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Season 6 Premiere: Sofia Janmohamed

By July 7th, 2023No Comments24 min read
Home » Season 6 Premiere: Sofia Janmohamed

There have been many changes to the world of fundraisers, with many opportunities in the field. Along with opportunities, of course, are new challenges to face. In this episode, Douglas Nelson interviews Sofia Janmohamed, President of the AFP Greater Vancouver Chapter. They discuss the state of fundraisers and charities, the impact of philanthropic work, and how to face the challenges of today’s charitable fundraisers. Tune in and learn more about Sofia’s philanthropic work in this special episode.

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Season 6 Premiere: Sofia Janmohamed

On our show, our guest is Sofia Janmohamed. She’s the Vice President, Leadership Giving & Stewardship at the Canadian Cancer Society. She is also the President of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Vancouver Chapter. We are thrilled to have her on the show. Welcome, Sofia.

Doug, it’s so good to be here.

We have been waiting to get you on the show, and it’s a thrill to have you as our first guest of season six. Let’s start it with a bang. Sofia, what is your first memory of philanthropy?

I would say that my first memory of philanthropy is quite young around 7 or 8 years old. There was a food and toy drive in my neighborhood back in Edmonton. My brother, some of my friends and I, all participated with the support of our family. I remember feeling good to be able to do something for someone else. It was explained to us that not everyone, not all kids have what we have and that we could do something to make a difference. That stayed with me. I do come from a family and a community that is focused heavily on philanthropy. That comes across all of our values.

My earliest memory of soliciting in philanthropy was outside of your regular school drives. I used to sell cookies. I was a Girl Guide for many years. Professionally, it was my first call to alumni through the Simon Fraser University Student Calling Program. It was a call to a graduate. They were a graduate in a very similar program to mine. I’ve got to tell them all about what I was doing. I was able to share with them what a gift from them would impact and how it helped students like me. It was my first donation. The thrill that went up my spine is unforgettable, and that stayed with me for sure as well.

You are like, “I’m going to do this for a living. This is great.”

I thought, “Until I finished my Law degree or my Chartered Accountancy,” as my father wanted me to be, this will be a great thing to do in the meantime. It was my lens at nineteen but little did I know.

The CA designation and the Doctor of Laws are still in the future.

Fundraising is both art and science, but experience is a key piece of the growth of any role within the sector or outside of it. Click To Tweet

You never know. I would consider myself a lifelong learner. It’s what they call an achiever fever. As soon as I finish one thing, I’ve already got my eyes on what’s the next thing.

Just a reminder for our audience and all of us who are in this work and have the privilege to do this work for a living that philanthropy starts very young. It starts in our homes and our communities. Our job as professionals is often to amplify those feelings that exist in our donors and to provide a place for them to express their generosity. Our conversation is going to touch on a couple of things.

I want to get started as it’s the beginning of the year. I recall at certain points in my career, at the beginning of the year is when I started looking at all the job sites and said, “What else is out there?” I know you are staying where you are. I know this is not a job ad for Sofia but as President of AFP in Vancouver, what are you seeing as the big trends for retention and fundraisers looking to make a career move as we move into this new year?

From my lens, what we are seeing is that there have never been so many opportunities available within the fundraising sector itself, whether it’s frontline roles or they are support roles that support the frontline, there is an incredible number of opportunities. At the same time, I feel that’s great news but it creates big challenges in terms of the sector, and there are a number of reasons. People have asked me, “Why don’t fundraisers stay longer or why do you find that people are shifting roles so much faster?”

When I think about many years ago, when I entered the sector, you would come in an entry-level role. You would gain experience. You would learn from mentors. You work with peers within the industry and donors. There was a bit of what I will call organic learning that took place. What we are seeing now with the number of rules that are available is that the organic learning period is significantly shortened.

You can come in. You can work in a role for 3 to 6 months, and you can leverage that into, let’s say, a manager position. While that’s great news, in terms of somebody that’s new in their career, it can have significant challenges in terms of then allowing them to make the next future leap in their career. Also, because of the number of opportunities, you essentially have a very competitive market, which essentially creates the situation that organizations don’t want, which is fundraisers moving around.

You have put your finger on something that is an important change that’s happened in our sector. I will say I started a couple of years before, many years ago. There was an apprenticeship model. You would work with more senior fundraisers who had been doing it for a long time. I will speak for myself. There was a steep learning curve, and you had the chance to make mistakes, to learn, and you grow. You end up dealing with larger donors or being responsible for larger campaigns.

I know you grew up professionally at Simon Fraser. I grew up professionally at the UBC, and you had great fundraisers around you to learn from. As the need for more fundraisers accelerated, it switched from an apprentice model to a rapid professionalization. Organizations are often looking for a fully-finished professional fundraiser. The bad news is that’s not how people come into the sector. The only good part of that is fewer organizations are using the word Rolodex as a way to describe what they are looking for in a fundraiser.

If we take that one step further, what happens then is that when we know that fundraising is both art and science but the experience is a key piece of the growth of any role within the sector or outside of it. What we end up seeing is a lot of fundraisers move around them because there might be a mismatch of expectations or a misalignment around skills.

We are hired because there are assumptions made around what we can deliver and what we can do. We haven’t necessarily had all the tools in the toolkit in order to get there. Those are other reasons when we look at organizational culture as well. That’s a big one. The most well-known fact is people stay because of who they work with or who they work under.

Leadership is a key fact that continues to exist and be a factor in how we can continue to retain high-level talented staff that is that leadership coaching model. It’s a nice quote, and I cannot recall who said it, but it’s not about being in charge. It’s about who is in our charge. That’s certainly a lens that I have always taken, whether I was managing students at a call center many years ago or even now, supporting, coaching, and mentoring very senior-level fundraisers in their careers.

Many of the audience to this show are Vice Presidents and CEOs of organizations. With your AFP President hat on, what advice would you have for leaders of organizations to make their organizations places where fundraisers can be successful, that they can grow, and if they are successful, are going to stay? What do organizational leaders need to make sure is in place to be effective?

Thank you for asking this particular question. I would state very clear goal-setting in partnership with your fundraisers and with your development teams, ensuring that where you want to go is effectively resourced as well. Under-resourced programs and very high expectations equal unhappy fundraising teams and staff, which then, at the end of the day, we are all human. People want to be set up for success, not set up to fail. The nice thing that I find about staff and fundraisers in this sector is that people often actively choose this sector because they have a passion for helping people.

It’s our underlying core. It’s not about the extra dollar or being able to have something that is monetarily based or a brand new title. It’s about feeling like you work with a team that is effective, creating impact and value within an organization for its beneficiaries within the community, within the society. These are all key drivers. As leaders, we have the power to create that environment so that our teams can thrive in those environments. It is very important to be transparent in terms of how jobs are posted for those that are looking for larger roles and more senior roles.

How does that work in terms of if you are looking to help the next step in your career? It’s unfortunate that sometimes fundraisers feel like they have to move to another organization to take the next step in their careers. How are we working with the teams that we value to do the work? We know that the investment long-term is a significant payoff when we talk about an industry that is fully built around relationships. We need to foster the ones inside our organizations as a priority if we are going to truly foster the ones outside our organization.

The benefit is not incremental. It is a log function of what organizations get when their fundraisers stay for a long time. Certainly, some individuals may come and go but there are organizations that have teams that have been in place for a long time or leadership that has been in place for a very long time, and they have been very successful.

Part of the art of being a fundraiser is to be curious, ask lots of questions, and try to understand why the landscape is the way it is. Click To Tweet

As a consultant getting to work with a number of those organizations, you see the relationships with donors are so much more fluid, authentic and effective when it comes to the fundraising relationship. The donors and the organizations know what to expect from wanting one another. There’s not that feeling out period that often happens when you’ve got that transition.

There’s a debate that goes on, and I have asked a number of guests on the show. Organizational leadership changes or organization comes up with a new strategic plan that says, “We are raising $10 million a year now. Our strategic plan calls for us to raise $20 million a year three years from now. We need to assign the goal of the fundraisers for what they need to do.” Where do you stand on whether that is an assigned goal? “Sofia, your job is you were raising $1.5 million. Now you’ve got to raise $3 million.” How can that partnership work to involve the fundraiser in setting that goal?

I can give you a perfect example at the Canadian Cancer Society. We are looking at opportunities to increase our funding to research, which is a key component of what we do across all cancers across Canada. We are the biggest funder of cancer research in Canada. It’s a lens for us that we are looking to make larger investments in. We are essentially investing $45 to $50 million. We are having conversations with regards to, “What’s the opportunity to increase that by 50%, by 100%, and what does that look like?” A great place to start is involving the development team. It’s understanding why we are trying to achieve what we are trying to achieve?

Simon Sinek, Start With The Why. We always forget that we set up this, “Let’s raise $100 million,” but the key thing is that we start with our internal stakeholders and those that are going to be doing that work and talking about what’s the impact of this incredible bubble. It’s all the work behind the scenes. It’s looking at what do those pipelines look like?

What are the opportunities that perhaps we haven’t been able to tap into for a number of reasons? Is it resources? Is it changes in staffing? What are the pain points? We talk about pain points that create barriers and how we can mitigate those so that those that we do have on the frontline doing the work can spend more time with the folks that matter the most, which are our donors and our potential future donors in an organization.

Engagement is key, talking about the why and doing the science around informing the work and the goal that you want it to do. Also, being transparent about where you want to go. Sometimes, what you will find is the hope is that we are going to do this in 3 to 5 years. Maybe the reality is that it’s eight years, and that’s okay because again, if you are founded in the why, you are still going to achieve the results but you will probably be much more successful along the path of getting there.

Thank you for sharing that example. It underlines a crucial point when organizational leaders are thinking about fundraising and the role it plays in the organizational purpose. The fundraising goal is the context. “We are going to raise $50 or $100 million.” That’s the context for the activities, for the relationship building.

It’s the shared purpose with donors, the organizational purpose, that is what motivates and creates the momentum to giving on the part of the donors. Don’t mistake big numbers as motivating donors to give because donors don’t give to big goals. They understand the context that the organization has ambitions and its purpose is deserving of a number that large but your purpose is what’s going to motivate donors.

I see fundraisers struggling in environments where the organizational leadership just sees fundraising as a transaction. “Go do your fundraising and bring me $100 million.” It’s less common than it used to be, and going back a number of years but I still see it in quite a few organizations where the leadership doesn’t have that fundraising sensitivity. I want to keep asking you for advice because it’s great to have you here to give it.

What advice would you give to a fundraiser who’s in a leadership position, a director development level or a VP level position in an organization that doesn’t have fundraising at its center? Where it’s not treated as part of the core business. It’s treated as a necessary evil to do what the people who work at the organization need to do. How do you bring fundraising to the core of an organization?

I always start with education, and the second part of that is questions. Part of the art of being a fundraiser is to be curious and to ask lots of questions, and try to understand, “Why is the landscape the way that it is? Why are specific individuals the way that they are or think the way that they do? Does that allow you to position yourself to understand what the gap is?”

It’s the gap in understanding the impact, which it usually is. Is the gap in understanding how this can mutually be beneficial as opposed to something that is on the corner or that doesn’t necessarily need to be day-to-day? As we know, the most successful organizations, especially those that have any fundraising base model partnership, it’s the integration.

We can’t be successful in what we are trying to achieve and have our fundraisers and our teams work off the side or on the side without that integrative piece. It starts with the questioning, then the next step is that education. It’s trying to then put together what is that gap versus what don’t you understand, and it’s that sharing. I will say that it’s less now, Doug, I’m seeing in terms of any organization that is, even if it’s for-profit, to be honest.

Even in the for-profit, we have seen a significant increase in community engagement. Companies’ desires to have an impact within communities, and whether their audience is B2B, whether it’s B2C, what we are seeing is the social impact movement that has inspired many others to say, “Let’s look at our operations. How do they have impacts around us? What can I also give back?” It is exciting to see.

It is changing both within our sector and without, as you say, for sure. You became President of AFP in July of 2020. It was back when everything that’s normal now was brand new. Is that how you think of it now? Is that how you think of the pandemic? It has been a very different environment, I’m sure, than you anticipated when you agreed to be president.

There has been a lot of very important conversations about the role of philanthropy in society. Particularly as it relates to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. It has been satisfying from my perspective to see the role that AFP has played in trying to sustain and make that deep, meaningful conversation. How have you approached that as President of the chapter?

The key piece for us is to focus on our wins to date but not ever feel we have got to a level where we no longer have to focus or invest in this work. Click To Tweet

There are a few of us that we will call ourselves the Pandemic Presidents. We started our terms in a pandemic. We will be finishing our presidential terms on June 30th of 2021. We will end in a pandemic.

It’s going to be over by June 30th. I’m sure of it.

We can always be hopeful. It’s the new year, so we can have that hope and be positive. In all likelihood, we will have some components of the pandemic comes the end of June. As a group of pandemic presidents, it’s challenging, for sure. I like to look at it as a brand-new slate of opportunities in terms of how AFP chapters have traditionally operated. We have had to look at new, innovative, mainly digital ways to run all of our programs to celebrate National Philanthropy Day to engage our memberships. All of those pieces were requiring a deep dive come to the arrival of the pandemic.

We call it IDEA in AFP. Other organizations I have heard DEI, JEDI, regardless of what you are calling it. Another huge opportunity that the pandemic brought us was the conversation that was not taking place in my mind as loudly as it has been taking place across the world now. It’s not a localized movement. This is national, international in terms of saying that equity, inclusion, justice, diversity. These were all words that we would use but talking about impact and across not only the sector but in general, across all sectors. It has been astounding and very encouraging to see people having these conversations.

It has also been heartbreaking, challenging, work across organizations, individuals, associations, in family homes that have brought up a lot that we know has deeply disturbed many people. I feel like we need to continue the work but the work is hard. We need to acknowledge that. AFP has set up a number of initiatives from a global lens. We’ve got the Women’s Impact Initiative, which looks at the challenges and barriers that women face across the sector.

I would say that’s not only women. It’s also minority groups. Our challenge has been being transparent and equitable. A key way that AFP Global has been meeting in terms of supporting the chapters is posting salaries, for example, across the country and across the US and Canada, especially with regards to being transparent about what roles are valued at and that should be the value regardless of who’s applying.

Another key piece is the investment in emerging leaders. Bringing that education component, Doug. The idea around raising an ethical, inclusive, and diverse leadership comes very early in the sector. We are seeing this with regards to the Prudential programs that you can now follow when you are interested in philanthropy but it’s also running through our professional development opportunities or through rules that are not necessarily frontline.

They might be support positions but it’s definitely front and center. AFP, as all of our members and our leadership, has taken a very strong anti-racism stand, in terms of saying, “We do not accept it. It is not acceptable at all and certainly not in the field but at all.” Supporting that strong language of inclusion, diversity, and taking a stand of, “We don’t believe at all in terms of governing or operating under this lens of racism.”

Is the sector changing quickly enough?

Sometimes they feel like it’s doing the work it needs to do to be leaders. Other times, I feel like the path is long, and there’s so much to do. The key piece for us is to focus on what our wins are to date but not ever feel like we have got to a level where we no longer have to focus or invest in this work.

It’s something that through our work here at the Discovery Group, we see evidence of older, unfortunately, contemporary ways of thinking. One of the questions that we often ask Board Chairs or CEOs at times is when they are considering promotion or the board asking challenges to leaders. If the CEO is a woman, the boards ask different questions. It is not every board, not every CEO but when you see it, it’s hard to unsee. I raised that because you keep taking these questions from what’s happening in the sector or the world outside?

It’s important that this conversation happened in both places because our board members and the organization sometimes come from outside of the sector. Board members, obviously, from outside of the sector. The change needs to happen in a more holistic way if we are going to improve our sector. If you had to point to one thing that’s worked well in this change and conversation. You talked about that everybody has got their own acronym for it. A lot of people are talking about it. That’s a win but what’s working well in this transformation that needs to happen?

I feel bad for constantly flagging education but I do feel that’s the foundation of change. That is where I come from. It’s probably why I always believe in this lifelong learning.

That’s the achiever fever in you.

I will say when it comes to this work, we have put unfair pressure on minority groups to educate us. Tell us why you feel the way that you feel or tell us where you don’t think justice has been served, and that is not their role to provide that education to any of us that have not taken the time to learn, read, study or ask questions. That’s where the foundation begins. It’s each individual taking the time to learn on their own and seeking out supports where they need further understanding.

I will give you great examples. A lot of the JEDI, IDEA, and DEI work was rolling out, you would see a lot of sessions. We will call them virtual sessions in these pieces. It highlighted various minority groups and invited them to come and speak. That’s great. Conversation and collaboration are important but I asked the question like, “If you are somebody that’s attending that, how much information and background did you come in with prior to that session?” It’s probably a good indicator of the investment that has taken place personally. I can say this openly because I’m guilty.

I’m a female visible minority that has limited information around other minorities. That’s what got me thinking about how much have I personally invested as a leader in understanding other minority groups, other issues, the historical context of the work itself? I feel like I can have a conversation, collaborate, attend a session and ask meaningful questions to somebody that has kindly come to share and provide education.

Change is what creates growth and learning, and it's through the challenge that we're able as a person, as a professional, to go to the next level. Click To Tweet

What you are underlining there is the importance of coming both informed after having to do some work. Coming to the conversation with some humility rather than defensiveness or protectiveness of, “We can change but I will need to hold on to this part of it over here where it’s not so bad.” Coming with that open-minded humility is so critical to come to those conversations. At least, that’s what I have found in trying to better understand myself. Are we going to get it right in the sector?

I have the sincere hope and desire that we can. I don’t believe that any leader, any volunteer, any board member or anybody that comes forward that puts their time, effort, and energy into this sector and beyond doesn’t do so with the help and the inspiration that what they are doing is going to make a difference.

Sofia, thank you so much for your thoughts on that issue. As we come to the end of our conversation, I want to move to something maybe a little bit lighter in terms of the sector. You have been recognized as the top fundraiser in Canada, individual fundraising by Charity Village, and as someone who has been successful and led teams at very large organizations, what is it that frustrates you about how the fundraising operations work across our sector?

Thank you for that, Doug. Thank you to Charity Village for their true honor of recognizing me as an outstanding fundraiser locally here in Vancouver. I would say a key thing that still continues to frustrate me is the thought process that fundraising, the work that fundraisers do, the work that fundraising organizations do is not integrated with all other areas of operations.

The idea is that you have a fundraising team. They go and do certain work to raise funds for your operations but it’s separate. It’s not integrated. It’s this idea around fundraising is different than an organization, for example. It’s not. One of the reasons that I would say that I have been able to do well within the sector is that I have always operated, personally, as if I’m running my own business.

Even if I don’t have any employees, this is quite young in my career, I operated my work as a fundraiser as if I was operating my own business. It’s understanding how all the other business areas are supported by me, how I need to support them, and in addition to that, understanding that the internal stakeholders are my collaborating colleagues and that’s my group with regards to where we can have an impact internally so that we can have more impact together externally. That’s why we do what we do. It’s around having an impact on our beneficiaries. The work itself is around what is the achievements on the outside of the organization.

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the operations, the procedures, the policies, and all of these things are important. If we go back to why are we doing what we are doing, who are we doing it for, what is the impact we are trying to have, then come back in internally and set up the systems that we need to be successful, organizations and fundraisers would be more successful. The industry overall would continue to grow and expand.

I love that you answered a question about what frustrates you with an inspirational call to action for changing the whole profession. It was great. I appreciate that. There are some great lessons in there. If you read that answer from Sofia again, it’s powerful stuff. Final question, what are you looking forward to for 2022?

Doug, would you like my whole list?

Let’s start with the thing on the top of the list.

For me, I am looking forward to spending more time and hopefully being able to see family and friends across the world, to be honest with you. Some of us have had the benefit of being able to do some traveling before that lockdown, of the holidays. The one key thing that I hear over and over is that people miss each other.

We miss being able to get together, to attend a social function, to be able to see people that are a plane ride away, and to be able to go to different parts of the world. Again, it comes back to learning and experiences. As human beings, we need that. For me, that’s a big one for me in 2022. I hope to be able to do that more internationally and also locally.

Another thing I’m excited about is I see tons of opportunities at the Canadian Cancer Society. We have many incredible projects and such an incredible team, both the one that I am working with and all the other individuals that we work with outside, for example, major gifts and leadership giving but a huge opportunity within the organization and our growth. We are also growing in terms of team members. There are lots of opportunities there. Within the sector, I see some real opportunities for innovation, for doing our work in different ways and being open to different ways of being able to connect and be successful.

That’s all going to continue to evolve. I’m one of those folks that do love change. Sometimes we shy away from change but as soon as we realize that change is what creates growth and learning. It’s through the challenge that we are able as a person, as a professional, to go to the next level, you crave it. You want things to continue to evolve and be different. 2022, whether we like it or not, is going to be filled with that.

It’s a great way to look at it. I appreciate you making time to be on the show and sharing your perspective on these important issues in our sector. Thank you, Sofia.

Thank you, Doug. Thanks so much for having me.

Important Links:

About Sofia Janmohamed

-Executive management professional with 22 years of experience in fundraising, communications, operations and human resources
-Expertise in major gifts, foundations & grants, stewardship, annual giving, communications, public speaking, risk management and strategic planning
-Expertise in training, coaching, team building and leadership
-Proven ability to build and maintain important relationships with current and prospective donors, senior management, foundations, organizations and other internal and external stakeholders to advance the mission