Skip to main content

SAIT With Brian Bowman, AVP, Advancement

By March 15th, 2024No Comments27 min read
Home » SAIT With Brian Bowman, AVP, Advancement

Discovery Pod | Brian Bowman | Culture Of Retention

Discover the secrets to maintaining a team dedicated to your organization’s mission and values with our special guest today, Brian Bowman, the Director of Alumni and Development at SAIT. In this insightful conversation, Brian sheds light on the challenges associated with cultivating a culture of retention within an organization. Tune in as he shares valuable insights on the essential elements required to foster a team that not only cares deeply but remains unwaveringly committed to a shared purpose. Additionally, Brian provides a sneak peek into the exciting developments ahead for SAIT. Don’t miss out on the wealth of knowledge shared in this episode – join us now and dive into the enriching discussion with Brian Bowman.

Listen to the podcast here


SAIT With Brian Bowman, AVP, Advancement

On this episode, I am pleased to say we have Brian Bowman, Associate Vice President of Advancement at SAIT, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, Alberta. In our conversation, Brian talks about the number one issue I hear from CEOs on a day-to-day basis. That is the issue of building culture and a culture of retention in your organization. Brian walks us through what it takes to build a team that cares for each other professionally and personally. A team that is committed, has fun, does cool things, and remains committed to purpose.

If you’ve ever thought about retention and those issues in your organization, you’re going to want to know what Brian has to say. Brian foreshadowed some big things that are coming to SAIT in the form of the quiet phase in a new campaign, and he talks about the genesis of that campaign. If you’re thinking about getting started in a campaign or a campaign is coming your way in your organization, you’re going to benefit from reading Brian’s perspective on how to make that a seamless process and address some of the early pitfalls that happen in some organizations. This is a great episode, a lot of learning. Thank you for reading.

Welcome to the show, Brian.

Thank you. It’s good to be here.

It is great to finally have you on the show. I’ve had the chance to get to know you pretty well over the last couple of years. For our readers, who may not know, tell us a little bit about what SAIT is and the role that you play at that great organization.

I’m happy to do that, Doug. I’ve been at SAIT for many years in the role of leading the alumni development team. SAIT as an institution was founded in 1916. We’re the oldest publicly funded institution of our type in Canada and was originally founded to retrain veterans as they were returning from war in space, delivering an applied education for a skills-based institution, granting credentials for hundreds of years, we’ve in fact been standing up the skills, the trades, and the expertise prevalent I think in running our economy in Alberta both in the energy sector, but in many other capacities as well.

When you think about hospitality and tourism, manufacturing, and transportation, our school of business graduates many people who are working in the finance sectors where thriving institution that has a beautiful property overlooking downtown Calgary. We’ve got approximately 20,000 students attending classes on our campus and looking at continuing to grow that number over the next number of years.

It is a remarkable place. The thing that has jumped out at me fairly consistently over the last few years has been the close working relationship that as an institution of higher learning SAIT has with industry partners, a deep inextricable link between the needs of the economy and the training and the education that’s happening at anyone who’s been around Polytechnic will say, “That’s what they’re for,” but I’m interested in what does that mean for your work as the leader of the advancement program and those relationships come not ready-made, but certainly more accessible than they might be other places.

I talk about James C. Miller, SAIT’s first president who probably jumped in his Model T Ford and went through the gravel roads of Rural Alberta and probably with a clipboard, was taking notes from farmers and whatnot about what are the skills that you need to operate your business, and that was the beginning of what is a very close relationship and partnership with industry. From our perspective, that relationship is critical to the relevance that we play.

In terms of advancement, moving the organization forward, we don’t do that for the sake of a great education and because we’re building the reputation of SAIT, but truly in partnership with industry, we take our lead from them in terms of what are the skills that are required to thrive and grow your business. Once we’re delivering on that, then our reputation continues to grow, we do trade a lot on the reputation that we have, and the relationships that we enjoy with our industry partners and have done for 106 years.

It’s a unique position. Anyone who’s worked in post-secondary fundraising or certainly anyone who’s held a role for being in charge of corporate and foundation relations, being able to work at an institution that has those deep relationships certainly would be a leg up look good on the resume I would think.

It’s a unique situation in that I think the relationships we have are deep relationships that I call many of them passionate engagement. These are people who roll their sleeves up in order to assist us in getting the job done. How do you deliver curriculum and graduate the individuals with a skill that is required if, for example, you don’t have the latest equipment that is being used in industry, the relationships that we’ve forged lasting and long-term relationships over many years? The business change is a response to that. We’re in this together with our business partners, an important aspect of our work for sure.

Brian’s Journey To SAIT

Before we go forward, let’s go back and I want to start with you. One of the things that you said right out of the gate, you’ve been with SAIT for many years. It is rare in our work to see some people holding such senior roles for such an extended period of time. Walk us through what you did in the sector that brought you to SAIT in the first place. How did you get started?

It’s interesting because no one ever intends to stay in one place for many years. It’s an interesting story as to how did that happen. I spent many years going to take my business education. I have a Bachelor of Commerce degree and apply it to the arts, which is my first love. I did that for a number of years in small nonprofit organizations and built up a reputation there.

I did some fundraising, but that was not a career path for me. 9/11 happened and I was at a crossroads, and I had to evaluate where things were going at that point. A week later, I quit my job. I did not have a job to go to. It was the most empowering thing that I have ever done. I have to tell you, it was one of those moments in your life, perhaps even at this date I don’t think I would do that, but at that stage, I had nothing to lose and needed to make a change.

I jumped into a development role in the healthcare system. I was a development officer, to begin with, at the Peter Lawhead Hospital. It was a bit of a pilot test for me to see how you do in a large publicly funded institution. I love that job. I made some good relationships and built some great relationships with the hospital staff. I learned a lot about that system. We raised some money there too. One thing led to another, and then I became a lead over all of acute care and then was recruited to the United Way where I ran two $50 million campaigns.

That was my trial by fire throw into the corporate sector in particular. United Way has very strong relationships in corporate Calgary. I built some strong relationships in that and also some discipline, which led to, I think, the opportunity that arose for me at SAIT where they had seen my campaign experience and expertise and recruited me, in fact, to run the campaign that was then running at SAIT for $75 million was the goal.

Where along that journey did you become a fundraiser? Was it the head of fundraising for acute care in Calgary or the two $50 million United Ways? Was it closing out that $75 million campaign at SAIT?

I don’t like to be characterized as a fundraiser. It’s not that I disburse anybody with that description. Fundraising is one of the things that we do. I like to think of it more as a community builder. The work that we do is broad-ranging, and one of the outcomes of the work we do and building relationships is that we in fact raise money. The answer to your question, I’m still learning how to be a fundraiser. It’s a long process.

SAIT’s Development Team

Community building brings me to something I want to go deep on in this because, for our readers who may not have had the chance to interact with members of your team, you’ve got a special culture there at SAIT. Before we get into that, tell us a little bit about the team and the areas that make up the program you oversee.

It was recently grown by one unit, but I’ll describe the high-level overview. We have a development team that is responsible for major gifts, principal gifts, annual giving all of the nuts and bolts associated with that frontline effort, including running a campaign. The advancement services division includes a student awards component, which is perhaps different than some other institutions, but does research and backend gift processing and all of those kinds of activities.

We’re an integrated shop. I also oversee the alumni and stakeholder relations division which consists of alumni relations officers, stewardship communications, etc. A business solutions team that is responsible for our data, analytics, reporting, and all of the related activities under that. We are in the throes of the implementation of a new CRM system. They’re critically important at this juncture. The new hit on the block is industry engagement, which is going to fall under my portfolio beginning March 1st.

It is slightly different than what might be a conventional development or advancement shop. One of the things that sticks out to me is the longevity of your teams. You’ve been there for many years, but a number of your team have been there for quite a long time. What do you attribute that length of service to shows up consistently across your team?

Let’s be realistic about this. We have had some tremendous opportunities over the tenure of my time at SAIT. That has included raising a school of our type, an unprecedented amount of money. That was the Promising Futures campaign that concluded in 2012. That led right into our centennial That happened in 2016, which was a huge lift, a very successful award, award-winning program that we put together in celebration of our 100 years.

Into the next phase, what are we doing next, and leading into where we are, which is in the quiet phase of a campaign. There is activity though. There the things that we do, but I don’t think that alone can be responsible perhaps for longevity. SAIT is a unique organization in many respects. It’s very collaborative, it’s very problem-solving oriented.

We do have a culture of people who can truly make a difference and contribute. There are all kinds of ways in which individuals can do that. Some of the members of my team have been there for twenty-plus years. Many of them are not that long in tenure. The mixture of those who are relatively new to the team, combined with those who are perhaps mid-career to those who have been there longer is an important dynamic in any organization, is that evergreening that you begin to see. We spend a lot of time, particularly in my department in advancement, talking about culture, living culture, talking about how everybody contributes to the culture. Whose responsibility is it to develop a culture that you want to be part of?

Whose responsibility is it?

It’s everybody’s responsibility. When you begin to see the payback, which is our alumni going off and doing amazing things that they do, we are a very student-centered organization and we’re grounded in the benefit that we’re bringing to the table to service the very best education that we can possibly provide. There’s a huge amount of pride associated with that. The notion of being proud of the work that we do and being able to see the evidence of what we’re bringing to the table, walk on campus and see the facilities that we have been part of realizing and going into some of the labs and classroom spaces, and seeing some of the equipment that we have been part of, that’s powerful. A lot of those things mix together to create an environment that people want to be a part of.

It's everybody's responsibility to develop a culture you want to be part of. Click To Tweet

Culture Development

There is a lot to be said for that deliberate conversation about culture because someone reading this conversation is going to read the answer to having a long-serving team and an engaged team is to have cool things to do, be collaborative, talk about the culture that you want to create, ensure that your team has a commitment to purpose. It looks good on a LinkedIn slide, but there’s a lot of work to that. How do you as the leader approach that conversation around culture?

When I first joined, we were in the middle of a $75 million capital campaign. I think we were $18 million in thereabout. The strategy that we’re being deployed at the moment is largely about how we get nature gifts. How are we bringing more dollars to the table? How are we forging those relationships? All of which are important development programs. I made it one of our strategic priorities to develop a trust-based culture. It was a strategy and it is to this day a strategy that we include in our strategic priorities. The number one thing that I do is above all, if we don’t have a culture of trust, how are we going to do our work? It’s the foundation on which everything else occurs.

Discovery Pod | Brian Bowman | Culture Of Retention

Culture Of Retention: If we don’t have a culture of trust, how are we going to do our work?


People love to talk about how they want to be treated in the workplace. They love talking about their aspirations and what they want to accomplish. It’s the saying that I often use, “Would you stay longer if I held you tighter?” That idea of being clingy to people that they don’t feel that they could go off like I did and explore other opportunities and other career paths. I’m encouraging people to own their careers and be their best selves in whatever it is that they’re doing. That language that we utilize, empowering people and recognizing that this may or may not be the best fit for you, or if it’s not a fit question, it’s about what is it that you would like to be doing that is leveraging your talents and abilities.

Conversations like that, both one-on-one and in team settings allow the conversation to talk about, “What are our shared values? What do we care about? How do we treat one another? How do we treat each other even when you’re not in the room? How do we talk about the organization that we are a part of?” One of my favorite expressions that occurs in most organizations and that is, “How do you stop admiring the problem and get on with the work that we have to do?” When you all get rowing in the same direction, I could talk all day about this, but here’s the thing.

I’ve read books by Lencioni, Stephen Covey, and others. There is an economic cost to operating in an environment that isn’t based on trust. Things go slow. They’re difficult and frustrating. Nobody’s having a good time. You’re doing a workaround. You’re having side conversations. There’s no authenticity. That is definitely a no-brainer. From an economic point of view and business point of view, having operating in the absence of trust is a non-starter. Personally, I do not want to be part of a team that doesn’t engage in healthy dialogue where we’re not engaging a conversation where somebody feels like they can’t have a different opinion than I do that’s the dynamic that I try to perpetuate inside the team.

I’ve seen it in action. One of the things I want to underline that you touched on a couple of times there, in conversations with your team, they express genuine concern for one another on a professional level. This is something that may cross, “This may go into Anthony’s area. This may go into tan Tanya’s area.” If Anthony or Tanya isn’t in the room, it’s like, “Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page before we move forward.” There’s not a lot of going backward to fix things because we tried to move ahead too quickly. That sense of professional connection that comes through is largely a reflection of your leadership style, but how do you think about it?

I‘ll use an analogy and the people who are reading this who perhaps have worked with me before, where on my team have heard this before, but when the coffee room, there’s a coffee pot and it serves twelve cups of coffee you have to replenish it if you want more. Inevitably, I would go into the coffee room, how you race in before a meeting and fill up your coffee mug, and off you go, “The coffee pot would be empty.”

I’m like, “How can the coffee pot be empty? If you were thinking about your colleague and you took the last cup of coffee, why wouldn’t you make a pot that comes along? The analogy is if you’re not thinking about the consequences of your action and if you’re not paying it forward when you have the opportunity to do you’re not thinking in a way that is either respectful of your colleagues it relates to students and donors too. How is it that we’re putting other people at the center of the work that we do?” The coffee analogy might make some people roll their eyes, but for me, it’s the metaphor for how you have to think about my actions have consequences for other people. I can either make their day or I could spoil their afternoon thing.

The risk is that Brian doesn’t have that second cup of coffee before the meeting, then he’s grouchy, and we don’t know what’s coming.

Who wants that?

One of the other parts of the culture that I am hoping you’ll share a little bit of your perspective on that I think is unique there. It’s say, in talking to members of your team, there’s a strong sense that they’re there to be champions of SAIT. They represent the organization sometimes to itself, but more often externally acting as a champion, and paired with that is a real deep sense of connection to the team that advancement group. They seem to be able to seamlessly transition. They know the difference between when I’m talking on behalf of the alumni group, the development group, or other areas and it’s all under the umbrella of SAIT, but they’re clear and distinct identities that show up in how they talk about their work. How do you imbue that into the culture? It’s not just 1 or 2 people. It’s anyone I’ve had the chance to work with seems to have both of those hats at the ready.

I don’t know that I have an immediate response to that. We do spend a lot of time sharing information across the whole team. One of our practices is to do cascading meetings on a weekly basis. You have the team huddle and then you have individual groups that will meet and share information and whatnot. That’s intended to disseminate information as quickly as we can and to get everybody on the same page. The other thing is that SAIT is a very collaborative organization and we have wonderful internal campus relationships between ourselves, the deans of schools, and academic chairs, working with students and faculty.

There’s a lot of empowerment about going off to do your work and interacting with our fellow campus partners. That empowerment is you have the ability to meet with these people and bring them value. I’m not there standing in the middle of relationships that people can make directly because of my position or rank. Breaking down some of those barriers, there’s also a strong commitment to accountability. What we say, we’ll do, we do and that pride of ownership of what we’re here to accomplish in delivering that value runs across the entire organization.

Discovery Pod | Brian Bowman | Culture Of Retention

Culture Of Retention: What we say, we’ll do. That pride of ownership of what we’re here to accomplish and delivering that value runs across the entire organization.


We talk about a three-legged dual large part in terms of characteristics of the team that’s authenticity, empathy, and logic, building each of those muscles in the team so that you’re bringing yourself to work and you’re authentic in that work. That air and respect for one another is shown in our empathy for one another. Bringing that to the table logic is perhaps the weakest, if you could believe it, the weakest leg of the stool that we’re working on using that analytics and science and whatnot to move forward in the work that we do. We’re good at it. It’s just perhaps taking a second seat to some of those others. I don’t if that answers your question. It’s a tough one to nail down, but I think the idea is that people are empowered as a members of the team to do their work without feeling that they’re stymied by others in their way.

In your answer there, it is evidence of how often and how deeply you’ve thought about the culture you want to create, the environment for people to work in that you want to have there. The reason why I wanted to spend some time on this is my colleagues here at the Discovery Group, we hear every day when we’re working with leaders across the sector the challenge of recruitment and retention and how we can’t find anybody.

It’s good for our search practice, but it’s hard for our client organizations to be able to have those teams. Most leaders in our sector know that the culture within your organization is more than an ice cream party in the summer and an ugly sweater contest in mid-December. The rigor or consistency of commitment to talking about it is something that is quite special that you have there at SAIT. I wanted you to walk our readers through how you’ve done that. I appreciate what you’ve shared here.

The culture within your organization is more than an ice cream party in the summer and ugly sweater contests in mid-December. Click To Tweet


$30M Gift

That was the be collaborative and talk about the culture. The first part of how you create this great environment like you have as you summarized was to do cool things. One of those cool things was a $30 million gift, the largest gift in the history of polytechnics in Canada. Tell us a little bit about that gift, how it came to be, and what you said when you got the phone call.

It’s one of the largest gifts received by a polytech in Canada. I don’t think it’s the largest. It’s certainly right up there, but this is as often is the case, a long-term relationship that had been built in the last many years. An individual who had made a gift to the previous campaign, which was a modest-sized gift. Over the course of time through stewardship and cultivation, we built that relationship and a second gift occurred, which was a support scholarship for students. You begin to understand what an individual cares about along the way. What are their passion? What are they worried about? What are their exposures in terms of what are they hearing in the media about what’s happening in the economy in post-secondary education, whatever the case may be?

Some of that was occurring as we were having a further conversation. We are in a meeting with this donor. David Bissett, who of course is well-known in Calgary, has made any gift of a large size. I do believe the state gift is the largest that he has ever made. Here’s the thing. Through his own personal experience and having been an investment broker, his grandson had graduated from an institution and gone into the business world and did not feel qualified to be able to do some of the things that he needed to do. There were technical abilities that he was lacking. As a result of that, we began having conversations with him about what might be next and whatcha thinking in terms of an opportunity.

He was concerned about young people leaving the province. He was concerned about the fact that technical education was not an applied technical education, which was what was driving the industry. It was a result of that conversation, but also the listening that we had done over a long period of time that I broached the subject with him and asked whether he would be interested in considering a proposal around youth and applied digital technology program.

He contemplated that for a while. The phone call that we received was this, “What would you do with $30 million?” I don’t know that anybody could speak after an offer of that magnitude. I think the response was something like, “Let us get back to you,” which we did in short order and the opportunity that has come to fruition, is the creation of a new school in the School of Advanced Digital Technology at SAIT.

That set up a lot of conversation around what’s next in the next chapter at SAIT and how digital technology goes across the campus. In collecting the stories and the ambition and the opportunity, how have you worked across the campus to build a unified story for what might be coming next?

That’s been a challenge. You’ve been somewhat part of that, but listening across the campus to it is the perennial question of ‘be careful what you ask for’ because your organization has to be ready for it. We needed to take some time to figure out what we needed to do. How were we going to incorporate applied education in a ubiquitous fashion across a broad range of programs, but also how are we going to step up and deliver advanced digital technology?

The process is one of numerous conversations from deans to academic chairs, the instructors, and talking through what current programs exist, what curriculum needs to be developed, and things of that sort, that opens people’s eyes to the art of the possible in the thinking of a vision for the future. We had a false run. I mean we took a stab at this and I think it was somewhat premature in accommodating some of the expectations. In the long term, there is some leniency there as well. In the case of very experienced philanthropists like David Bisset where you’re not expected to get it right 100%. You’re allowed to perhaps attempt some things that don’t necessarily work out, but be accountable for that and stick to the vision and continue to strive towards achieving that vision we’ve certainly experienced how that process worked.

Discovery Pod | Brian Bowman | Culture Of Retention

Culture Of Retention: You’re allowed to attempt some things that don’t necessarily work out but be accountable for that. Also, stick to the vision and continue to strive towards achieving that vision.


Finding The Balance In Fundraising

One of the things that has been an issue that’s been alive for you and your colleagues over a couple of years has been walking that line between needing to have that campus-wide conversation. What is the role of advanced digital technology? What is the opportunity without ending up being the tail-wagging dog where the campaign is making the decisions for the academics? Any of our readers who’ve been involved in putting together a campaign case know how tempting it is. It is like the mirage on the horizon. There is the freshwater. If only we can reach it, let’s make the decision for them and go for it. A lot of fundraisers have ended up pounding sand chasing those mirages. How have you thought about balancing that need for decision-making, content, and collaboration without ever being the one holding the gavel?

You touched on an important point. I’m not sure who it was, but I remember somebody, long ago in my career, who had said, “Don’t ever allow the advancement agenda to step in front of the institutional agenda, the academic endeavor.” I’ve heard that loud and clear also in the healthcare system recognizing that there are gifts that despite the fact that philanthropists often have aspirations and whatnot, sometimes it’s very difficult to realize. It’s better to not accept the gift than it is to accept it.

In this instance, the conversations that have taken place are collaborative and have included us asking questions like, what if, considering if we put this together with that and bearing in mind within external relations, we have a vantage point that’s quite different than most of the folks that are working on our campus? We see broad strokes across multiple things.

We can see where a program that is happening in our applied research area might have a relationship to something that’s happening in the School of Transportation. As all good fundraisers do, they can connect the dots. That’s, to some extent, what we do, but not by ourselves. It can be the convening of a group of people to have a conversation about something that they’re already doing, then asking the question, “How might philanthropy come into play here to create something bigger or to create synergy or to build out your vision for this program. I’ve seen a number of examples of that sort and some that are currently emerging as some of this takes light.

I think it’s important to find that balance because as fundraisers and advancement professionals, we can’t define the margin of excellence that donors can play. We can define more and brand new, which is especially risky because we’re not accountable or have the skills or the budget to deliver on those brand-new things. That margin of excellence comes from knowing exactly what those smartest kids in class we’re working with need to do their work and the role that philanthropy might play in that. It often takes longer than we might hope or that we might wish for, but the result is something that is particularly appealing to donors.

I’ll add something to that. Now, that is on the other side where you’ve received the gift and it’s in support of a program. The thing that you want is that connection to the people who are delivering the programming in order to deliver stewardship. As you’re telling the impact of the gift and you’re talking over the course of time, that relationship is critical. Building that at the front end as something is being contemplated and put into place and then realized and that relationship continues on well after that.

You want that connection to the people who are delivering the programming in order to deliver stewardship. Click To Tweet

Exciting Things To Look Forward

I think anyone who’s reading this conversation knows there are some big announcements coming. I’d say in the next little while, we won’t go too far down that road yet. Stay tuned for the press release, maybe you’ll do it on TikTok or however we announce campaigns these days. As we come to the end of our conversation, Brian, what are you looking forward to?

The question that you asked me early on about the relationships we have with the industry, one of my areas of passion is about how SAIT strategically connects with our industry partners and under the auspices of advancement, the growth of my team, and taking on the industry engagement portfolio, seeing how that comes into play. That’s supported by a new CRM system. If I was to say to you I’ve been at SAIT for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of things. We’ve raised a lot of money, great progress. We’ve celebrated a lot of great remarkable achievements and milestones. I am turning my thinking now to, “What am I leaving behind? What am I handing over to my successor? Nobody started applying for my job yet because I’m not quite finished.”

You have ways to go.

What gets me excited is that I now have the opportunity to see how we are going to enter the digital age to implement the system in service of the relationship building that we hope to do with our alumni. The relationship building that we want to do with our industry partners. How it’s that we want to better service donors and we also recognize that we can’t wait until our students graduate to introduce them to and build them into the network of amazing alumni that we have in the institution.

All of this comes down to this whole notion of digital technology, how we can do much more utilizing the resources, technical, and assets that we have at our disposal in the 21st century. I’m looking forward to the industry engagement piece. I’m looking forward to this campaign and how it is that it manifests itself in terms of cool new programs and building SAIT’s reputation in that space and that new era of technology and how it’s going to affect our work.

You summed it up nicely at the beginning, cool things to do, be collaborative, talk about the culture you want to have, have a commitment to purpose, and do the work. You’ve given some great examples and insight into a program that has done all of those things over the last couple of years, and I look forward to seeing what comes out of SAIT and your team in the months and years ahead. Thanks for being on the show.

Thanks. It’s been my pleasure.


Important Link