trailing edge. That’s something that I may be used in some presentations. In service mentality, to view the organization as a place where the community expresses its commitment to the hospital is a powerful image for social profit leaders regardless of their sector to be paying attention to. What’s come through strongly is your commitment to openness as a leader to new ideas and the expertise of the people around you and the board members that support you. Often in the course of our work with The Discovery Group, we come into organizations where a bunker mentality or a defensive miss has set in. It’s refreshing to hear of an organization where that defensiveness, when it does appear, dissipates very quickly and doesn’t show up very often. Congratulations on that.

Thank you. I would put the credit for that to the other people that make it possible to work that way. It doesn’t work by just one person doing it. It means that there are a number of people that are on the same page. They all have the same focus on doing what’s best for kids and families. If you always put kids and families and their needs first, the rest of the stuff takes care of itself because everybody will rally behind that. People can sense when there is important work to be done and there is an important need. One of the things that are, to me, fundamentally different about working for a children’s hospital, we are lucky here in Ottawa. We have incredible organizations, the Ottawa Hospital, the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, those are the two that come to mind most often for me or immediately. Although I’ve seen it in other wonderful hospitals in our region as well.

We have one fundamental difference, in all of them we have exceptional people trying to do great things for their patients and their families. The only difference is our patient population is newborn to the age of eighteen. We cannot target that population from a fundraising perspective. The people, the young families that we have, even those parents are themselves in the adult health system. They have themselves aging parents in the adult health system. The focus tends to go forward. You tend now, you’re in the adult health system and when your children graduate out. We need the support to come from people that don’t use the hospital, that doesn’t forget and they look back and realize that I either had a time when my kids needed CHEO or had a time when they were lucky enough that their kids never needed CHEO.

There are still kids and young families in the community who can never be, won’t be major gift-givers. They won’t be the people that we need to rely on to accumulate most of the funding that we need. Young families are amazing. They organize events. They buy lottery tickets. They sponsor friends in certain activities. They make donations with the cash, a dollar at a time every time they go through some of our retail partners. They can’t be the big heavy lifters. We need the rest of the community to look back and say, “The health and well-being of kids in our community are important.” Kids have always been in most people’s lives, the number one priority in their life. They need at times to align their own philanthropy with what their core values are and that is making sure that those kids are taken care of. Luckily in Ottawa, we have a lot of people who do that. Our mission is to grow and try to activate the others and say, “No matter what you’re doing, please take a look at what we’re trying to do here. If you can help us, it will make you feel good and we’ll certainly appreciate it.”

To all our readers, that’s exactly what it sounds like when a hospital foundation effectively embraces movement philanthropy. That is powerful. Great words and great lessons, Kevin. Thank you for being a part of the Discovery Pod.

Thank you.

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About Kevin Keohane

Kevin Keohane is the President and CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Foundation. Kevin spent 20 years with the Ottawa Citizen prior to joining the CHEO Foundation as Vice President, Development & Corporate Relations in 2001. In 2011, he was promoted to Chief Operating Officer and was subsequently appointed as President and CEO at the end of 2012. Kevin is also a member of the Canadian Children’s Hospital Foundation Executives (CCHFE) and the CHEO Foundation’s lead representative with Children’s Miracle Network (CMN).