It takes great effort and dedication to take a cause forward and more than a strategy to earn a donor’s trust. In this episode, the CEO of the KPU Foundation and Vice President of External Affairs at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Randall Heidt, joins Douglas Nelson as he shares the impact of donors on their institution and any organization. Their insightful conversations take us to the different factors contributing to the success of their initiatives to raise funds to help students reach their educational, career, and life goals. Randall talks about how to effectively manage the expectations of highly motivated leaders and the importance of communicating with them to be on the same page and get them involved in the process to help them secure the resources they need. He also shares how awareness and building connections are key to finding the alignment between your vision and your donor’s passion.
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Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) With Randall Heidt
I’m thrilled to share my conversation with our guest for this episode, Randall Heidt. He is the CEO of the KPU Foundation and Vice President of External Affairs at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He is a veteran of our sector. Starting as a journalist and moving into post-secondary education advancement, he has a wealth of experience that he shares in our discussion.
Those of you starting programs and fundraisers who are charged with getting out the door are going to enjoy knowing his stories and advice about activating programs, getting out in front of your donors, listening to your donors and advancing your institution. Randall shares some examples, some good and some bad as we go through. You’ll learn a lot and enjoy this conversation a great deal. Here’s Randall Heidt.
Welcome, Randall. It’s great to have you here.
Thanks so much for having me here, Doug. I appreciate it.
Randall, we’re looking forward to a great conversation about Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Also, the great work that you and your team do there but I want to start with your first memory of giving back to the community either as a donor or as a volunteer that may have spurred you to become the president of the foundation you are now.
One was probably with the Spirit of the North Healthcare Foundation in Northern BC. So I was working at Prince George Citizen at the time. I was the City Editor there. Our publisher had been on the Spirit of the North Healthcare Foundation for several years. They had this fantastic thing around Christmas, which was the Festival of Trees. It raised a lot of money for important causes in the community. He asked me to go on that board and take his space. He was a little bit too busy. I love fundraising and the idea of helping people before that but when I got to go there and help people, it transformed me as well and I was able to give back. I’ve been doing that for more than twenty years since then.
Was there a moment when you had that chance to be on the Spirit of the North Healthcare Foundation where you said, “This is something different than what I’m doing in my day job?”
Yeah, because it was a different talk. We’re raising funds primarily for the hospital there. When I got passionate about it when some board members were looking to stop the Festival of Trees, which was the biggest fundraiser that the organization had. They were thinking that it wasn’t bringing as much money as they hoped. I was trying to explain to them that there is so much more than money.
“We’re raising awareness and friends. The money will come and things like that later. Be patient with it. It’s very well-known in the community.” Luckily, some other board members agreed and we were able to save it. It’s gone on to do phenomenal things since then and raised millions of dollars to help in the community, including an MRI machine, which was very much needed.
Before you moved into the fundraising world, you were the city editor. How did your career and training as a journalist position you for moving into the fundraising world?
The main thing that we do in fundraising is tell stories. We develop relationships with people and tell stories. My communications background worked very well for that. I also helped a lot of organizations as a journalist trying to get their messages out there and increase their profile. I saw some organizations do fundraising well and some do it poorly. When the opportunity came up at the College of New Caledonia to be a Communications Manager, I moved over from the newspapers and that was a natural fit.
Fundraising was somewhat new to me but I had a huge passion for it. I received several awards when I was in college at Mount Royal University. It was Mount Royal College and it became Mount Royal University. It changed things for me. It made it so much easier for me to attend school and do well. I wanted to give back and then be able to help other people. When I switched over from journalism to the post-secondary field, I had a lot of passion for wanting to help others have the same opportunities that I did.
In your career, you’ve worked at organizations that are closely connected to the community still. They are very much a part of the communities in which they exist. How as a leader starting in communications and moving into fundraising, have you leveraged that close connection to the community to build relationships for your programs?
It’s all about community, what we’re trying to do and the people that we’re trying to help, the marginalized people and the less fortunate people. I’ve volunteered on many boards over the years, everything from the Chamber of Commerce to the Sources board that I’m on, where we help run food banks and other services for people in this Surrey-Langley area. I have a desire to want to help people and society. Also, help those who sometimes aren’t in a position to help themselves.
Thinking back to when you made that transition into the fundraising world, what’s one piece of advice you’d give someone who was moving either from journalism or another industry into the fundraising world?
It’s the most important thing that I learned if you don’t ask, you don’t get. As a journalist, it’s maybe not the best grammar but it is true. I’ll never forget this. When I was at the College of New Caledonia, we had a fundraiser and we were able to make so much more money than they had ever made before. I went to one of our best donors and asked her why had she given so much more since I started there than before I got there. She said, “Randall, you asked.” That made me realize that you have to ask and don’t assume.If you don't ask, you don't get. Click To Tweet
A lot of people are doing this in the post-COVID world. I had someone say this to me. I don’t know if I’m comfortable asking anybody for money with COVID and all those things but you can’t assume that the donors’ experience is the same as yours. COVID was very tough for lots of people but some people did well through COVID. It made them connect more and want to help people even more. Don’t assume those things. Always ask.
One of the things that all of my colleagues here at the Discovery Group emphasize over and over again with people is to talk to your donors. There are so many meetings about what we might say or how we could do it but get out, be in front of your donors and make that ask when it’s appropriate. It sounds simple but I’m sure you have experienced leading teams where it’s sometimes challenging to get people out to ask donors for their gifts. What do you think holds fundraisers back in your experience?
I would first add that you have to talk to them but more importantly, you have to listen to them. That’s where you’re going to learn about their passions. You have to know your organization. If you listen, you’re going to learn what their passions are and that’s where you want to connect those two. That’s when the real magic happens. Especially when you’re working with ultra-high-net-worth individuals, you need to set big visionary goals. You have to pitch those ideas that they’re interested in. The thing that holds people up early in their careers is they’re worried that people are going to say no.
When I took my professional fundraising certificate at Boston University, it helped me see that it’s so important that you ask and don’t assume where people are at. You listen and learn, “Is it a no or is it a not right now?” You only spend a little portion of your time asking. It’s 1% or something that you do. If you’ve listened, learned and developed a relationship with them, I always tell people it’s like asking someone to marry you. You want to have a good idea that they’re going to say yes before you do it.
A lot of people get nervous about that. If you get to know them, you should know if this is going to be successful. Don’t ask to get married on the first date. Don’t ask for a donation on the first date. Take the time to develop the relationship so that when the time is right, the answer should be what you’re hoping for.
I can’t imagine a time in my career when I was thinking about buying a diamond ring for a donor but the analogy works there. There is a need to have those visionary ideas and have something of importance and significance to put in front of donors. Working in post-secondary can sometimes be a challenge for the fundraising office or external relations to spur and encourage those big ideas on the part of our academic partners and colleagues. How have you approached that during your time at KPU?
We’re very fortunate here. We have a great foundation board and lots of donors who have given already but we’re trying to further increase and grow that culture of philanthropy here. Certainly, one conversation at a time trying to build those relationships so that people can understand how transformational fundraising can be and that donors can make things happen that maybe the institutions always wanted to happen but there weren’t the funds to do.
The donor can change that. They can change the future of the entire institution. One of the things that we’re working on doing is developing fundraising for our associate deans. We’re hoping to do that in 2023, where we’re going to get them all together and help them understand what we do and how we can help them.
A lot of them are always worried about, “I don’t want to ask. I’ll be terrified to ask.” I don’t need you to ask. We can do that. We need help from you to help us establish the relationship and move things along. Back to my analogy, maybe get us so that we can move in together with them a little bit quicker so that the proposal is a little bit more natural later on.
You used the phrase and it’s one of my favorite phrases in our work, which is that culture of philanthropy. A lot of organizations use that, particularly in post-secondary and building that thinking about philanthropy across the campus. As a leader of the foundation, how do you measure that culture? What are examples or indications you’re looking for that this culture is starting to take hold?
A lot of people only measure in donations. We raise awareness as well. We fundraise, friendraise and raise awareness. If you measured by those metrics, I remember one of the first giving Tuesday campaigns I did with our board and senior leaders at North Island College when I was there. People were all caught up in the money but when I showed them also all the impressions that we had on LinkedIn and how we had increased awareness in our communities, then you’re planting those seeds, which will hopefully grow later.
You need to nurture them to have them do that. It’s not just about raising funds is one of the things I always tell people about. You need to raise awareness about your cause and also raise friends who will sometimes help later with gifts that you weren’t even expecting and sometimes transformational gifts like the Evelyn Oberg estate.
You’ve had some exceptional transformational gifts at KPU in 2021. You mentioned the Oberg estate and in 2021, the George and Sylvia Melville contribution to name the school of business. How do you find gifts of that size that maybe your academic colleagues may not be anticipating? How does that change the conversation you’re having internally about the role of philanthropy?
It makes people understand how transformational these gifts can be. Something like $8 million from George and Sylvia Melville is going to help thousands of students for pretty much forever. That’s the whole idea of an endowment. Once you do that, people understand what you do here and how it can benefit things. I have to thank Marlyn Graziano, Steve Lewarne, Sharon Magson and all of the people who worked on those key donations before I got here. I helped them finish, close things and honor those donors through donor recognition and other things but they’re the ones who did all the work.
It’s a great thing to set up the new boss coming in with one of the largest gifts in the institution’s history. That’s a good strategy.
Yeah, but our numbers aren’t going to look very good in 2023 compared to 2022. We’ll see what we can do with that.
One of the things that we find in our work and certainly my experience working in post-secondary is often the relationships with the donors are central. One of the key measures of success is that relationship with the president at the university and making sure you’ve got a president that is on-site and lit up about the idea around philanthropy. How do you approach engaging a leader of an institution when you come in to lead the advancement program?
I was so fortunate to have Dr. Alan Davis, our President here, who is very aware of the importance of philanthropy and has great relationships. His relationship with George Melville as our Chancellor was key to the gift. He fostered that. Doug, you’re exactly right. I was fortunate enough to work with John Bowman at North Island College and the College of New Caledonia as well and he got it. He understood the importance and both of them have been great presidents. If I need them to come out to this lunch, dinner or tea, they’re very willing to do that. They’re great with people too. It makes my job a lot easier, I’m very fortunate.
One of my recurring nightmares or a memory that comes up for me working with the post-secondary president, was she said, “Doug, I want to hear no more often. I should be asking people for a lot more money,” and I was very new in the role as Chief Development Officer. I had this sneaking sense that that was a trick. She didn’t want to hear no. She wanted to ask more and hear yes more often which is very different. How do you manage and approach managing the expectations of these very brilliant and highly motivated leaders that are looking to you to help them secure the resources to advance their institution?
You have to spend that time with them before and certainly brief them before you go and talk with any of these potential donors. Sometimes, the important things that you don’t want them to say are things that you do want them to say so that you’re all on the same page.
We’re talking about presidents but the deans also play a big role. You mentioned getting them more involved in the fundraising process. What advice do you have for fundraisers that are working with academic leaders who are very new to fundraising? That does slow down the process quite a bit and makes fundraisers a little more resident to reach out to donors at times.
That’s why I developed the proposal analogy so that everybody can understand it. You don’t go and ask for $1 million on the first date so you certainly don’t go do that on the first meeting that you go to with people. People understand relationships and they understand that relationships take time to develop and some take longer to develop than others. It’s not a set like, “We’re going to do all these meetings and two years from now, we’re going to ask for this much money.” Some take longer to develop relationships and some are easier.
That’s why I developed that analogy so that people could understand. I’ve said that to a few people and they went, “Oh, okay.” If you’re going out for dinner or something, you can explain to them, “Don’t be too eager. Listen rather than pitch and try to ask. Learn what their priorities are and also understand what yours are.” There are those two sides to it. They have to understand where the organization’s going and what’s their vision. We’ll do lots of research on that donor before we meet them to understand where that intersection is and where those two things are going to connect.Understand where the organization is going and its vision, and research the donor before you meet them to understand where that intersection is and where those two things connect. Click To Tweet
One of the biggest things is that academic leaders are academic leaders because they’ve been the smartest kid in class for pretty much their entire lives. As fundraisers, we often say, “The donor already thinks you’re the smartest kid in class. Don’t waste time or air time in the conversation trying to prove you’re the smartest kid. Go in and assume it and then you can listen. You don’t need to be on the offense when it comes to that.” You’ve mentioned a couple of times the team that you have there at KPU. How would someone on your team earn a gold star with you? As a fundraiser showing up and is like, “That’s an exceptional job,” how do they get that gold star from Randall?
I’m very fortunate to work with a great team and they’ve gotten a lot of gold stars from me. Being able to develop that great relationship with a donor and you can see it when you meet with them. If you’re going to an event or something, is the donor going the other way or are they coming to want to talk to you, see how you’re doing and how things are going?
Having good, honest connections and relationships with people is what impresses me. Being able to also listen and have conversations with all kinds of different people is one of the most important things. Being well-read and knowing current events. Not always talking about things that the donor is necessarily interested in but looking for other things that you can connect with them so that they want to spend time with you. The more time you spend, the more you can learn and the better connections you have.
That emphasis on being a genuine authentic human meaning is important. You’ve had the experience of building fundraising programs at several institutions and then leading a very significant program at KPU. When you’re faced with a challenge, whom do you turn to for advice?
There are a few people I turn to. Kathy Butler has been a good colleague of mine for several years. I turn to her for some things. Margaret Mason is fantastic. Unfortunately, she retired but if you need anything legal, she was the go-to person for that. I try to go to at least one conference a year. I need those CFRE points anyways but trying to learn there from all kinds of different people. Those are my two go-to people.
It can be hard if the head of fundraising is the head of the foundation and the VP external of the university. These are lonely jobs. How do you approach that as a leader?
I probably honestly didn’t do well enough when I first got here talking with Steve Lewarne, Sharon Magson and the team that I already have here like Olivia and Pamela. We have so many great people here. Also, Karen, who is already in fundraising. I’ve been going back to them and asking them things that I can learn at KPU, in our communities and things like that.
We always have more to learn. You can’t assume that you know everything. You have to rely on your people to learn and ask them what they think. One thing that worked for me in Prince George or on the Island doesn’t necessarily work and transfer here. Relying on the experts in your team more is advice that I’m certainly living out of.
As a leader new to an organization, it can be challenging to know where to start. Certainly, when you joined in June of 2021, there were a few things on the plate. You didn’t have the chance of a nice slow entry into the role.
It was challenging to join in the middle of COVID. I’m a pretty social person. I like to talk with people. It was difficult to do that in Zoom, Teams and other things like that. It was more challenging to develop relationships even with my team, colleagues and that as well because it was so scheduled. There weren’t a lot of organic conversations that we were having.
More than a year into your role at KPU, what are you looking forward to for the university in the next couple of years?
There are two big things that we’re working on. The one I’m looking forward to is our Giving Tuesday, which is on November 29, 2022. We did well with it in the last couple of years. We saw a quite big increase in 2021. In 2022, our theme is raising funds for indigenous students. I’d love for it to be the most successful one that we’ve ever had. This has been a very tough time for indigenous learners and all the things that have happened in Kamloops and other places. We want to help our indigenous students and support them as best we can. I’m hoping we have a great Giving Tuesday.
We’re going to have what some are calling our first gala here on April 29th, 2023. We tried to plan it for 2021 and we had to postpone it for a year. There’s so much uncertainty around whether you would be able to have the numbers that you wanted. It got down to we’re inviting about 350 guests. Can you imagine if COVID regulations only allowed 50% capacity? You have to tell half of these people to thank you but you can’t come to this event. We didn’t want to do that. “Please give but you can’t come.” I’m so hopeful that we can do it in 2022 and that it can go in person.
What is the importance of that in your mind of being able to host an event like that to be able to bring the community together like that?
It’s celebrating our 40th anniversary as a university and previously at college but it’s going to be held in our 42nd year. Marking that historic occasion as well. We’re doing some special videos for it where we did one with our President, Dr. Alan Davis and Skip Triplett, who was one of our first presidents. Skip looked back at our first 40 years and Alan talked about the present and the next 40 years. That’s a great video that we put together.
Also, for the first time, we’re captioning from some of our indigenous leaders how Kwantlen got its name. I’m so proud that we received our name. It was bestowed upon us from the Kwantlen First Nation. It is one of the only post-secondaries in Canada that has the privilege of getting that name from its indigenous community. We are very proud of that and we want to be sharing that as well.
It sounds like it’ll be a good party.
I hope so. Raising money for students is the most important thing but also raising awareness and fundraising as well.
As a college that’s becoming a university that is certainly coming into its own in terms of giving and philanthropic success, what’s one thing you wish everyone in your donor database knew about KPU that they perhaps don’t know or don’t know well enough at this point?
The tremendous impact that they have on students. What I hear from students all the time, no matter every institution I’ve been at and given to students is it’s so much more than the money that they receive. It’s so interesting how many students I’ve heard saying, “It’s like a wind in my sails.” I’ve heard that from so many students. It’s not only money that you’re giving but you’re giving them hope. You’re giving them the inspiration to carry on and keep going. That’s fantastic. Donors are the best people in the world. They give funds to help others and I can’t thank them enough for that. I’m so fortunate to get to work with them.Donors are just the best people in the world. Click To Tweet
Randall, I want to thank you for taking the time to share your experience and expertise with our readers. Thank you for being on the show.
Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
About Randall Heidt
Randall Heidt is CEO of the KPU Foundation and Vice President External Affairs at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Randall has more than 20 years of fundraising experience in the private and public sector, including 14 years in post-secondary education. Randall is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE). Randall has a Bachelor of Applied Communications from Mount Royal University, a Master’s of Leadership from Royal Roads University and a Professional Fundraising Certificate from Boston University. Randall has more than 20 years of communications experience as a reporter, photographer, videographer, TV reporter, online editor and city editor. Randall is grateful for the opportunity to raise funds to help students reach their educational, career and life goals.