Running a foundation, in principle, shouldn’t be that much different from being at the top of, say, a large corporation, but the truth is, there’s a delicate line that you constantly have to be toeing. Because foundations are philanthropic institutions, there are certain expectations about your goals, your operations, and who benefits from the resources you’re expending. Dick Vollet is the President and CEO of the St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation in Vancouver, Canada. Douglas Nelson interviews Dick about how the foundation operates vis-à-vis other similar foundations. From assembling a board to what people expect of philanthropy, Dick and Douglas cover the basics of running a foundation.
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St. Paul’s Foundation with Dick Vollet
Our guest is Dick Vollet. He’s the CEO of St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation, an organization that he’s led through tremendous growth over the years. Welcome, Dick.
Doug, thanks for having me.
It’s great to have you. You have a unique background. Given that it’s the ten-year anniversary of the Vancouver Olympics, you served as Vice President of Mountain Venues for VANOC. Could you tell us briefly what that experience is like?
I always called it as the job of a lifetime. We had a little reunion down to the convention center, so it was nice to see a lot of familiar faces and see how everybody looks. We all look fantastic. The experience was once in a lifetime. It was one of those things where you get involved and you don’t know what you’re getting into. I remember sitting with John Furlong, he interviewed all the vice presidents before they joined the organizing team. He spent three minutes trying to talk me out of it to tell me it would be the best and the worst job I ever had. Making history is never easy. If you still want to do it, we’re happy to have you. I jumped in with both feet and had a great time. My responsibility for the mountains was Cypress Mountain, which made history by not having any snow in February, all the way to Whistler Sliding Center, Olympic Park and both men’s and ladies downhill, as well as all of the operations in between. It was fun. It was a large workforce, a lot of moving parts but when the games finally started, it was a great time.
You would come to VANOC from a very successful career in the private sector. After VANOC, you went into the social profit sector with Streetohome Foundation. You were there for a couple of years, did some impressive work there and then moved on to St. Paul’s. How did the lessons of the Olympics help carry you into that social profit sector?
It’s a great analogy or thought process that I go through is the Olympics taught me to think big and torch relay was one good example. John Furlong talk about it quite often that he wanted it from coast to coast. He wanted to touch every Canadian. When I joined Streetohome, homelessness was the twenty-year target to solve homelessness under Mayor Gregor Robertson. It was one of those challenges that were so big no one could even imagine how we were going to possibly do this but the Streetohome group under the guidance of John McLendon and are real who’s who board. He had a good plan. Executing that plan was one of the most fulfilling times I have in terms of taking on a social justice issue in the city and thinking big and not giving up. In a nutshell, the Olympics taught me to not be afraid of anything, embrace it and jump in.Sometimes, there are insatiable amounts expected from the philanthropic community. Click To Tweet
There has been some big thinking associated with your role at St. Paul’s. When you joined the organization, it was preparing to do a large campaign, build a new facility or renovate on the existing site. It took a while to get off the ground as a project. As a leadership challenge, what was it like to try and move the renewal of St. Paul’s forward?
I remember the interview process. The reason I came to St. Paul’s was still attached to the whole social justice issue within the fiber of what is Vancouver and what is British Columbia. It’s not only homelessness but it’s mental health, addictions, all of those social justice issues that impact our daily lives from the peripheral and sometimes internally. When I went through the process to come to St. Paul’s where I thought I could make a bigger difference, everyone was saying, “We’re ten years behind. We need to get this campaign launched right away. We’re ready to go.” After finding out we didn’t know treasury board approval nor did we have any financing lined up, it was very evident very quickly that we needed to start from zero and build on some of the momentum that was set by some of the great leaders. We hit a big reset button and then go from there. That’s what I did when I got here. I took a fresh look at everything. Nothing was the way it was before.
It’s an interesting challenge for a new CEO to come into an organization to lead a large campaign, raising lots and lots of money, much more money than the organization ever raised. The first thing you do is hit pause and hit reset and tell them we’re not ready to go. Tell us a little bit about what those conversations were like with the board.
It wasn’t so much with the foundation board. It was more with the leadership of Providence and with all due respect, they were pushing pretty hard to get them going. As a matter of fact, there was already a scale model of what the new St. Paul’s was going to look like in the basement of the hospital. It was a challenge to tell everyone we’re going to push pause. There were some key elements as you know of any of these big multibillion-dollar projects that were missing. The treasury board hadn’t approved a business plan. There was still talks of do we continually modify the 125-year-old site that we have on Gerrard Street? I call it real, true leadership and inspirational leadership in the city, and it came from two individuals. One, Huma Gee and two, Bob Lee, rest his soul. We had a very sad week to hear that Bob Lee had passed away. He touched so many in the city, but it shouldn’t be missed that the board and the leadership of Providence Health Care was convinced by Huma Gee and Bob Lee to rethink the way we should reimagine Health Care British Columbia. That’s where we are now.
At that time, whether it was going to be on Burrard Street or at the new site, where it ends up going to be, I remember having conversations with you years ago about how big the campaign was going to be. How big was the philanthropic contribution going to be to this multimillion-dollar project? How did you work with your board and your team to deal with that ambiguity and arrive at a figure?
As all of these things happen, it’s an insatiable amount that is expected from sometimes the philanthropic community. The one thing that was different about this campaign was that Providence Health Care owned the land that we were moving to, the eighteen-acre site, and they own the land that the current St. Paul’s Hospital is on, which is some of the most valuable real estates in Canada, if not Vancouver and BC for sure. On those two notes, we were able to control a lot of our own destiny. The demand on the foundation whether the philanthropic community came and was a little bit less than in other hospital campaigns. Having said that, Providence Health Care, along with the philanthropic contributions for the foundation, are still going to put over $1.2 billion into this project.
That is an impressive figure. One of the ways that you got the fundraising kickstart was with an impressive naming gift that shook up not only the Vancouver philanthropic community but right across the country to see the size of the gift that you got to kick this off. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
We were very lucky and honored to have The Jim Pattison Group and Jim Pattison Foundation step into a naming position with St. Paul’s. Interestingly, in conversations with the foundation and with Jimmy himself, the history and the roots in Vancouver go way back. To hear him speak about St. Paul’s and how it contributed to the healthcare of his family started to resonate with us. We quietly went about our relationship building with the Pattison Foundation knowing that when we were ready to announce the new St. Paul’s and given the fact that it was going to transform the City of Vancouver, that’s when we knew that the Pattison group and the Pattison Foundation would come on board.
I remember sitting in Jimmy’s office, as many other people in Vancouver have done in my line of work, he looked out over the Stanley Park and the water and English Bay. He says, “The city is not going to grow that way in any short order. The only way this city is going to grow is east.” That’s why he was enamored with the station street society and what Bob Lee had envisioned those many years ago. I look at this as a city-building opportunity as much as it is a naming opportunity and a philanthropic opportunity for the Pattison Foundation.
A number of our clients here at the Discovery Group and I’m sure many organizations, many boards say, “We should talk to Jim Pattison and see whether he’d be interested in supporting this.” That $75 million naming gifts did set a new standard for that city building and philanthropy, not just in Vancouver but across the province and the country.
We’re very grateful to have him and the group as a partner.
I’m always curious when organizations received those large naming gifts, what’s the conversation with the next donor like after that’s been announced? It is a very significant investment, but they are many needs and many opportunities. Your foundation announced a number of significant gifts shortly after the naming gift was announced. How did the naming gift impact the conversations you were having with donors?Take a look at how large boards and foundations operate and see what's next. Click To Tweet
It impacted greatly. It shouldn’t be missed or not said that the Pattison Foundation stepped into that naming opportunity and made the announcement of $75 million before treasury board approval was received from the province of British Columbia. In essence, the vision for that naming opportunity by the Pattison Foundation and Jimmy himself was brilliant. What it did was it galvanized the philanthropic community to say, “If a leader like Jimmy Pattison is going to step into this and put his name on what will be a world-renowned research teaching in acute care hospital, one of the largest in Western Canada, then we’ve got to step in as well.” It started this snowball rolling that we were very privileged to be part of.
It would be hard to imagine a provincial government saying, “We won’t build this after you’ve announced a $75 million gift from one of the most prominent citizens in the province.”
Not to overemphasize the point, but proceeds from the sale of existing land and the over $1 billion donated by Providence Health Care should not be missed either. I’ll share this quick story with you and your audience. It’s one of the most incredible conversations that I’ve ever been part of. At one point, I was speaking with the Archbishop of Vancouver, Michael Miller, “Archbishop, you should meet Jimmy Pattison. Would you like that?” He said, “That would be great.” I reached out to Jimmy Pattison’s office. We set up a meeting and I arrived with the Archbishop. We sat down in Jimmy’s office. Jimmy looked at us and said, “What can I do for you, gentlemen?” I said, “Jimmy, I wanted you to meet the Archbishop of Vancouver and talk about the new St. Paul’s on the Jimmy Pattison Medical Center. I thought you two should meet. You’ve never met before.” That was the last thing I said. It was about an hour-and-a-half later that we were talking about everything. It was the most incredible conversation I’d ever been a part of. It was quite enlightening and educational.
That suggests the importance of donors who give or the motivation of donors who give so significantly to a project goes well-beyond their capacity and ability to make the gift that’s important but that deep connection to the project. It sounds like you’ve done a good job, not just with the naming gift but with a number of your donors in bringing out their personal connection to St. Paul’s and to healthcare in the province. How have you communicated the importance of that through your staff?
Everyone on our team is passionate about St. Paul’s. They’re passionate about Providence Health Care. What I say to them all the time is what we do here is not transactional. It is not about issuing receipts or taking in donations. What we do here is about building trust and then making sure we deliver on that promise of trust. When someone gives us a gift, whether it’s $75 million, $1 million or $50,000, one of the things that we do a good job of we can always do better is say thank you. Say thank you with a sincere heart that you trust us with your money to do the right thing. That’s important in this sector is that we make sure we do what we say we’re going to do. Sometimes that gets lost in translation.
The organization has grown significantly over the time you’ve been the CEO. You’ve launched this campaign, had the naming gift. How would the conversations with your board change as you’ve grown from an organization that was raised in the seven figures to now one that is significantly more than that?
The conversations with the board have evolved. The engagement level is definitely high. We’ve tried to always anticipate what we need as an organization going forward. We’ve done a complete governance review with the Watson group. We participate in wage surveys to make sure we’re competitive within the marketplace, IT, risk assessment. Taking a look at how larger boards and foundations operate and always trying to have an eye towards what’s next. In terms of growth, we focus on it, but we also try to build for it, so that we’re there when we grow into it rather than feeling that the pain and then trying to recoup and be reactive.
It’s an important lesson that the sector and needs to take into account more often rather than running into the red line or running over the red line for a long time, then adding a little bit of resources and hoping that fixes the situation. Building the type of organization that you want the organization to be, not just maximize the investment as it is now.
I look to buy my for-profit days when I was at London Drugs as VP of Operations. I learned a lot from the Louis family on how to run a business. I bring that to the table here in the not-for-profit sector. It’s not that different. You still have revenue and you still have expenses and you’ve got to manage them both.
Are there things that you’re more comfortable letting the board run with now after you’ve been the CEO?
I have a good board. One of the things I like to think that we’ve done is a deliberate job of recruiting the right board members. We’re in the process of rebuilding our board yet again because we merged with the Tapestry Foundation. We’re in the process of rebuilding our board again. Being intentional about board members that come to the table and what they bring. The size and growth that we’ve seen, the finance committee are somewhere where we’re investing a lot of time and energy right now to make sure that we’ve got things right. That’s a good example of building for the future. Communications is key for us in terms of reputational risk and how we communicate to our stakeholders in the market, internal and external. If you have good board members and committee chairs then you start to trust a lot more. I still attend every meeting, every committee meeting and I don’t miss many, but there are lots of things. It does come down to trust with your board for sure.
What role do you play in selecting who those committee chairs are?You have to be deliberate about recruiting the right board members. Click To Tweet
An active role, quite frankly. My last three board chairs have engaged me as a CEO to be instrumental and making sure that we have committee chairs that can make a difference and take us to the next level. My current board chair, John Montalbano, is brilliant in terms of his thought process towards good governance and vision of the future. We’ve recruited a couple of good committee chairs and board members and we’ve got a few more on the horizon. A very competitive marketplace for good board members in a very small pool within Vancouver and British Columbia. We have to make sure that we’re very keen and focused on what we’re trying to achieve.
I don’t imagine that it’s changed over time, the conversations with potential board members. Instead of we have a vacancy, and we need to find somebody to fill it. You’re able to be more selective as the organization has become more prominent and successful in its core mission.
We’re getting a place now where we have prominent business leaders who are reaching out to us saying, “I’d like to be on your board,” whereas years ago that wouldn’t have happened. It’s a good place to be. It’s a place of privilege. It’s one where we have to be very clear on what our board does. We’ve got that fairly focused in front of us.
I want to go back to the team that you’ve built because you’ve mentioned them a couple of times and give it some good context. I love that line, “What we do here is not transactional. We deal with trust. We build it. We earn it.” As you’re building a team, do you make sure that ethos that you’re wanting to sustain in the organization continues on as you’ve grown? You’ve more than doubled in terms of your staff size. How do you keep that fundamental value at the core of what you do?
It’s one that I focus on every single day. When I got here, we had fifteen staff at the team members at the foundation, and now we’re at 53. That’s a little more than double. One of the things is I’m actively involved in the recruitment process. Not at every level, but I would say directors and managers. I have a firm belief that lead by example. I do a lot of management by walking around. I’m not the expert in everything that everybody does but I know what’s going on. We make sure we celebrate our successes not to excess. Everyone knows that I care deeply about every single one of them on the team. I care about their families, about how they come to work. One thing I’ve communicated to everyone on the team is that you’re not one person at home and another person at work. You are one person and that person is important to everyone here at the foundation. I don’t want to overuse the word, family, but we’ve got a good close-knit team here that has done some great things and there’s still more to come.
You can read countless articles on LinkedIn, and I’m sure there’s a whole podcast dedicated to the concept of showing up as your authentic self. It sounds like that’s what you’re trying to accomplish there. It sounds like you are accomplishing there at St. Paul’s. When you managed by walking around, what do you looking for?
I’m not looking for anything. Most open office environments are team-based or pod-based or whoever you want to configure it. We’re not set-up in palatial offices here. We’re set-up in humble surroundings but everyone has the tools they need. When I’m walking around, what I’m asking is simple questions like, “What are you working on? What’s causing you trouble? What’s causing you pain? How can I help?” That simple.
Do you find that people are willing to say, “Yes, Mr. CEO, here’s what I need help with?”
They are. It didn’t start right away. It takes some time. More importantly as CEO, it depends on how you react to when people tell you things. I’m a big believer in servant leadership. I try not to judge. Every idea is a good idea. People are here because they’re smart, and they understand what’s going on. Once again, do you respond or do you react? It’s very simple.
You are one of the most authentic leaders that I’ve encountered in the sectors. More than just say that you do that on a daily basis as a leader. If someone was coming to work at St. Paul’s Foundation, what could they do to get an extra special or a gold star from you as a CEO? What are you looking for in high-performance from individual team members?
Going back to my Olympic days, trying to build high-performing teams that are under incredible pressure, stress, and timelines, you want to have people who have good core values. People who get gold stars, which I don’t give very often because everyone is on the same team. When the team wins, everyone wins. It’s more about watching out for your fellow teammates. If someone’s got a deadline and they’re plowing through lunch and you’re going out to get yours, ask them what they want and bring them something back. It’s taking a look at how you’d want to be treated. They’re all clichés, I get it, but they’re not that hard to live. For me, if people are able to achieve goals that they’ve set for themselves and do it with integrity and bring the team along to experience those successes, that makes me feel like I’ve done my job.
We say they’re clichés, but I don’t buy it. A lot of it may be easy to say, but we see a lot of pain in the sector from people not living those values and not doing that on a daily basis. How do you make sure that when you’re not walking around that that’s what’s happening in the office behind you?If you have good board members and committee chairs, you start to trust more. Click To Tweet
It’s not always 100%. There are conflict, stress and people trying to find better ways to do different things. If they know that this is how I operate, and I expect that from my senior team, then what happens is it starts to replicate itself. Once it starts to replicate itself and you start hearing some of your languages come back to you from other people then you know that it’s starting to permeate into the culture of the organization. That’s important. We’re on two different floors here in one building. I have to make a real deliberate effort to get out of my desk chair and go down to the second floor to see the finance, the stewardship and people which is grouped down there. I make sure that I spent as much time walking around down there as I do anywhere else.
We’ve talked about a lot of the positive building that culture focusing on trust. I know that’s true, but as a leader, you must have some things that drive you nuts. What drives you nuts?
There are two things. The first thing that drives me nuts is people who don’t do what they say they’re going to do. It’s as simple as if I say I’m going to respond to an email, respond to the email. If I say I’m going to make a phone call, then make the phone call and do the work. The other thing that drives me crazy is people who take advantage of situations. We don’t need to get into details or specifics, but the people who are opportunistic and take advantage of situations aren’t in it for the greater good in my opinion. Those two things drive me a little crazy.
It doesn’t sound like that happens too much at your place and it doesn’t sound like it happens twice very often at your place given how you delivered that. The thing I want to make sure we touch on is the leadership role that the foundation has played in the new St. Paul’s. At times, the foundation was in the leadership role of needing to pull that project forward when others weren’t ready to commit. That’s the fundraising side of the house leading the rest of the house. How did you balance that? If anyone’s done it well, it’s been you and what St. Paul’s Foundation has accomplished over the years. We’re interested in your advice to others who may find themselves in a similar situation.
It’s an interesting position to be in. I will say that with Fiona Dalton here now is the CEO of Providence Health. It’s been fantastic. She’s brilliant and not taking anything away from previous leadership, it’s just a different environment. For us taking the lead on certain projects, the way we positioned it is the typical foundation. We do all the things that normal foundations do under the CRA. We follow the letter of the law and our constitution is set. One of the things that are a beauty of St. Paul’s relationship with Providence Health Care is that we positioned ourselves as a business partner.
How can we work together to solve some of those long-term healthcare/business opportunities that we need to achieve whether it be research, the BC’s digital supercluster becoming a founding member or how we structure the real estate deals on the new St. Paul’s? We’ve positioned ourselves as a trusted business partner to be more specific and one that does what we say we’re going to do. Back to some of the core values I’ve talked about before. It all comes down to trust if you have a relationship with the senior leadership and the chair or the board relations from the foundation to Providence. All of a sudden, we get a group of people who believe we can. When you dream big and think big, then you can achieve some of those big things, but it takes a lot of trusts and sometimes a leap of faith.
You’ve navigated a few leaps of faith in your time as CEO there. Looking back, is there anything you’d do differently?
I don’t think so. I might have been a little bit more patient in some of the earlier years. I was a little impatient at times. I might have skated close to the line a couple of times in terms of getting too close to that line of operations versus what my role is here as a foundation CEO. Knowing where that line is key. I don’t think I would do anything different. I would’ve done things a little quicker but I don’t know if I’d do them any differently.
You feel like you were maybe too impatient but your summary from that is you would have moved faster?
Yes. I would think most of your readers that are in this world, in this sector would have lots of examples of that that during out in their world as well.
Looking ahead, we started with the naming gift and the campaign, but the campaign is still a very active entity. What are you looking forward as things roll forward?
The team is poised for some big things. We’ve got another two or three big announcements to do which will be very impressive for the marketplace. We launched this comprehensive campaign in 2017 and we said it was going to be a five-year campaign. Where we are right now is halfway through, and we’re way further ahead than we thought we were going to be. That’s not to say that’s the end. We still have an innovation, a hub on the new St. Paul’s site. We still have a research park to build. There’s another project that will be coming along that the provincial government will announce over on Vancouver Island that will be a major part of that will revolutionize how seniors with dementia are cared for in this province. In my opinion, it will set a benchmark for Canada. I won’t let the cat out of the bag because I knew the provincial government is quite excited about making that announcement. Stay tuned, it will be an exciting year.
That’s great and I’m glad to know that there’s enough to keep you engaged and excited to keep you there for a few more years at least because you’ve done an incredible job at that foundation. It’s meant a lot for healthcare not just Vancouver but across the entire province. Thank you for all that you’ve done. Thank you for being on the show.
Thanks, Doug. I appreciate your time. I hope to see you soon.
- St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation
- Streetohome Foundation
- Providence Health Care
- The Jim Pattison Group
About Dick Vollet
Dick Vollet is the President and CEO of St. Paul’s Foundation.
He has held a number of senior positions within the private sector, including Vice President of Operations of London Drugs, and played a part in executing the 2010 Winter Games as Vice President of Mountain Operations for VANOC.