The COVID-19 pandemic is a far-reaching and present danger that affects every sector on every level. Assuming roles of leadership in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic is bound to be tough because, on top of the usual transitional activities, there’s the additional task of keeping everything running as smoothly as can be, undaunted, in the face of an international crisis. Douglas Nelson is joined by Trish Barbato, the President and CEO of the Arthritis Society. Douglas and Trish discuss the tactics you must consider when assuming leadership of an organization during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trish is an inspiring and courageous leader and her words will help you muster the strength to lead in this difficult time.
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The Arthritis Society With Trish Barbato
On our show, we continue our conversations with leaders who have assumed their position during the COVID-19 pandemic and are addressing a new organization, a new board, and a new team in an unprecedented time. I’m especially pleased to have as our guest, Trish Barbato, who’s the CEO of the Arthritis Society. Trish, welcome.
Thank you. I’m pleased to be here.
You joined the Arthritis Society as CEO in February 2020 and before that, you’d been the Senior Vice President of Innovation and Strategy at Revera. You bring a deep connection to the community to your role. Before this pandemic started, what were you most excited about in joining the Arthritis Society?
There are a few things that got me excited. One was I feel that there’s a real opportunity to innovate in the charitable sector, particularly with fundraising. We’ve seen that with other charities, but I felt that especially with the Arthritis Society. When you have a long history as the Arthritis Society does over 70 years, it’s easy to fall back on certain processes or ways of doing things that may not be as customer-centric as you want them to be. I have a background in design thinking and being able to bring that lens to the organization, a fresh set of eyes, that was exciting to me. It’s nice to have a national organization. There are many fascinating and wonderful regional strengths and differences across this country and balancing all those while you try to move forward in an efficient way. I have always found that to be a wonderful challenge. That was another great reason to join.
I want to get into that customer-centric thinking. You’d had conversations with the board about what the expectations on you would be. How soon into your role did you realize that those expectations and what you were planning to do needed to change?
It was in week five when the COVID pandemic started to hit its stride and our focus became around that versus some of the other strategic areas that we were working on. It did quickly move into crisis with many charities as having to cancel many events. We had several large events across the country that were happening in March 2020 that were canceled or postponed. Even those postponement dates were unclear of, I’m thinking about our stuff and how to move remotely and make sure that was done efficiently. All other workplaces, we had to focus on the immediate needs because of COVID versus that strategic lens that you might have around planning for a fiscal year.
Given the age of your donor-base tends to be a little bit older than other organizations or many organizations. Certainly, I would imagine COVID consumed a lot of your donor-base’s attention as it was starting across the country. How, as the Arthritis Society, did you respond to try and be top of mind or at least have that mind share with your donors at that time?
When I think about crisis and leadership, I think about having a lot of discipline, even though you have a lot of uncertainty, but also having speed and getting to things quickly. One of the things that have been extremely helpful right at the beginning when we started to see these important revenue streams collapsing in front of us was to get to those donors. In many ways, the way I saw it was we’re all fundraisers now. Every single person in this organization is a donor. Stewart is going to be part of this. I’ve been making calls to donors, everyone. We’re trying to train volunteers and staff members that maybe weren’t particularly in fundraising roles. Checking in on donors is important during a time like this. You don’t want people to forget that you’re there and that you’re there for them. Many of our donors also suffer from arthritis in some way or our caregivers to others. There’s that component as well in the checking in on their health. That’s been important and we’ve done a good job. We’re still trying to reach as many donors as possible and those calls continue. It’s been an important objective and we started that right away when COVID started.
What was the reaction in the team when you made that statement, “Everyone’s a fundraiser?” For the fundraisers that were probably people who are used to being fundraisers, that was music to their ears. How did the rest of the team react?
Someone said this and it made me laugh out loud. “We’re getting on the Trish train,” is what they said. It’s this pivot that the Arthritis Society was fortunate because it had a strong plan giving unexpected donations and wills and that thing, which are not if I think about Baby Boomers. They’re saying to their children, “You’re not getting my inheritance, I intend on spending it.” It’s also shifting from the donations that kept the society strong in the past are not the same donations that are going to keep it strong in the future. Helping the entire organization and saying, “This is what we need to do. We need to pivot. We need to be more donor-centric. We need to adapt to that changing donor-base. We can all get around this and we can all get excited about this.”
Sometimes people cringe a little bit, it has that sales but the way I think about fundraising is that it is an opportunity to allow someone to be generous. It’s noble work. We take that money and they have a mission. Our primary objective for our mission is to get research dollars out for arthritis-related improvements and treatment. Ultimately, I hope a cure for many of the types of arthritis that we have. That’s important work. The way that I think we can position it for the organization as a whole is giving a chance to tell our story and help people understand the needs and allow them to contribute in that way.
We talk to fundraisers through our work at The Discovery Group all across the country in both Canada and the United States. One of the first things we say to people is, “When our work is done well as fundraisers and our donors make a gift, they often say thank you to us for giving them the opportunity. Particularly, when people are making those transformational gifts that they feel like they’ve had an opportunity to do something they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do or wouldn’t have imagined by themselves.” If you achieve by working with the fundraiser, organization, and services to its mission, it’s important to see the donors as equal beneficiaries or co-beneficiaries of a gift. To avoid seeing it as somehow that organization’s taking something or tricking people into giving them money.
That is completely related to what we talked to about that customer-centricity lens. Maybe we have important stakeholders, but our donors are such an important part of who we serve. We are serving when we do our mission work, but we must serve our donors and serving our donors is ensuring that we make things as easy as possible for them. We remove barriers for them. We are able to help them see clearly the impact and the power of their donation. That is important and we must do that well.
Organizations that have been successful for the last couple of years, the organizations that will be successful through this pandemic, are the ones that share that frame that you shared. It’s that talk about their mission and view their organizations as the vehicle to deliver to that mission. Not as the organization being the end in itself. People are giving to the Arthritis Society in order to support research and to support people with arthritis, not giving to the Arthritis Society because it needs money. That distinction is critically important. It’s great to hear you describing the role of donors that way. How does that message play with your board that is relatively new to fundraising as its focus?
The board is great and it was not set up as most boards. They weren’t set up as a fundraising board. In fact, we are going to have a separate fundraising council that will help us and be more focused on and, in many ways, accountable for supporting our fundraising efforts. We will have a governance board that’s helping us with the governance issues around risk and opportunities. A fundraising counsel that will be able to use their network to help us open doors and to do some of that specific fundraising role. That’ll make it easier and much clearer to people what they are signing up for and to all those board members.
Role clarity is important when it comes to governance.
You don’t want to tack that on because that doesn’t feel right. If you signed onto a board and you feel that your role is the patient lens, the financial lens, the legal lens, or whatever it might be that you were recruited for, you don’t want to find out, “By the way, I need you to open doors for me and fill these sponsorship tables,” or something like that. That doesn’t feel good to me and doesn’t feel right. Having that clarity around what do we expect from a governance board member versus a fundraising council member will be extremely helpful for us.Leadership in a time of crisis has a lot to do with discipline, despite all the uncertainty. Click To Tweet
Remember working with an organization who will remain nameless and you’ll know why when I tell the story. They were struggling with the board engagement and wanting, why won’t the board members help us with fundraising? As we dug into it, realized that the board chair had recruited people and the previous board chair had recruited and the previous person before her had recruited board members by saying, “You don’t have to do fundraising. That’s not what this board is about.” Management was spending the rest of the time trying to convince them to do exactly what they’ve been promised they wouldn’t have to do.
It became a point of real tension within the organization and they needed to go back to base principles and say, “What is it a board member does?” They included fundraising in that reworking. About a third of the board said, “This isn’t the board for me,” and stepped down. Being clear about what you’re recruiting people to join makes such a huge difference. While it’ll be interesting to watch the development of that, the fundraising council because that role clarity you’re coming on to raise money for the Arthritis Society across the country will probably be exciting to some individuals and daunting to others.
You want to find the people that get super excited about it, who want to raise to a challenge, who want to outperform targets. There are certain people that can help you do that work versus doing other types of work governance and other volunteers that we have across the organization that is doing different roles.
One of the challenges that we’ve seen many of the large national health organizations have is that they’ve got robust granting procedures that have been based on raising money for unrestricted purposes over many years. As donors have wanted to restrict their donations, there’s like, “What exactly are you going to do with my money?” Donors have been less willing to give to peer review granting processes and it said, “What are the real priorities?” It’s a tension within a lot of organizations. Is that something that you see in the Arthritis Society?
Yeah. I think about how do we take our offerings and articulate them in a way that a donor can look at and say, “I’m interested in kids.” We can say, “Yeah, great.” We have kids who have arthritis, we do camps for them, family days, this, that. Which of these might appeal to you? We have other programs like our Arthritis Talks, which have gone well, virtual national education, and Q&A with physicians, pharmacists about COVID-19 of people with arthritis. Those are also opportunities for a donor to give to something that may not be research-based but is also extremely important around education. The way I see it is you have a number of offerings.
This is the menu. Here’s what we’re offering. This is the range of your donation. This is the impact that you could make. This is how you will help and leave a legacy for us. It’s around this or this. Part of that is understanding your donor, where are they coming from, and what turns them on? What’s of interest to them? Doing that deep discovery so that you’re not coming at it from, “This is what the Arthritis Society needs.” You’re coming at it from, “I’ve heard you and it sounds to me like you would be excited about this opportunity or that opportunity.” That’s how I think about it.
That is a significant change for national health organizations. When you talk to your team across the country about being able to articulate that menu or that case for support, what is their feedback into it? I would imagine they’re excited about that.
We’re going through a lot of change quickly. I know that generally happens when you have a change in leadership anyway, but I would say that because of COVID-19, the pace of change at the Arthritis Society is extreme. I tend to work fast on a regular day. Given that we have this looming revenue issue in front of us for some time, things are moving at a rapid pace. When people start to understand what we are trying to accomplish in the much bigger view of the possibilities and how we can help this particular population, which is not a small population. There are six million people in Canada with some form of arthritis, which is unbelievable. It’s a large group in the population that we can help. Carefully communicating with the team, getting them on board, and getting them excited about the prospect of sharing our story and giving donors opportunities to make an impact is going to serve us well going into the future.
The way you articulated that it is enough for every fundraiser to be able to bottle that story or write their version of that story and share it with every donor that they can. You mentioned the rate of change and you usually work quickly. It’s accelerated and in this time of crisis. What advice would you give to your team now that they’ve got a new boss?
The key thing is to continue to focus on our mission, who we are, and our values. You came to the Arthritis Society maybe because someone you know or you yourself have arthritis and it’s a cause that got you excited. That is what will carry us is that energy and that passion around the mission. What I’m trying to do is remove barriers. I always say, “What is my job as a CEO?” My job is threefold. My job is to look for opportunities, seize opportunities. My job number two is to see risk and mitigate it to the extent possible.
My job is to remove barriers for everyone so that they can do their best work and be at their best at their job. That’s how I view my role. If I do those three things well, hopefully, we’ll be in good shape. When employees feel empowered and accountable, I see those two things like this one side of the same coin, power, and accountability. They can do the things that brought them to that job in the first place. Because this organization has been around for a long time, there are a number of processes and other things that we can redesign and we can make better.
What I say to the employees is to have an open mind and bring your ideas forward. People at the frontline have a much better idea of what is going on. One of the things I did when I first started was, I had a conversation with all the employees, the receptionist, the person in the mailroom, everybody so that I could get a sense of like, “Tell me about your role. Why are you here?” It gives you a bit of an understanding of the culture, which then you can use as a measuring post to decide, “Where are we? Where should we be or the organization?”The key thing is to continue focusing on your identity, your mission, and your values. Click To Tweet
The issue of culture is difficult in any large social profit, particularly one with offices all across the country. What did you find in the culture of the Arthritis Society in your first few months on the job?
You have an unbelievable number of passionate and engaged employees and thousands of volunteers for the Arthritis Society. I’m impressed by that. I’ve spoken to a number of them and they’re fantastic. Taking that ingredient of passion and engagement and then directing it in a way that puts all of us in the same boat, rowing in the same direction towards the same vision. That is what I need to do and do that in a situation where we have much uncertainty. There’s uncertainty, but we also know we are losing revenue because all these events are being canceled.
We know for a fact that the market volatility has cost donors to pause on perhaps a donor commitment. Those are known things. That means speed to try and mitigate that risk, one of my primary jobs. To me, that includes this workaround donor centricity, around turning everyone into a fundraiser. It also means looking at processes being as efficient as possible. It means working on the technology, looking at employee roles and responsibilities, and making sure that the structure and the system run as smoothly and with as much fluidity as possible. Those are all things that we need to do immediately in order to start to overcome some of these financial challenges that are upon us.
Those financial challenges are real, not just for your organization but across the sector. If you take a step back from the focus on the Arthritis Society, but to look at the health sector and philanthropic health sector, what do you see is the major challenge? How are we going to turn the corner and address that challenge?
The major challenge for all charities, imagine Canada’s working hard on some advocacy work around this, but it is going to be revenue. We’re all having the same challenge and the health charities, in particular, research is one of their main mission deliverables and those grants and the money available for research are going to be at risk because of that. On the Kinsey article that I read and it was about the last recession. They had looked at companies that had not only survived through a recession but thrived afterward and bounced back more quickly. I’ve been taking a look at that because these are learnings that you could apply to the charitable sector even though it was primarily related to the private sector.
One of the differentiators about the companies that thrived is that they were able to reduce operating costs. They did that quickly, that they divested and focused their organization quickly when the recession hit. They cleaned up their balance sheet. Out of all this, some of these things that happened both quickly and with a lot of discipline, they were able to recuperate more quickly afterward. When I think about translating that to a charity, I think about, for example, what does cleaning up a balance sheet mean? This is true of most charities. There are restricted funds, endowment funds, and there are all kinds of loose ends.
If I could describe it that way, that sometimes is a bit ignored, and now is the time to zoom in on those and understand what is this? What can we do with this? Can we apply it in this situation because we have a crisis? When I think about that divestment objective, I think about is there anything we’re doing that’s not that important? We should stop doing it. That energy is not twirling around in something that it doesn’t need to be and we can reallocate and repurpose the energy, the time, and the people to something else.
I’m looking in every corner of this organization for the things that should stop or be slowed down in order to orient ourselves to the things that are most important, which to me is our donor-base. The other area is around operating costs. Looking at every single expense item and saying, “What can we do to reduce this?” In some cases, and with many charities, it also includes the reduction of staff, which is not a pleasant topic. As I said to all our employees on an all-staff webinar, “My job is to ensure that the Arthritis Society that’s been here for 70 years is around for another 70.” It means making difficult decisions, which can include stump productions, which we have had to do as have had many charities.
It is difficult. It’s certainly not the choice of many new CEOs to come in and need to make those hard decisions but that is the reality that you and your colleagues across the sector are facing. One of the things you said, I want to go back there because it speaks to what I view as one of the most important elements of success in the social profit sector is being able to define the core business. A lot of that is being able to say what we don’t do or what we no longer do and then stick to it. An organization like the Arthritis Society has had patient support, education, funding research, and advocacy, a real broad scope of activities, and support Canadians living with arthritis. How do you go about focusing that down to the essential elements of the organization to get the strategic advantage and address the financial realities of the organization?
I’m an accountant by background. The way I always look at things is both qualitative and quantitative. The way I see it is, you cannot make a decision on numbers alone, but you also cannot make a decision on stories alone. You need both of those things to appreciate what is going on in a particular area or situation. For the Arthritis Society, they’ve had a couple of examples of that. One was that they did a National Arthritis Walk that was beloved and engaged hundreds of people across the country. When the Arthritis Society did the math on it and looked at the gross, the cost, and the amount of time and energy that people had to devote, it took six months. It was a massive event.
It sucked in all of the time of all of the regional offices for six months. Charities need to be good at looking at events or anything that they do on a net basis because a donor wants to know that their money is going to the thing that they’re passionate about, that it’s not going to the organization of that thing. The Arthritis Society made a difficult decision not to do the walk. That was before my time, but now I think, “That was brilliant.” It would have been awful this year where all the energy would have gone into organizing it and then it would have been canceled anyway. Those are the things where you need to understand both the numbers, but then also the story that goes with it. Can some of that energy be pivoted and used in a different way?
Another thing is looking at, for example, doing small education sessions. I know that the people that go to them find them valuable, but when you think about it on a cost per person basis, that is extremely high. We have the technology, we can pivot to a more digital experience, and we can reach many more people at a far less cost. To me as a charity, we always have to be thinking about how to achieve our objectives in the most cost-efficient way possible while still providing that experience or that option. It’s not easy. If I haven’t already, which I have, I’m sure I made some decisions that are not the best. You never have all the data that you want or all the information, but you still need to move forward. You still need to make a decision. We are doing this, we’re not doing this, and then go on to the next thing.You cannot make a decision based on either numbers or stories alone. Click To Tweet
You mentioned the importance of discipline and speed that is important to be making the decisions with all of the available information and moving forward with speed helps avoid what I like to call the zombie issues. Those things where you make a decision that we’re not going to do something anymore and then you find out that at some part of the organization that those things are still happening or, “We can’t move forward with all of our donors calling because we have this educational event we’re planning.” I thought we stopped doing education. Most of us did, but we decided to keep doing it anyway. That’s true in any larger organization, but it’s a particular feature of Canadian national organizations that are distributed across the country. I love your approach. I wish you all good luck and good fortune in avoiding those zombie issues. It sounds like your approach will do exactly that. As we wrap up, I want to conclude with one final question about as we get back to whatever the new normal looks like as the crisis begin to abate, what are you most looking forward to as CEO of the Arthritis Society?
I am looking forward to the innovation. I am looking forward to understanding our donors and making the organization extremely donor-centric. Working with employees around taking all that passion, commitment, and energy and moving it forward in a way that allows us to be a strong charity where our fundraising provides wonderful opportunities to donors and then not as executed against a mission that is not high in administrative costs and all those things. I’m looking forward to making a high tide for the organization and being at the top of our game. We have time in some ways to prepare for that because we are under this strange reality. We can put a lot of the framework and processes in place in order to execute well in the future. I’m looking forward to seeing the greatest potential for the Arthritis Society.
It sounds like you’re doing a lot of the right things and the necessary things to get to that point sooner rather than later. Thank you for your time, Trish. I wish you all the luck and good fortune in your work at the Arthritis Society on behalf of Canadians managing life with arthritis. Thank you for being on the show.
Thank you, Douglas. What a pleasure.
About Trish Barbato
Trish Barbato brings more than 20 years of experience as a senior executive in the fields of health and senior living. She has built an impressive reputation as a leader skilled at driving organizational change, guiding organizations to innovate, harnessing technology and inspiring people to achieve clear strategic objectives.
Prior to joining the Arthritis Society in 2020, Trish served with senior living provider Revera Inc. for over a decade in a variety of roles, most recently as Senior Vice President, Innovation and Strategic Partnerships. She was previously President & CEO of COTA Health, a rehabilitation, mental health, and support services organization.
Trish has held various executive positions, including Vice President, Corporate Services and Chief Financial Officer at Providence Healthcare, a 671-bed hospital and long-term care facility, Managing Director at Bayshore Healthcare, Senior Manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Partner with MacNeill, Edmundson. A graduate of the University of Waterloo, Trish is a Fellow Chartered Professional Accountant.
Volunteerism has played a large role in Trish’s life and career, with more than 30 years dedicated to various causes and organizations including Big Brothers and Big Sisters, where she also served for several years as chair. In 2012, Trish received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award for her commitment to this charity.
Trish has also served as Board Director, Quality Healthcare Network; founder and Director of Community Meditation; Vice-Chair, Seneca College; Chair, Academic Committee, Seneca College; United Way Investment Committee member; CIBC Spirit of Leadership committee member; Advisory Member, Closing the Gap; President, Stevenson’s Children’s Camp; United Way Allocation committee member and Canadian Women Entrepreneur of the Year Awards due diligence committee member.
Trish is a published author and international speaker on topics such as design thinking, innovation, and leadership. In her spare time, Trish is a certified fitness instructor, certified meditation instructor, and holds a black belt in Kung Fu kickboxing.