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Sunnybrook Foundation With Kelly Cole, CEO

By January 24th, 2024No Comments25 min read
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The Discovery Pod | Kelly Cole | Sunnybrook Foundation

Amidst the ever-evolving landscape of healthcare philanthropy, visionary leadership serves as the compass guiding transformative initiatives toward a brighter and healthier future for all. Joining Douglas Nelson in this episode is Kelly Cole, the President and CEO of Sunnybrook Foundation, who shares insights into the intricacies of transitioning from post-secondary to healthcare. Together, they dive into the foundation’s strategic growth plan and fundraising, emphasizing the importance of aligning values and fostering collaboration within the team. Kelly also discusses the unique challenges of healthcare philanthropy, including the need for sustainable operations and diversified revenue streams. Tune in now for a glimpse into the dynamic world of fundraising for a leading healthcare institution, appreciating the dedication to excellence, meaningful collaboration, and the impactful journey toward advancing healthcare innovation.

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Sunnybrook Foundation With Kelly Cole, CEO

In this episode, we have Kelly Cole. Kelly is the President and CEO of Sunnybrook Foundation, which inspires lasting support for Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center and Research Institute. Before joining Sunnybrook, Kelly was the Vice President of University Advancement at Western University where she and her team surpassed the goal for the Be Extraordinary Campaign by raising more than $805 million.

In our conversation, you’ll hear Kelly talk about the importance of building your team and what it’s taken to ramp up the foundation to be prepared for some very exciting things in the years to come. She talks very candidly about her transition from post-secondary advancement to health philanthropy leadership. If you’re a leader building a team and if you’re a fundraiser looking to what it takes to be the leader of an impressive organization, you’re going to want to read this conversation with one of the best, Kelly Cole.

Welcome to the show, Kelly.

It’s great to be here.

Kelly, I’m looking forward to the conversation we’re going to have about the transition from post-secondary to healthcare to big brand relaunches and preparing for significant philanthropic endeavors. Before we get into that, I’d like to ask you to tell our readers a little bit about the great work that’s happening at Sunnybrook Foundation and the hospital that it supports.

Let me start by saying the foundation is a strong team of about 90 individuals. We raise inwards around $70 million to $80 million a year for Sunnybrook Hospital Healthcare Center. We are in a very ambitious growth stage within the foundation. I joined the foundation not long ago. I was enticed by the hospital. The more that I got to know the place, the more I wanted to engage and do more.

The hospital is an internationally recognized academic health center. It has both a regional mandate and a provincial mandate. At the provincial mandate, they provide specialized care for what would be the province’s most critically ill and injured patients. We often say, “In your toughest moments, when it matters most, Sunnybrook is the place that you want to be,” as a way of describing the type of healthcare. They have nine different programs. We are known for trauma, cancer care, women and babies, preemies, bone and joints, and hip and knee replacements.

It is a remarkable place and a center for healthcare excellence. One of the things was I had the chance to spend a little time at Sunnybrook over the last couple of years. It jumped out of me, it is a place where amazing things happen on a daily basis. There are brilliant minds everywhere and it’s got a bit of a chip on the shoulder because you’re not located in Downtown Toronto. I’m curious as someone coming into the organization on how you perceive that and whether you hear a similar message from the donors that you’re working with.

You hear it from our donors and our volunteers, maybe the people that are closest to us who would like Sunnybrook to be well-known all across the city. As we get into market research, we have a fairly well-known brand name across the market. It’s top third of choice like state top of mind choice research when people are asked what other healthcare institutions exist across Toronto.

What caused us to stop and pause was more that people didn’t know what Sunnybrook stood for. They were not 100% sure what areas of care we deliver. “I don’t know a lot about Sunnybrook.” If you’re downtown and you’re at university, I have all of those hospitals at the front of my mind. You see them daily if you’re working down there. The people in our community hear the helicopter, so they do know we are here and we exist. We are doing very important critical work for patients.

One of the interesting things Sunnybrook is known for is being big. It’s a big institution. They do a lot of things. How does that translate in the conversation to having the donors who may have a personal experience with specific parts of the hospital but are being known as a large institution? I would imagine it presents some challenges when you’re when you’re positioning the foundation and the work you’re doing.

In particular for our board members who are constantly trying to keep up with all of the information, if you work daily, you’re reminded and immersed in that thing. Our volunteers want to be able to talk eloquently about the hospital. It’s difficult when you’ve got programs, but when people get into any area of care, they start to experience how special Sunnybrook is. It doesn’t matter which area you go into. You get the same experience and healthcare workers show up.

It’s not even the healthcare. In addition to the healthcare workers, it’s across the organization. People bring a level of compassion. They bring a level of passion. They refer to it as grit but determined would be the word because of how they show up with patients and the confidence that they bring in trying to deliver care. Whether it’s specialized in cancer or cardiac, you get that same type of feel for the way that you’re treated and the care that you get.

Sunnybrook brings a level of compassion, grit, and confidence in how they show up with patients in trying to deliver care. Click To Tweet

You’re identifying and underlining the challenge specific when you’re complex, integrated, and large. It is hard to tell that story. I know that is something that Sunnybrook has been managing and you’ve decided to go with the refreshing of the brand of the hospital and the foundation. As fairly early on in your time as CEO, this came to the plate. I’m curious how you approached it with that philanthropic lens as the largest institution looking at refreshing its brand.

I was identified even before I came on board. It was one of those areas of long conversations between myself and the CEO of the hospital to ensure that we were both on the same page, which is critically important. It’s one brand Sunnybrook. It’s another brand for the hospital or a brand for the foundation or some alignment. It’s full alignment around the brand and we both agree on that.

Whatever the brand stands for, it has to be authentic. It has to resonate with the staff, the physicians, and all of the healthcare workers. It has to make sense to our donors and our volunteers but also be relatable to the government because they are a big stakeholder for us as well as our community. When we started to look at rethinking the brand strategy and building out a new brand framework and brand house, we started to think about all those different constituents.

As you would well know, heading potentially into a campaign, you want to amp up your communication, solidify your brand and what you stand for, and have all of that completely aligned with the campaign priorities and where you’re where you’re headed. In the early stages, there was a coming together of both the hospital and the foundation. We did quantitative research. We did a lot of focus group work. We built out the strategy first. It followed with the brand framework.

We hired a firm and worked closely with them. They’ve been fabulous to work with. It was both getting the hospital, the foundation leadership, and volunteers on the same page about what we were trying to accomplish and how to simplify the message so it wasn’t so complex going out. It was more about how we create something that sends an emotion out of individuals. When we say this place is special, those people who are close to us know what we’re talking about.

Also, a sense of pride in that the brand recognizes what they see and do on a daily basis.

I would say getting that initial upfront alignment and the amount of engagement through the process helped us to land in a place where we had strong buy-in and agreement around the campaign that’s been launched. This place is special. It also was about the iterations that we undertook. We kept the leadership well-informed along the way. It’s out there. It’s in the market and we’re ramping up on how to continue to bring it into different mediums and different places of communication and starting our monitoring, tracking, and reporting and seeing how it’s working.

You’re going to measure how it goes.

There was a lot of discussion upfront around how will we measure and what will we measure. We have a common marketing and communications, a committee of the two boards filled with experts in calms and marketing. They’ve been invaluable through the process. They have pushed on what will be the KPIs and how will we ensure that it’s working and it’s resonating.

Thanks for sharing that process. One of the special parts of that story you shared is that team Sunnybrook concept that people talk about. There’s a joint marketing and comms committee between the hospital and the foundation. Not typical in most philanthropic hospital relationships. I had a conversation with the CEO of a hospital foundation who is adamant that her foundation needed a distinct brand and look and feel from the hospital.

It was tied to a lot of historical mergers and things in the healthcare system. In hearing her talk that through, I was reminded how complicated it is to establish a philanthropic identity. If it’s somehow separate from the organization where most of your money is going to go, the donors are going to be supporting. How important do you see or how do you see that close working relationship with Sunnybrook contributing to the conversations you’re having with donors?

They’re crucial. They’re great from the get-go coming on board with Sunnybrook. Andy and I talked, the CEO of the hospital, a lot about alignment. For me, this is one of those differences when you think about the university sector coming from there to healthcare. In the University, it’s one organization with a philanthropic development division within the structure and here we have two stand-alone operations.

We spent about a lot of time talking even just on vision as an example. Does the foundation have a separate vision from the hospital? We said, “No, we exist to support the hospital.” If the hospital’s vision is to invent the future of healthcare, then that’s what we’re doing. We’re helping to invent the future of healthcare. We say often that there’s nothing that we’re doing on that invention side that’s not supported in some way through philanthropy.

The Discovery Pod | Kelly Cole | Sunnybrook Foundation
Sunnybrook Foundation: We’re helping to invent the future of healthcare.

If you think about the overall, like if the visions are aligned, our purpose and our mission of the organization are different, but one of the misalignments when I first came on board was, in my mind, ambition. The hospital had been on a strong growth trajectory it was heading. I wanted to undertake a very significant new building and they’ve received the planning grant for that new building, and will the foundation be ready to step up with the hospital and deliver philanthropic support around that building as an example?

If you have greater ambitions around where you want your research agenda to go, the leadership role that they play in the healthcare system and they want to up the ante on how philanthropic support that, you need to ensure that the foundation is prepared. We’ve been on a three-year growth plan to grow and build the capacity of the team to deliver a higher dollar value annually that supports the ambitions of the healthcare institution.

Getting that alignment, it’s so important that we’re both on the same page and how could we be out of line on brand? When you think about what the brand stands for, what is the institution about? What’s the promise that I am receiving? While we might have some conversations around what are our promises to our donors versus what’s our promises to patient’s families, there might be some differences there.

The fundamentals are so critically important. The hospital is all about collaboration. It is one of the strengths of the organization, how they partner both within and outside the institution, and how they approach the delivery of healthcare. If the foundation does it show up in the same way with that partnership collaboration feel, then it’s not going to work. That seeps into the brand. When you get the strategic direction of the institution, the brand, and your funding priorities what your campaign is trying to deliver, when they all line up and make sense, it’s much stronger.

It’s a single story for the donors to take in. It’s coherent. One of the things, I’m sure you’ve heard this at other organizations, is people need to understand that our campaign is different or how the foundation is different from the hospital. Why? I don’t think the donors need to understand. I don’t think they’re interested in that. We have to explain the differences. When we’re explaining why it’s not exactly the way they think, that’s not bringing them closer to a significant gift to either the foundation or the organization.

That then gives a lack of confidence. I want to be confident that when Kelly’s connecting with one of the hospital leaders or the CEO of the hospital, there is a relationship that exists that is supportive on both sides that are all lined up and trying to accomplish the same thing. My philanthropic dollars are going to be well stewarded both by the foundation and by the hospital and connected.

You’ve mentioned a potential campaign a couple of times and all of our readers understand that this is not a news-breaking show so we’re not going to tell any stories, but I’m curious. As you’ve been exploring how to do that scaling up of the foundation you described with the three-year growth plan, what is the potential for a campaign to change the way you’re talking to your donors and the way those donors are choosing to support the foundation?

The campaign provides that opportunity to think about Sunnybrook, the full institution, its role in the healthcare system, what impact they are trying to have, where they are going over the next 8 to 10 years, and how is philanthropy helping to drive that that trajectory. If you get into annual campaigns, you can still talk about the institutions and strategic plans or make some sense of where the institution is going. It’s not that it doesn’t exist but this allows you to rally around a vision for what what’s going to get accomplished over whatever that time frame is, ten years, let’s say.

The Discovery Pod | Kelly Cole | Sunnybrook Foundation
Sunnybrook Foundation: The campaign provides that opportunity to think about Sunnybrook, the full institution and its role, in the healthcare system and what impact are they trying to have.

It gives that big-picture vision. When you get into funding priorities in some of the areas, pick an area of importance and you can say, “How does this ladder up to a bigger vision? What’s going to happen inside one area?” For example, there is a lot of effort in many healthcare institutions on precision medicine. How does precision medicine show up in cancer? How does it show up in trauma? How does it show up in cardiac? You can see where those bigger vision pieces allow you to tell a story about across the institution, what we’re trying to accomplish, and how the priorities ladder up to that.

It sounds like turning that idea that Sunnybrook is big or Sunnybrook is large into an asset rather than as a barrier for conversations with donors.

It’s hard to be a system leader. It’s hard to think about having an impact on very big healthcare issues and not be in an organization of Sunnybrook Science. A position that Sunnybrook and many large institutions take is that it’s not just about us. It is about how we connect with the community, encourage those relationships, and have communication and flow of information between organizations. Those are all going to be critical things down the road and you need a big institution like Sunnybrook that can affect change.

It's hard to think about having an impact on very big healthcare issues and not be in an organization of science. Click To Tweet

It’ll be fascinating to see how that rolls out over the next couple of years, Kelly. Thank you for sharing that. I want to pivot our conversation to you. I want to talk about you for a few minutes. Your journey to being CEO at Sunnybrook Foundation is interesting. The transition from post-secondary leader at the Ivy School of Business and to Vice President at the University of Western Ontario before taking on the role at Sunnybrook, I don’t know whether to start with. Tell us a little bit about yourself or where to go to. Tell us about the transition. What were you expecting to find when you left the senior leadership role in post-secondary to take on the CEO at Sunnybrook? What are the differences between post-secondary and healthcare? What did you think it was going to be?

I thought a lot of learning around healthcare versus university as a sector. What are the sectoral issues? What are the areas of care? I was a little daunted by all of the medical lingo that was going to be coming at me fast and furious, to get your head around ten programs, what they’re doing, and get to know the doctors. For me, that seemed like one of the biggest challenges.

It is the fact that I was moving from reporting to a CEO to reporting to a board. I’ve had some conversations before taking the position around, “What does that mean? What’s different?” That has been one of the biggest changes with that. The funding model is quite significantly different. It makes you rethink how you manage and where you prioritize.

On that budget issue in post-secondary, you think about funding yourself in budget conversations with colleagues around the table and other members of the executive about what you need for the overall advancement effort of the institution. You don’t think about it again until next year’s budget cycle because everybody gets paid and the money’s there. It’s very different in the healthcare environment where you’ve got a generate the revenue to fund the machine. I won’t say that you had the same learning curve I did, but when I made that transition, I didn’t realize it until I was in then I was terrified. I was like, “How does this work?” They were like, “This organization existed for 70 years. They’ve been figuring it out. Maybe just chill out and see what happens.”

I think they call that.

That was the only choice I had. You’re a more deliberate thinker than I am and you plan ahead a little bit better than I do. How did you think about that transition in terms of the funding of the organization?

There were a couple of things. Early on, they shared through the recruitment process a little bit of the financial background. It was there that I went a little bit deeper. On my recruitment committee, I was the chair of our audit and finance committee. It’s a good point of conversation and also a chance to ask questions to also point out some of the vulnerabilities that I thought existed.

I had come from Western where we had Foundation Western for a number of years. I have this little bit of experience of a separate foundation and how it operated and earned some of the annual revenue through the small portion of that interest earned. On the finance side, I certainly was very aware, but coming into it, we had a lot of discussions around sustainable operations. That’s a very different conversation or strategic discussion compared to what we would have had within the university sector.

It was from that standpoint in the first couple of years. Thankfully, in my first year, we had those high-interest rates. That was partially a good boost for us, but it allowed us a time in a very positive revenue generation time to have that conversation about sustainability and how we ensure the sustainability of the operations for ups and downs. There are multiple sources of unrestricted revenue where it comes from. You have to know within each one what’s the high, the low, and the vulnerability and plan for the future.

One of the big differences is that people probably don’t appreciate until they’ve made that transition from post-secondary to healthcare is fueling your growth is a more complex strategy in healthcare because you do have to generate those unrestricted dollars before you generate the greater restricted dollars. Your success is measured by the gifts to a particular area or a capital project, which doesn’t do a lot to fund your unrestricted revenue.

You have to invest before you receive the benefit of it, which seems obvious. It is a much more complicated strategy in healthcare. You mentioned the high-interest rates. They weren’t that high. Did you feel that difference in the complexity of the strategy required for the three-year growth plan for example?

Yes. I come from a world where you would say, “We’re going to go into campaign. We’re going to need this upfront money.” It was convincing people that, “We need the upfront money to produce the end game.” I don’t need to convince anybody anymore. I need to find revenue. Now, it’s turning, and thank goodness. I thank my lucky stars every day for the team that I have below me because they are quite amazing. It is great leadership in looking at, “How do we diversify our unrestricted revenue? What are some of the ideas? How do we think about this? What would be a way of approaching it? How do we get some upfront funding versus later in the campaign? How do we create that model?”

It’s a very different conversation and it impacts the way that you fundraise. That critical difference is you need your donors, your volunteers, and your board to all understand how that funding model works and the importance of it. Thankfully, our donors do. They do get that all of that leads to a much bigger and better outcome for the hospital. That’s very different than when you’re in the university sector where you’re competing with other faculties and divisions with the provost and the president to say, “Here’s how much we need,” to get confirmation on that.

The Discovery Pod | Kelly Cole | Sunnybrook Foundation
Sunnybrook Foundation: You need your donors, your volunteers, and your board to all understand how that funding model works and the importance of it.

It’s not 1 or 2 people who can say yes to your plan and, as they can in post-secondary, it’s 10 to 100,000 donors making a gift that gets to say yes or weigh in on whether you can fuel the growth or build the program. Kelly, you’ve done such a great job of building the organization you talked about the decided commitment through the three-year growth plan.

I’m curious to get your thoughts on how you went about building that great team you referenced. What we see across the country is the organizations that are successful are the organizations that not only have great leadership and great CEOs, but they do have that tremendous team at that executive and down. How did you approach building the team at Sunnybrook?

What was interesting when I started was we had an essence for individuals who made up our executive leadership team all of whom had been working in the organization for less than two years. We have a brand new leadership team. None of us with the history and some of us with select relationships with some of our donors and our board. Coming together, we often talked about how we were new, but I’m not even sure that we appreciated at the time what that meant.

Especially when you look at the next layer down of senior management, many of those individuals had been in the organization for 5 years, 10 years, 12 years, or 20 years. We had this brand new leadership at the top, we had a lot of long-term employees in the senior management group, and we knew that we needed growth. Right off the bat, we did a purpose values and organizational values effort across the team.

There was a lot of history to the organization and us getting the whole team aligned around how we want to show up at work every day, how we want to work together, what’s going to be important, and how we hold each other accountable. We needed to get that foundational. There was a lot of change that was coming. In order for us to effectively change the culture and do some of that change management, we needed this foundation around how we could talk to each other about our values. It has performed very well.

We’ve done some very significant changes. We lean into those values at the start and throughout our meetings all the time. Going back to that conversation about alignment with the hospital, there were parts of the foundation from a cultural perspective that weren’t quite aligned in my estimation. This allowed the team to define those things that were so important to them, which in the end were exactly what the hospital was. It was all about meaningful collaboration and connectedness. Not only between the team members, but with the donors, volunteers, and our colleagues across the hospital.

There was a value built in around acting with integrity. It was about what experience we want our donors to have and how we want to hold ourselves accountable. There was this long discussion around striving for excellence. With that, came the understanding that that might mean that we fail sometimes and that’s going to be okay. We built out that piece, then to a large extent, the three VPs stepped in to build out of the capacity.

I know you know Ana-Maria quite well. As our Executive VP of Advancement, she built out the philanthropy team and did some restructuring there, so focused on major gifts first. There’s been a lot of effort in systems, processes, and creating best practices because we’re an organization that is trying to move from $50 million to $60 million and double that up to $100 million to $120 million a year. What comes with that is that need for our operations to be solid. In the other piece, there were two other big focal points for us in the first year or two years, and I come back to that alignment, but we created an environment where our team and the hospital were connected. Not just at the CEO level or at the board level, but straight across the organization.

The Discovery Pod | Kelly Cole | Sunnybrook Foundation
Sunnybrook Foundation: We created an environment where our team and the hospital were connected not just at the CEO level or at the board level, but straight across the organization.

This piece has proven to be very important to us because we have created much stronger relationships through the organization at all levels with each of the program areas and some of the support services areas. That is helping us with building out stronger cases for support, ensuring that we have stronger stewardship going back to our donors, engaging those individuals, and bringing them closer to the philanthropy, either working with our donors or working with our teams. That has been proven. These were in the early days. “Let’s get these structured right. Let’s build out the relationships and get the right team in place, then when we’re trying to ramp up, we’re ready to go.” Those are some of the big things.

One of the other things I’ve observed, and I’m interested in you explaining it or walking through it, is part of ramping up and scaling up. The organization was hiring for very specific roles. Some organizations hire generally or broadly across the organization under the rising tide lifts all boat strategy. At Sunnybrook Foundation, you’ve been very targeted in the areas in which you’re investing. I’m curious how you got to that decision and what you’ve seen is the early returns on those investments.

I noted the focus on the major give team and getting that outfitted right. It’s such a big portion of our division. Not just with folks that are frontline fundraisers but ensuring that we had the right program manager and back-office support that allowed them to focus their time on the outward bound versus on creating processes for getting donor agreements signed or whatever those back-office pieces.

The focus was there. It was a heavy focus on digital and tech. That would be a surprise,  but also, the digital folks were spread out. We decided to create and bring them together into one team. That has already proven to be quite beneficial. We bantered back and forth around the campaign and around what we needed from campaign support. A lot of discussions are around transformational gifts. This was a new place for us to move into.

We had some sizable gifts in the past, but we figured that as they go forward, it would be even bigger and better, so how do we create the right team around support of transportable gifts? It is looking at some of the key areas, getting our focus there, and making sure that we get those built out early on and supported.

I have to say that a lot of it is driven by the leadership of the team and even getting down below the VPs. When you empower people, it’s quite amazing what they can do. It took a little bit of time to empower that senior management team to be coming forward with all the great ideas that they have. They’re thriving now and it’s great to see.

When you empower people, it's quite amazing what they can do. Click To Tweet

It is great to see and hear. It is an important data point in the larger sector story about how hard it is to find people and how challenging it is to build teams in this environment. Nothing in your answers suggested it was simple or straightforward, but it is been impressive to see what has been built there at Sunnybrook Foundation. Kelly, as we come to the end of our conversation, I want to ask you a question I’m very genuinely interested in the answer to, which is what are you looking forward to?

There are a few pieces. The next few years, there’s so huge. They are bigger than anything I’ve done before and sometimes quite daunting. If we can get the campaign up and get those first couples of transformational gives in, those are big hurdles. One of the things that we’ve been focused on or trying to get right is the donor experience.

At the end of the day, it is about, from the foundation’s perspective, our purpose and role is making sure that donors feel the impact of their philanthropy. We’ve got a little bit of work to do in that area of doing some new innovative work. For me, if we could see some of that coming to fruition at the time that we hit campaign launch, where there’s an engaged robust cabinet in plays, donors are feeling excited about the future of Sunnybrook.

If we go back to our first conversation around the brand and what people speak, over and over again, our donors and our volunteers are wanting so much for Sunnybrook to be seen, heard, and known for all the great work that they do. Wouldn’t that be fabulous by the time we had the campaign launch? They can see and feel it in the community. That comes with great gifts and the great impact of that philanthropy.

I love it, connecting philanthropy to the purpose and to the passion that your volunteers and medical staff have for the place. It’ll be a great couple of years, Kelly. Before I let you go, please let our audience know how they can learn more about the great work that’s happening there at Sunnybrook Foundation.

Thanks, Doug. People can follow us on our website. Our team is always open for emails and contact. We look forward to hearing from you.

That’s great. Thank you so much for being a part of the show.

Thanks, Doug.