Campaigning for capital to support a wonderful cause is a noble job, but regardless of what it brings, there will always be ups and downs. Today on the show we have Teri Nicholas, who is known as a transformative leader in children’s health circles, and has been the CEO of BC Children’s Hospital Foundation since 2011. Seeing the success of the facility, you could say that their campaigning efforts really paid off. Teri shares how she transitioned to become a leader and how she leads a huge fundraising organization, bringing in millions of dollars for the last seven years. Learn more from Teri’s adventure as she narrates the journey she went through to make the hospital a community success.
Listen to the podcast here
Transitioning From Campaign To Mission-Based Fundraising with Teri Nicholas
We have Teri Nicholas, who in children’s health circles is known as the transformative leader and since 2001 has been the CEO of BC Children’s Hospital Foundation. Welcome, Teri.
It’s nice to be here with you.
It’s a pleasure to have you. A good way to start these shows or these conversations is for you to provide a little context about the BC Children’s Hospital and the foundation that you lead.
I’ve been with the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation for many years. BC Children’s Hospital is the only hospital in the province that’s devoted exclusively to the care of children. We have a critical mass of pediatric subspecialists and surgical specialists all in one place. When you have children who are seriously ill or injured or have a complex or chronic condition, you’ve got a critical mass of thinkers to come together to find health solutions for those kids. We are one of the few pediatric medical centers in North America that has an acute care center. An acute care center is what we think of for a children’s hospital here on the Oak Street campus with emergency, surgery, an oncology floor and pediatric intensive care.
We also have a very robust research institute that is working collaboratively with the hospital. In fact, about 70% of our researchers are clinicians at the hospital. They can see patients in the morning, potentially take blood samples and then go back to their labs, continue to try to find solutions and even cures for various diseases. We also have a free-standing mental health facility in pediatrics, one of the few hospitals in North America that actually has a mental health facility for kids on its site. In the summer of 2020, we will move our rehabilitation center here to the campus as well. We are in our final phase of construction which has gone on for a very long time here.
Surrounding all of this is a concept of philosophy that we take care of not only in the body but the child’s mind. We know that no child walks into the hospital alone. It’s about the families, the children and the child. In fact, we started a program for mindfulness to support our children. We realized how valuable it was for the families. Of course, it was so valuable for our caregivers as well. We know that having a sick child and being in the hospital is very stressful. I have a patient mother who said to me at one point, “On the worst day of your life, BC Children’s Hospital is the best place to be.” We try to strive to make it as best as it can be in very difficult times.
It sounds like a very special place. In fact, I know it is a very special place. I wonder how your donors resonate to that message of that comprehensive center for care and healing.Any initiative is all about a team and the wonderful people who get you to that end goal. Click To Tweet
One of the things with BC Children’s is in our province, it’s very well-known. If a person who works there or many of our donors, if they know you’re connected to Children’s, people often have a story. It’s either their own story, a relative or someone that they know. That’s our donors as well. They’re in the same situation that the rest of us are. I’ve had my own personal story. When we look at comprehensive care for kids, even donors who never had a child who has needed the care of BC Children’s, we know it’s there. We know we can rely on it and for the one million children in this province, a lot of people feel the same way.
It’s interesting, I know when you joined the hospital foundation as the CEO, the organization was in a very significant capital campaign and some trying financial times for the rest of the world. You led the end of that campaign and opened the new Teck Acute Care Centre in 2017. What happens afterward? Maybe walk us through the last year of that campaign and how you got ready to wrap that up and transition into life after an intense capital campaign.
I’d like to add one more point on the hospital because it continues with our previous discussion and then I’ll move into that because it’s very exciting times. We are not just a campus and a hospital here. A lot of people think of BC Children’s here in Oak Street in this province. We’re a very large province as a provincial children’s hospital, all children need to rely on BC Children’s. Through the campaign, we not only raise money to build a new hospital, but we also raised money for a program called Child Health BC. What we understood was that it was a great hardship for many families to come here and be away from their jobs, their other children and so forth.
We fundraised for a program where we could begin to build clinics across the province so that people, when they could, could go to those clinics. We have clinics all the way up to actually Whitehorse, Prince George, the Nymo, the closest is Surrey. With this, families can get the care they need there and clinics are set up. If a child has cancer or heart surgery, they have to come to Children’s. The follow-up can happen closer to home. That has been an absolutely incredible program. Beyond that, standards have been set up across the province through child health BC. We are the provincial resource for families in their own communities as well as our campus here. Of course virtual has helped us as well in terms of that communication with doctors, nurses and patients across the province so that a physician can sit in their office here and have someone put a stethoscope on a child’s chest and be able to listen. I’ve had the privilege of doing that. The technology is so fine that you can hear better that way than you could if the child was in your office.
With that, we move to me arriving at BC Children’s Hospital. You talked about it was a very difficult financial time. I came, the campaign was stalled and put on pause because to start a campaign in 2008 was not a very a strong economic time and there was a lot of uncertainty in our market place. I had the privilege of coming in and re-establishing a campaign linking what had happened and establishing a strong campaign cabinet and a team to begin to successfully move us through completion, which was around 2014. It was a very exciting time. For me, because I came in with that mandate and that was our mandate, I thought there couldn’t ever be anything better than raising money for a new hospital for BC Children’s. If I say there’s a legacy that I had the privilege of being involved with, this would be my greatest success.
I preface that by the fact that any initiative like this is all about a team and the wonderful people who get you to that end goal. It’s the joy of knowing that you’re about there. You’re near that finish line. I had a campaign cabinet. They said to me about a few months before a Crystal Ball, they said, “We want to announce completion at the Crystal Ball.” After falling off my chair, we had ways to go, we strategized, we went back to every single person we’d ever talk to, to help us to finish this campaign. I have to say the generosity was incredible.
I am sure there were a few very nerve-wracking conversations you’ve got. You can see the grains of sand falling in the hourglass towards the announcement day but can’t share the urgency that you must be feeling with those donors because you have to be about them.
It is about them. It’s also about urgency as well and opportunity. If you’ve talked to somebody a year earlier and they’re thinking about it, now is the opportunity to help us to reach that goal. I think that combination of always understanding what’s important to the donor and knowing that, at the same time there’s a deadline we have to meet it for sure. That was a bit of a stressful time and also an incredible time. I think with that, once you announce that completion was the joy of celebrating and honoring all of those donors who made it possible.
I remember those months when the hospital was not open yet, but we had the opportunity to take people through and show them the hospital. The joy, the words that it was better than we ever anticipated. I would have to repeat that many times. It was better than we ever anticipated because when we started this, we had no idea what it was going to look like. People bought into the need. We showed pictures from other hospitals and so forth, but we didn’t know until we had those plans. I’m so grateful to the people in this province who walked that journey with us.
You make the announcement in 2014 that the campaign has been successful. Now, you can turn your attention to the construction and the excitement there. As the leader of a fundraising organization, your big reason for existing for the last several years has now been concluded. How do you make that transition for yourself first as the leader?
What happened to me is that we were fundraising for bricks and mortar. Through that fundraising process, people would say to you, “I don’t give to bricks and mortar.” We were a little bit stuck on that because we were very uni-focused. When this campaign had been set up prior to my arrival, it was not set up as a comprehensive campaign. We had one half of the shop on the campaign and the other half was continuing to fundraise through our annual programs for the ongoing needs of the hospital because we provide an annual grant every year in addition to the other specific designated projects. We were sitting as almost two organizations within one.
When the campaign came to a close, we had the opportunity to begin to engage our clinicians and leadership around the needs of the hospital. We have this beautiful building but how do we continue to be a world-class hospital? I found that I was so energized and excited about all of the possibilities of that were before us. That’s from my own place. We proceeded over the next year to two actually, we had to restructure our organization so that it was one organization. As an organizational leader, it’s about bringing together your teams and culture where we’re all working for the same thing and not divided. I had to live with a structure for three to four years that was divided.
There was great joy in having the opportunity to bring back together. There’s the hospital and creating a strategy with them around how we worked collaboratively on what they needed. There was also a bringing together of the campus because it was a bit divided between research and the hospital and so forth. A great team with the hospital president, the executive director of research and with my team, we created an entire process so that we could ask all of our researchers and our clinicians to give us their dreams, their wishes, what they wanted us to do. This was not a one is better than another. It was, “Take this to your leadership,” and then we have a very comprehensive process, I would say, where they go through their supervisors and it comes to a team. There’s a few of us from the foundation on that leadership team, if you will. Many specific subcommittees look at them and say, “This is the direction we want to go. This will take us to the next level of care.”
We instituted that. That took about a year of us going out because people weren’t used to it. Clinicians weren’t used to it. They’re also used to research grants and they’re competing. No one’s competing. Give us all of those needs because we want to go out and go to donors and let them know what we need at BC Children’s Hospital. While that was happening, we went through a major restructure. You know it takes many years to change a culture.It takes many years to change a culture. Click To Tweet
I’m interested in the conversations you’re having with the board through that transition. Of course, everyone’s bought into the concept of child health and funding the areas of highest priority and the greatest promise through the process you’re describing. As the CEO, you’re now leading in a lot of ways in the education process for the board. You’ve been through a campaign, they understand that. They’ve been focused on it. Success, this is setting aside the cabinet who’s probably ready to fall over in their chair. A lot of the board members are probably feeling the same way, but you know, because you’re there on a day-to-day basis, the work isn’t done. How did you approach changing that conversation with your board?
The way I work is very open communication and working together on the same goal. One of the things we needed to do in this process is we needed a strategic plan. If you asked me what the strategic plan was before, it was one thing, the campaign for BC Children’s. That was it. In this process of developing models to work very collaboratively with the hospital, they do lead and we do follow in terms of what they need, restructuring our team here, which was a change. There was also, “What are we doing and where are we going?”
In this time, we launched a new strategic plan in April of 2017. Obviously, the work happened for about a year before that time. Through that process the board was involved. By being involved in the strategic plan, we set our five strategic imperatives and within that came learning and actually learning for all of us. This was a very different way of being as an organization. What’s great about our board is they are so committed to the cause. They’re also great business leaders in the community and philanthropists. With their guidance, we have taken this path together.
As they said with a culture, they all say it takes about three years and we’re doing some great things around our culture here. The board are with us in that and understanding our challenges. Where we are now is for two and a half years into our strategic plan. I’m leaving shortly to go away on a retreat with our board, which we do annually. In that process, it’s an opportunity for us to have conversations. As parent conversations, where are we on target? Where are we behind? They need to know. I’m not there at a percentage show and tell.
How do you bring them into those issues where you’re behind?
It depends on what the issues are. We have sixteen board members. We have a good size. We always have one representative. The head of surgery is on our board. We have our head of the hospital and research institute who come and is part of our board meetings as well. That’s important for our board to understand and hear from leadership and have that close relationship. We’re looking at our committee structure now, and it’s forever changing. We do have a committee that’s about child health partners. We have a combination of board members with community partners who we talk about what we’re fundraising for. We talk about our work, we talk about some of our challenges there. That’s a place where we can then bring it back to the full board and discuss it. Of course, on the board you have different people with different expertise who can assist you with that process. We’ll see how it is. It’s like, “Okay.”
One of the challenges and it is one of our strategic imperatives is around our people, our staff. The team, the people coming to work every day feeling energized, positive, knowing what their roles and responsibilities are, having a smile on their face is what you want. We have done a lot of work to build that culture. I had to go to the board with the strategic plan and say, “We’re in the middle. We need to restructure here. We’re in the middle of major reconstruction.” There’s going to be a disruption that happens. It’s going to take three years, if not more, to settle in to being the organization that we want to be.
How close did you bring the board into the details of that disruption? It’s an issue that we see with a lot of our clients that are going through similar transformations that some boards want to be in at the level of where we are moving the boxes on the org chart. Some boards are clear, “Stay within the budget and let us know if you’re going to go out of the budget.” The details are less important. There are extremes in both ways that we’ve worked with. Where does your board fall on that?
I report to the board essentially. They know our executive team very well. It’s a matter of, “Let us know what you need in the budget because sometimes when you do these things, we’ve had to increase the budget in order to make it happen, but we’ve also been raising more money. You always balance it too. I think they entrusted us to be able to do that. They worked in a different environment as well. It was a matter of them being kept apprised of how things are going, where there were stumbling blocks. Doug, you have people who were here fifteen years ago. Sometimes, regardless of where the organization is now, it’s like, “This is how we do things.” It’s not how we do things. We have to change.
I have been very fortunate that I’ve had such a great board, great chairs of the board as well and governance committee of the board. I do have a manager of corporate affairs, which helps keep things moving here. I was the CEO at Family Services for the ten years prior to coming in here and didn’t have that. That’s a wonderful support to the board and to me as well. For me, I’m always clear. I am always learning. I love learning. I don’t have all the answers. If we work together, we’re going to come up with the best solutions for where we go. That’s I guess how my philosophy in the way that I work with our board. It’s the way I work with our staff, it’s the way I work with the hospital.
It’s an impressive way to approach the work. I wonder if you could think of a time or share a story of when you’ve come when it’s been hard to be that centered and that open when you’re pushed either by a fiscal year-end or a difficult staffing situation. What’s the conversation you have with yourself? “Why am I here?” is an option, but I suspect that’s probably not where you go.
I love mysteries, which means that I love challenges too. I pretty much wear rose-colored glasses. For me, I always say if they get too dusty, it’s time to leave. I think for me, it’s part of taking a deep breath, using some of the mindfulness at work that’s happening here at the hospital. Sometimes when you can step back and say, “We’re going to figure this out. I may not know where it is now.” It’s to give myself time to make sure I’m patient with myself. I think we all want to come up with, “This is the wonderful solution,” and it may not be. It’s not to rush into it. I think that’s worked pretty well for me.
What advice would you have for a CEO that is coming out of a significant capital campaign to manage that transition as gracefully as you’ve been able to do with the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation?
I think probably the one thing I didn’t say is that you can’t just jump into something else. There’s a lot of stewardship that happens with all of those donors. You’re stewarding those people along the way. For me, it is patience. We’re always looking ahead. I’m looking to what’s happening in 2022 when our strategic plan is done. We’re halfway, but you’ve got to look at where we’re going to be in 2022. As a CEO, you’re always looking ahead. In that moment, give yourself the joy of completing that campaign. While you’re stewarding donors and you’re talking to donors, you’re beginning to understand where did they want to go next? Many of them are in pledges for a number of years. You know when that’s going to happen. You know they’re committed to you and you want to take them on the journey with you.
I think that phrase, “Give yourself the joy,” is a great lesson for a lot of leaders in the social profit sector when we’re dealing with issues of scarcity, increasing pressure, maintaining that mindset that you mentioned before, permission to give yourself the joy. I think that’s a great piece of advice for all of our readers. Teri, thank you very much for sharing the great history and the current operations at the BC Children’s Hospital. Congratulations on such a successful transition from capital campaign to programmatic fundraising.
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.