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SickKids Foundation With Jennifer Bernard, CEO & President

By March 5th, 2024No Comments35 min read
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Discovery Pod | Jennifer Bernard | SickKids Foundation

A thriving community is built upon the well-being of its children, and SickKids Foundation ardently champions their health. It is Canada’s most research-intensive children’s hospital and is most responsible for improving the health of children in Canada and many places around the world. In this enlightening episode, Jennifer Bernard, the dedicated CEO and President of SickKids Foundation, shares her leadership journey, tackling challenges with unwavering commitment. Jennifer shares her experiences, offering a glimpse into collaboration with influential figures like Ryan Reynolds. As a seasoned CEO, she underscores the significance of thorough research before embarking on the leadership role for the first time. Join us in this insightful conversation with Jennifer Bernard, where valuable insights await, shaping a brighter future for children’s health.

Listen to the podcast here


SickKids Foundation With Jennifer Bernard, CEO & President

On this episode, we have Jennifer Bernard, President and CEO of SickKids Foundation, perhaps the most prominent and well-known charity in all of Canada. Before joining Sick Kids as CEO, Jennifer was the president and CEO of the Women’s College Foundation, where she led a turnaround of that foundation that resulted in significant growth and significant repositioning of that organization.

In our conversation, Jennifer talks about the importance of leadership, the importance of bringing your whole self and being your whole self as an authentic leader in our social profit sector. She talks about all of the things to consider when taking your first CEO job and she shares some insights into what it’s like to work with Ryan Reynolds. She gives me a bit of a hard time. She describes him as almost perfect, which is how I would describe this conversation with Jennifer Bernard. Thanks for reading.

Leading SickKids Foundation

Welcome, Jennifer. It is so great to have you on the show. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. Before we jump in, tell us a little bit if there was one of our readers may be from somewhere outside of North America that doesn’t know the great work of SickKids Foundation, tell us a little bit about what SickKids Foundation is and who it serves.

SickKids Foundation serves our wonderful hospital for sick kids, which is about 149 years old. It’s known throughout the country and around the world as Canada’s most research-intensive children’s hospital and probably the organization that is most responsible for improving the health of children, both here in Canada and in many places around the world.

I would say it’s probably the most known and best-known charitable organization in Canada. How does that land with you?

From a foundation point of view, we are one of the top foundations in Canada and among the top pediatric foundations in North America. We are known for our incredible campaigns. In fact, in our last campaign, we raised nearly $1.7 billion from 1.3 million wonderful people from across Ontario and Canada. We’re a very high-performing fundraising organization in service of the hospital for sick children.

You’re relatively new in your role as you’re getting your feet under you in that and taking over what I strongly believe is Canada’s most identifiable charity. That would be intimidating for anyone. You were following Ted Garrard, no less, whose personality and a star in his own right. How did you approach this leadership challenge?

I think what attracts people like myself or Ted to an organization as outstanding as SickKids is the challenge and the opportunity to change the trajectory of healthcare and philanthropy, and influence not just the present but the future. He passed the baton to me. I would say many of the things that attracted him also attracted me, the opportunity to grow an organization that was already very high-performing. I always say I think that this organization, despite all the incredible success we’ve had, our greatest days are ahead of us or we must believe that.

Discovery Pod | Jennifer Bernard | SickKids Foundation

SickKids Foundation: What attracts people to an organization as outstanding as SickKids is the challenge and opportunity to change the trajectory of healthcare philanthropy and influence not just the present, but the future.


I think when Ted took over, we didn’t even have a major gifts program here at SickKids and now we have one of the largest major gift programs in Canada and people come and study our program to see how they can be like us. For me, it’s an opportunity to take where we are right now at raising almost $200 million a year and say, “How far can I grow that in service of our incredible mission of healthier children, and a better world?” He left the house in wonderful order for me, but I would say I have the same mindset that there’s still much to do and there’s huge opportunity and new tools that he didn’t have from tech, media and data analytics.

It is exciting to hear that you’re looking down the road to even better days for SickKids Foundation. I’m curious, what was it like that first day when you put your hand on the door and in comes the new CEO? What was that like for you, Jennifer?

It was a bit surreal, I have to say. No one that works in philanthropy doesn’t know about SickKids. No one that works in philanthropy doesn’t talk about SickKids. No one who works in philanthropy didn’t envy SickKids. Coming in as the new CEO, it was one of those pinch-me moments where I was like, “Am I leading this organization that I used to be on the other side of for so long?” It was like an overwhelming feeling, as I’ve said, of enormous opportunity. It’s a sophisticated, well-run organization with lots of incredible people. The first day was like, it’s real. You believe it, you’re here, and then it’s like, “What’s next?”

This is your second time being a CEO. You’d been in a very successful CEO at the Women’s College Foundation. You know what the job was like as you’re coming in. It’s a very different place. Is there anything that you wish you’d known on that first day looking back over your first year that you didn’t know or what was the first learnings that you had in the role?

I would say that as a new CEO for the second time, your people, to me, are your superpower. I always thought I had a good handle on the people, but at SickKids, the quantum of people is so enormous. From the board, I have a very large board, but also the community is enormous and it’s getting your head around how are you going to make yourself accessible to all these different people and be relevant and be present for them because they all deserve it. I would say that for me was one of the most challenging things. You have 1.3 million donors to our previous Project Horizon campaign. How am I going to make them feel like as the President and CEO they matter and their impact, the impact they want is the impact they’re getting. For me, that was the most daunting thing coming in.

I guess a phone call to all 1.3 million of them probably was out of the question on your first day.

You can’t see everybody and everybody wants something different. It’s how do you be one to many and still give people what they want?

Building Relationships With A Large Board

I’m merely interested in the second CEO experience. It’s very different organizations. I guess there’s some similarities there. However, one of the things that we often hear in our work with CEOs, particularly first-time CEOs, is they want to know everything about the team or they want to know everything about the organization before they start to build that relationship with the board. They want to have some content expertise when they open those conversations. I always encourage people that start the conversation with the board, and let them see that you’re learning. How did you approach that, building the relationships with what is, as you said, quite a large board there at SickKids Foundation?

Even before I started, one of the things I asked during the interview process was access to board members because they’re who you report to. I did my due diligence on the board, as you should. That’s what I would recommend to anybody coming in as a CEO. I think people get obsessed with other parts of the organization. The people that report to you are incredibly important, but understanding the expectations and the vision of your board is absolutely the first base.

The people who report to you are incredibly important, but understanding the expectations and the vision of your board is absolutely the first base. Click To Tweet

I do have a large board. I am meeting with every single board member individually, a one-on-one, where we sit down and I talk about myself a little bit and my vision. I asked them what brought them to the board. I ask them what they care about, and what’s working well for them. I also asked them what would be the ultimate experience for them as a board member. We have to remember these are volunteers who are giving up their personal time.

I think for me it was understanding what are the strengths. What are the things we’re doing well? What are the themes on the board? Some things came out very well that were doing incredibly well. Other things, we could pay a little bit more attention. Just as I would want to get to know my staff as real people, I need to get to know my board as real people and understand their nuances. I would say that for me has been for job one and then coming up with a plan to address that.

I’ve come up with a plan where, what I will do, what my senior management team will do, how we will address some of the themes that we saw where they want some things changed because getting that relationship right, as you said, is job number one. Having that seamless communication is important. I even changed a little bit of how I communicate with the board.

I often hear from CEOs who have a more formal relationship. I like that they’re treating them like they’re real people. Let’s try that and see how that works. I think it’s important for any CEO, whether first time, second time, new or long time in the role to understand what’s brought people to the board. What’s motivating them to be around the SickKids board in your case or whatever board people may be leading because that helps inform the filter or the lens that they’re looking at the work of the foundation.

Every board member has something that triggered that passion and it’s at different temperatures and they’re all on their own a part of their journey. Sometimes this is only the second or third board they’ve been on. Sometimes they’ve been on boards for many decades and they’re very tenured. I would say to you, everybody has a story and knowing that story is so important because then you can address how to approach them and what’s going to help unleash the best version of them as a board member.

That’s why that one-on-one intimate conversation at the beginning is so important. People have told me everything from they had a personal experience with a child. I’ve had people who said they’ve never had a personal experience with a child, but it was something else. Knowing those nuanced pieces of the story is what solidifies the relationship and makes it work.

It sounds like you’re a fundraiser and a CEO job.

You always start off I think as a fundraiser, but then leadership is different than fundraising. I think you have to have to bring both hats to the table all the time. I never take off my fundraising hat. We work for a fundraising organization, but leadership, you can lead in any arena once you understand the nuances of leadership. I think that the skills that I’ve learned making my way to the CEO and fundraising, I could apply to almost any industry.

Being a CEO can be a lonely job. And we hear that a lot. That’s something I think people who haven’t been in a CEO role don’t fully anticipate, what that loneliness can be and where it shows up. When you’re having a tough day, who do you call for advice?

I have a few friends who are also CEOs on speed dial. They are my touch points when things are challenging to talk about. There are things that only happen to you as the CEO and they can relate to. I also have my personal board of directors. I call them my truth tellers who know me well and know where your personal biases, your personal values, and some of your idiosyncrasies are sometimes getting in your way or sometimes that’s why you’re reacting to somebody or a situation that way. I have a small group of people who have traveled a long way with me through many ups and downs, who I call on in these moments. Some are former board members who’ve become friends and some are CEOs and some are family members. It’s a nice mixed eclectic group.

Discovery Pod | Jennifer Bernard | SickKids Foundation

SickKids Foundation: When things are challenging to talk about, reach out to other CEOs because there are things that happen to you as the CEO that only they can relate to.


A personal board of directors or an emergency 911 list as one of our colleagues refers to it.

It’s essential.

Knowing And Evaluating Your Team

Coming into a new organization, you mentioned people being one of the greatest assets of a charitable organization. How did you get to know and evaluate your team?

I did the same thing. First of all. Before I started, I went out with every member of my senior team. We met for lunch in a little cafe outside the office. I sat down and was very similar to my board. I wanted to hear their story, what had brought them to SickKids. When people work at SickKids Foundation, they can pretty much work anywhere they want when they get to that level. I wanted to know what was the pull. What was the ambition? That helped me a lot.

I then organized opportunities for me to have listening tours, as I call them, with all of my team members, particularly my senior management team. I set up a significant number of biweekly meetings with my management team until I felt very comfortable with understanding at least the top layer of their portfolio and how they managed. I looked at people’s communication skills and styles. I looked for how they measured success. I looked for how they adapted to challenges, how they communicated up and down, and looked for those things that I would, in the short-term, want to address or compliment, quite honestly. Some of them are extraordinary and reproduce. Something that I thought gives me pause and maybe there’s something that we need to, in terms of course correct or address.

I love that. Start with a person, then look at the work and then put the pieces together and decide how you’re going to move forward. One of the fastest downloads we typically get from the show is from the staff of the CEO who’s the guest. I want to give your staff something they can dig into here. Jennifer, how can a member of your team earn a gold star with you?

First of all, be themself. Being authentically yourself is so important because it engenders confidence in people. When people know that you are comfortable in your skin, you communicate in a style that suits you, it gives people confidence, I think. It allows them to also be authentic. I judge my team on how well they communicate, not how well they think they communicate, but how well those communications land. If people are understanding and understanding the why behind what they’re doing. It’s communication and authenticity, transparency. We’re in a day and age where everything lasts forever. We have a saying in philanthropy. The donor should be able to see what you write about them in their record over your shoulder.

Being authentically yourself is so important because it engenders confidence in people. When people know you're comfortable in your skin, you communicate in a style that suits you. Click To Tweet

It’s the same with my team. I like leaders who give constructive, meaningful feedback that makes the person better. It’s thoughtful. It’s intentional and it’s always about progress. It’s not personal. You can learn a gold star with me if you can make the people around you better and you can communicate with them. You can be authentically yourself and you can have a bit of fun. I don’t want to work with anybody who can’t laugh at themselves or at a situation or blow off some steam with their team and have some fun. We spend more time with the people at work than at home often. I want a fully formed human who has a life outside of work but brings their best self to work.

For all of the staff at SickKids Foundation, that’s the answer. That’s how you get a gold star.

Thanks, Doug.

I think what you’ve described there is so much of the work in our sector, particularly in fundraising foundations, your progression is consistently being asked to do things you’ve never done before or things you may not know how to do. To have a leader and a supervisor who’s willing to take the time to understand that you’re learning and to help accelerate that learning is what makes leaders in our sector. In the absence of that, supervisors who push the tasks across the table and say, figure it out. Smart people who care a lot can figure it out a lot of the time. There’s a lot of stress in the organization as people are scaling their learning curves at different paces.

I also follow that place to the extroverts. You lose the introverts and they have so much to offer. If you can tease them out of suppressing that talking in front of the room, they don’t want to do that or they don’t put things in the chat, but they will have a meaningful one-on-one conversation and give incredible feedback in a different environment. That’s why I say knowing your people, being able to know if you actually communicated in a way that everybody understands and being able to also get that great feedback, both to them and from them, is crucial.

Discovery Pod | Jennifer Bernard | SickKids Foundation

SickKids Foundation: Knowing your people, knowing if you communicated in a way that everybody understands, and getting great feedback both to and from them is crucial.


That point about the extroverts and introverts I think is an important one for leaders, particularly leaders who may be extroverted themselves.

I know that because I’m a super extrovert and so we all have to train ourselves in the reverse of whatever we are to play to the rest of the room because the extroverts will always put up their hand. They’ll always sit at the front. They’ll always have an opinion. It doesn’t mean it’s any more valid than the introvert’s opinion.

As an extrovert myself, I often think out loud. I’m like, “Here’s an idea,” which to my colleagues who are more introverted, like, “There he goes again. He’s not even thinking about what he’s saying.”

From brain to mouth.

What could go wrong? Some of the things that I’ve learned and I’ve seen other leaders do is if you’re going to be asking questions of the group, make sure to use small groups as well as full table groups, and send the questions in advance. Let people know what they’re going to be asked to think about and comment on in advance so that it allows more people to bring the best of themselves to the table.

Circle back. What people will say in a room and in a group can be very different than what people will say one-on-one. I’ve had that experience many times. People still will pander to popular opinion. Very few people, even extroverts, want to sometimes be the outside opinion and say what they truly feel. That’s why I like being in person sometimes. Body language is a lot of what people aren’t saying. Silence tells you a lot. The lack of generative discussion tells you a lot. Just because people are talking doesn’t mean anything is being said.

What people will say in a room and a group can be very different than what people will say one-on-one. Click To Tweet

Just leave some silence there for people to think about that for a little bit. I think it’s an important point. As leaders, we’re always pressing to try and get the best out of our teams. If we don’t provide multiple ways for people to provide feedback, to think about and reflect on their own work and what’s coming next, we’re not going to get the best out. There’s a cost to our organizations for that.

It’s true. Also asking if you are, what you’re doing is landing, like, “Am I being clear? Do you understand my vision? Do you understand the why? Is there something that’s not feeling right or landing right?” I think one of the pitfalls of being in charge is that you sometimes forget to put yourself on the menu of things to critique and ideas to kick the tires on. I think that you have to have a very clear vision and you have to know where you want to go, but if somebody sees the iceberg and you don’t, you should say, “Does it look like an iceberg to you? Maybe we should navigate around that.” I think that that’s important as well. It has to be more than one-way communication.

I think if we had gold stars here on the show, you would get a gold star for the most diplomatic way to reference leaders being a bit narcissistic at times. Sometimes we forget to put ourselves on the menu for what can be critiqued. That is gold star stuff, Jennifer. I love it. It’s also true. Some leaders aren’t willing to put themselves on the menu, which is maybe that’s another episode for another day.

Diversity And Inclusion In The Sector

I want to turn to the issue of diversity and inclusion. It’s something that our sector talks a lot about. I think we’ve seen a lot of encouraging signs in terms of progress, but that progress has been slow. As the first Black woman to become president and CEO at SickKids Foundation, I see this very much as a sign of progress in our sector. How do you process the fact that you’re the first and does it add a level of pressure and weight to the day-to-day role?

I’ll back up one step, Doug. When I became the president and CEO of Women’s College Hospital Foundation, I was told by a reporter who was reporting on my appointment that I was the first Black CEO in a hospital in Canada, whether foundation or at the hospital. I told him not to print that because I had never checked that. Who knew? He said he’d done extensive checking and could not find in a hospital another president and CEO who was Black. That was a bit daunting for me when I heard that. Obviously, the second time I’m with SickKids, of course I’m the first Black person to lead the foundation there. I will say, in my career, I have almost always been the first, whether the first woman, the first Black person, first woman over six feet. There’s been many, many firsts for me.

I’m accustomed to being the first, the only often, and it is a sign of progress, but it doesn’t mean that progress is lasting if you’re the first and the last and the only for another 40 or 50 years. I think it is a step forward and I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to open these doors. Unless we build up some capacity around it, they could easily close. I will say there are now four CEOs in leadership in CEO positions in hospitals since my appointment at Women’s in 2018, which gives me great hope that for me is the real staying power. I was a tipping point as opposed to an exclamation mark. I love the fact that there now is a woman in London.

There’s another woman here, Sandra, in Toronto. North York, in a hospital here in Toronto, has another Black CEO. Now I see that there’s some proliferation of more people being out there. That’s what actually gives me hope in terms of it being challenging, I think the challenge is that when you’re a CEO, regardless of what your background is, you are expected to be excellent.

What happens when you’re diverse or the first, whether you’re the first woman, you’re your first person of color, is you’re also expected to be almost perfect. That is actually the mantle that is very hard to carry. Leadership requires you to take risks and for you to be extremely ambitious and you have to be able to fail or as I call it, learn. Sometimes you have to fly the plane while building the plane. You have to be able to feel that you have the support to do that.

Leadership requires you to take risks and be extremely ambitious. Click To Tweet

Often, when you’re the first, you do feel like you have to be perfect and you can’t make any mistakes, which in the long run curtails your ability to evolve and grow. I’m very aware that although I should be excellent, I do not have to be perfect. In that imperfection, I will make any organization better because they will learn from me.

The analogy I often use when I talk about this is coaching because I love sports. I watched the football game way too late. It was awesome. If you have a female coach coaching a male team and they succeed, she’s extraordinary. If she fails, it’s usually because of her gender. It is called into account. It’s not the reverse with men. If a man fails with a female team, then nobody says it’s because it’s a man coaching women. They say, “He wasn’t a good coach.” Those nuances can be very challenging. Whether it’s gender or race, those things are things that are above and beyond the normal pressures of being a CEO.

It’s heavy. That’s a big deal. It is not a little added weight to the role. It’s quite significant.

It’s from both communities that are outside of you and your own community. Everybody is watching. Everything is amplified and magnified that you do. Everybody’s cheering for you and everybody’s watching. That’s why that whole idea that you do have to be perfect because you can’t let anybody down. You can’t let your community down. You can’t let your gender down. You can’t let your ancestor down. There’s so much riding on you when you’re the first and only I always see myself as a human being first. I see myself as many identities, including I’m an immigrant, I’m West Indian, I’m a woman, I’m a mother and I’m Black. I have to keep all of those things in balance and perspective when people are focusing on one. I am many things. I am complex and diverse and I have to always hold onto that.

The Power Of Storytelling

That’s very powerful. Hearkening back to some of your other answers about meeting board and meeting your team, the first place you started was, “I want to know them as a person. I want to know their story.” I like how you brought that around, too. That’s how you think about yourself and the role that you’re in.

I’m a person first. I have a story and I always say to people, “It’s hard not to like people or to dislike people that you know, whether or not you would make them your best friend. Once you know somebody’s story and you understand their lived experience or what they’ve been through or how they’ve lived, whether it’s they’ve been wealthy their whole life or they came from nothing, it informs you and it changes how you feel about that person. It allows you to have some, I think, connection or at least understanding of why they respond to things the way they do and who they are.

I think that knowing people and knowing the emotional drivers behind each one of us in our day-to-day lives, but in the work of the SickKids Foundation, you mentioned at the top that the foundation is known for its powerful marketing campaigns, great imagery, and simple storytelling. What is that approach to storytelling and what role does it play that consistency in the organization?

I think like most people, the big turning point for SickKids, what separated themself from the pack, was the VS campaign, which is iconic. I think that all of us in philanthropy remember where we were when we first saw those ads. It was so different than anything we’d seen before, from the music to the characterization of what a hospital was and could be to the truculence of the message and the way they use cinematography.

I think that that broke the internet. We’ve won every award in terms of marketing and I think we have more views on that than anything. It’s been the thing that we are known for. What was so amazing and that rocked the world was that, for a long time, in pediatrics in particular, the children were almost like victims. We felt sorry for them. Here we made them the heroes and we made them the fighters and we were fighting along with them.

Discovery Pod | Jennifer Bernard | SickKids Foundation

SickKids Foundation: For a long time in pediatrics, the children were almost like victims. We felt sorry for them. Here, we made them the heroes and the fighters, and we were fighting along with them.


That change in demeanor of their weak and helpless and we must help them to they are powerful beyond all measure. If we give them the slightest bit, they will reign supreme. I think that that is what caught us all off guard. How much we all want that for children. I think that that storytelling of what I’ve learned having been in healthcare for many years, and this is my second pediatric hospital, is children are stronger than everybody. Everybody could learn something the way a child fights to live from the time they are born, before they have language. Even when they know they are not going to live, children are the most powerful beings on Earth. I think telling that story never gets old.

I think the most powerful storytelling in our sector is when we’re clear about what role we’re asking donors to play. When I make my gift, I know that I’m fulfilling this role, that this organization is calling me to purpose and this is what it signifies when I make my donation. That VS campaign, as you said, changed the role of donors to the foundation. Instead of doing something out of charity to help or avoidance, “I hope that doesn’t happen to anyone I know or any kids in my life,” to give these kids an opportunity, give them a chance, giving them support. It was such a change, a shift that it was remarkable to see not only how those of us who pay attention to a lot of these ads from lots of different organizations responded to it, but also how the donors responded to it. It was a remarkable, like a light switch almost.

It tapped into men in a way that had never happened before. Donors want something to do. I think that people sometimes lose track of that. They want to be doing something, not just supporting something. They want to feel like something is getting done. We found that the VS campaign, I think to your point, didn’t make them feel like they were making a donation to a hospital. It made them feel like they were fighting alongside the children.

They had taken up arms and they were part of something. They were in a community that believed in something and they were all united in moving that forward. That was, “Let’s fight for these children. Let’s fight for their lives. Let’s stand up with them. They’re not giving up. We’re not giving up.” People want something to do. They don’t want to write a check whether it’s for $10 or $10 million. They want to feel like they’re doing something. If we keep track of that, we will do very well in the sector.

That reminder that donors want something to do is also true of board members. People want something to do, not just something to support.

They want to be engaged and involved. They want to feel like they’re making an impact and they want to be part of a community. The beautiful thing that I’ve learned at SickKids is it’s not just a place to donate. It’s something to be a part of. Many people are looking for that in their value alignment with the charities and causes that they give to.

Discovery Pod | Jennifer Bernard | SickKids Foundation

SickKids Foundation: SickKids is not just a place to donate. It’s something to be a part of.


Working With Ryan Reynolds

Speaking of value alignment, I’m asking this question on behalf of others who work here at the Discovery Group who wanted to make sure I asked you this question. It was important that we have this conversation according to most of the team. I’m qualifying that this isn’t my question. Ryan Reynolds does a lot of work with the SickKids Foundation. How do you get that happen and what’s he like in real life?

I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Ryan Reynolds on my second day of work. What a way to start the job. I’m like, “You guys are starting at a really high mark. I don’t know what we’re going to do after this.” I will say that it was organic. He came in contact, I believe, online with one of our patients and created a bit of a relationship and then reached out and said, “I’m having this great experience with one of your patients. What more can I do?”

It was a patient that, unfortunately, had a terminal illness and ended up dying. He was so touched by her and her story and her journey. This was before he had children. He realized this is a world that he knew nothing about. The suffering of children in particular is quite hidden in our society in North America. It’s looked at more as a global outside third-world issue.

I think that when people come in contact with children who are fighting for their lives, it changes them. As with most people, Ryan, being a great human being, was completely touched by this child and came to us and said like, “What can I do?” He is like a creative genius. He is the funniest person I have ever met. He told me he started in improv and that’s probably where he can he can feed off of anything and make it funny. He has this irreverent sense of humor. He came up with this ugly sweater campaign and every year since then, he’s done this campaign at the holidays with us where he comes up with these incredibly funny skits and commercials that we run. Every year, I think it gets better. In 2023, it was phenomenal with the kids.

He has four kids now. He is like, “They are a handful. They’re not as nice as people think.” We have to let kids be like this. He’s funny. He comes in knowing everything about every patient he’s going to meet. He’s humble. He doesn’t ask for media. He wants to spend time with the kids. He’s totally fun and at their level. He asks great questions. He lets them ask anything they want. He’s a phenomenal human being.

I’ve had the opportunity throughout my career to meet many celebrities. Most of the time now, I’m like, “Don’t meet them if you love them because, at the end, there’ll be a disappointment.” Meet Ryan Reynolds. He is extraordinary. He talks about his wife like she’s in the room with him making the decisions. He always says, “This is a family affair. I do it with Blake. Everything we do is together. She’s the one that makes sure that I have my head screwed on straight.” He’s such a loving husband as well. It makes everybody crazy. He’s wonderful. I hope everybody’s happy.

What do you think of the impact that a celebrity endorsement like Ryan Reynolds or others has on fundraising? What works so well about it?

With him, you can tell it’s him. It’s authentic. The skit, he made it up. How we’re doing it, it’s the way that makes sense for Ryan Reynolds. We didn’t try to superimpose our personality on him. He said, “This is what I feel comfortable with. What about this?” We made sure it worked for us as well, but it’s authentically Ryan Reynolds.

We’ve taken risks. In this campaign, we had to bleep a few words and that’s a little bit of a risk, but that’s what he wanted to do. We didn’t try to fit him into our round or square peg. We said, “Let’s value him. Let’s leverage Ryan Reynolds. Let’s let him be himself and make sure it aligns with our brand.” He has a very strong value alignment. He’s not doing it for the publicity. He’s not doing it because he thinks it makes him look good. He’s doing it for the right reason. For us, it’s like the perfect partnership. You can get people that will come in like and support you, but it won’t land the way it has with Ryan Reynolds. He really cares. He does the research. I was shocked.

That authenticity matters a lot in those arrangements.

He starts calling his friends. He’s like, “Let’s get Michael Bublé to do something. I’ll call him.” I’m like, “Okay.” We didn’t ask him to do that. He decided to do that.

Advice To First-Time CEOs And Executive Directors

A lot of the people who read our show are people who are seeking senior leadership positions in our sector. What is it like to have a big job? Of course, those of us who’ve had that job and you’re in the very biggest job right now, we know it’s pretty simple. Everybody else does the work. You go up. You go to a few meetings, smile when they hold the big check, and make sure it’s straight for the camera. That’s about all there is to it. Maybe there’s a little bit more beyond that. What advice would you give to someone who’s stepping into a CEO role or executive director role for the first time?

I wish there was some magic formula. For me, it’s do your research before you step in because once you get there, you’re in it. A lot of people get lured by like, “It’s SickKids,” or, “It’s the Canadian Cancer Society,” or, “It’s Princess Margaret,” or it’s whatever. The name of the place and the reputation is what they’re going for. For me, the reason I came to SickKids, don’t get me wrong, it’s the biggest job. I was super excited. It had to also align with what I thought my skills were. I had already worked in three hospitals. I had already worked in pediatrics. I had already worked in Toronto. I knew complex gifts. It aligned with my skillset. It was a stretch. Who wants to do what they’ve already done? I wanted to do something bigger, more.

It has international reach. We have a research institute that’s extraordinary. We have partnerships. I would say do your research and look at whether is this aligned with my skillset. Is this aligned with where I want to stretch? Look at your board. You are working for the board. The CEO works with the board but works for the board. They’re your bosses. I often ask my friends who are interviewing them, “Who’s on your board?” They don’t know. They know the board chair. Although your board changes over time, the culture and ethos of your board are pretty stable. If you look historically at the board and you look at where the board is right now, you know that it’s going to be an evolution. Even if it’s changing, it’s going to take time.

Although your board changes over time, the culture and ethos of your board are pretty stable. Click To Tweet

No matter what your board says, it’s not going to change overnight unless it falls apart. Know your board because that’s who you’re working for. Know what strategies, like reading the strategic plan because you are going to have to implement it. If you’re not happy with that plan, you’re going to have to stand up in front of people and get people to buy into a plan you don’t believe in. Understand the strategic plan. I would say test what your board wants you to do and doesn’t want you to do. Some boards want a bit better status quo. Some boards want exponential growth overnight and you have to know what you’re signing up for. I think that that’s so key because I think a lot of people think like, “Do I have the right staff and do I have this?”

Unless your board alignment is strong, you won’t ever get the right staff. You won’t get the money you need to innovate. Do they believe in technology and data? Do they believe in risk-taking? Do they believe in hockey stick growth only? Are they like the Uber board who are like, “We’re not going to be profitable for ten years,” and be okay with that? What is your board like? For me, that’s huge. What are you bringing to this in the learning area that’s going to make you want to get up and go there every day? I feel like it’s such a high-pressure job that if there isn’t anything new and exciting as part of that job, it’ll get old pretty quickly. I feel like you have to say, in your vision, what are the things you are going to tackle that are going to get you excited that’s going to push the organization forward?

I think that that’s so important as a leader. Are you willing to, particularly in the early days, give more than you get? There is no balance in the first little while. There’s too much to learn. There are too many people. There are too many memos, policies and meetings for you to have a balanced life and are you ready for that? It will balance out probably over the years when you know all those policies and you know who to call. The first little while, it’s quite out of balance. Are you ready? Is your life set up for that? Where are you in your life? I think that that’s so important.

Jennifer, what are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to so many things. For the hospital and the foundation, I’m looking forward to, as I said, taking us to another level. When I started, I think the foundation was raising $38 million. Now we raise on average around $200 million. What’s our next milestone? What’s our next high-level water point? I’m looking to push the organization that way. I’m looking forward to embracing technology and the tools that we have available to us to evolve the organization and celebrate the milestones to come. We have a 150th anniversary, but as a CEO, I think I’m excited about being the CEO of the future. Learning how to bring new generations into philanthropy and not give up because they say that it’s shrinking every year. I’m looking forward to maturing our relationship with diverse communities and including women.

I think women are still understated in their importance in philanthropy, but also in diverse communities, which will soon be the dominant community. We’re going to have to stop calling them diverse communities because they will be bigger than the original communities. How are we going to transition? I’m interested in telling the world about SickKids because I think we are an organization that is relevant to the whole world. I am so excited about the future of my sector. I think philanthropy’s never been more important and showing the value proposition of philanthropy, working with governments and other organizations to advance things that otherwise wouldn’t be advanced.

Readers, that is what a CEO at the top of her game sounds like. No small ambition on many fronts. Jennifer, thank you so much for sharing that. Before I let you go, could you let our audience know how they can learn more about the SickKids Foundation?

You can go right to our website, We have all about us there. We have about our fundraising. We have some great videos. You can learn all about what we do and how we do it and why we do it. We’d love to see you visiting

Thank you so much for being on the show.

Thank you, Douglas. It’s been such a pleasure to be here.


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