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UHN Foundation With Julie Quenneville, CEO

By April 23rd, 2024No Comments27 min read
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Discovery Pod | Julie Quenneville | UHN Foundation

The UHN Foundation is a global leader in healthcare innovation, and a critical part of that capability is the support given by philanthropic donors. Stepping into her new role as CEO, Julie Quenneville makes sure that donors and potential donors understand just how much of an impact they’re making with their generous gifts. In this conversation, she shares how these conversations go and how she makes sure her team is on top of every situation so they can create maximum impact. Tune in for more!.

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UHN Foundation With Julie Quenneville, CEO

In this episode, we have Julie Quenneville. Julie is the President and CEO of UHN Foundation in Toronto. I had the pleasure of joining her in her offices and meeting a number of her team. She shared very candidly what it was like to join the organization, how she’s looking forward to accelerating growth, and how she’s remained very focused on ensuring donors see the role of philanthropy in elevating the public health care system. If you’re a new leader or hoping to be a new leader anytime in the near future, you’re going to want to read this tremendous conversation with Julie Quenneville.


Welcome, Julie.

Thank you so much for the invitation.

Julie, it is so great when we get to do these conversations in person. I’m looking forward to wherever our conversation takes us. First, tell me a little bit about UHN Foundation and your new role as CEO.

Let’s talk about UHN first. The reason we exist is to support and help UHN. UHN is the number one hospital in the country. It’s extraordinary. It’s the number one publicly funded hospital in the world. The fact that it’s located here in Toronto, Canada is of great pride to us. We went up to the number three best hospital in the world and the only one that’s publicly funded so it’s quite exciting. The foundation exists to be able to support all of the innovation that happens at UHN.

When you look at the external evaluations of the ratings of the best hospitals, what was cited as being the reasons that UHN was one the top three hospitals in the world were all programs that philanthropy has funded when you look at transplant and cardiology. That brings us great pride at the foundation to know that the work that we do has had an impact not only on the care of our community but also on healthcare around the world. When we cure diseases and improve diagnostics here at UHN, it impacts everyone around the world.

Discovery Pod | Julie Quenneville | UHN Foundation

UHN Foundation: The work that the UHN Foundation does has an impact on healthcare around the world.


It’s the size of the organization and the scope of every aspect of research and care that happens here at UHN. How do you manage to prevent competing with yourself or other priorities across the entire spectrum of healthcare?

That’s the hardest part because the needs are endless. There are hundreds of physicians and staff. We have 20,000 staff and physicians here at UHN. Every one of them is involved in some way in research and innovation because that’s why they choose to come to UHN. They choose to work in an environment that is constantly seeking to rewrite medical books. If everything was a priority that’s on my list, I’d be looking at about $4 billion. It’s not realistic. We have to prioritize.

When we prioritize, we do that with the leadership of the hospital. It’s important to figure out the role of UHN. Where can we have the most impact worldwide? Where is the biggest need for philanthropy? When we’re looking at our greatest impact, we’re looking at a new tower for surgery and the construction is about to start.

Our contribution to that is $300 million out of a $1.1 billion project so it’s a great contribution. We’re working a lot on commercialization and innovation. In Canada, it remains that philanthropy is the only real source of funding to be able to do innovation. To obtain a grant from the federal government for research, you have to prove that your research already works. How do you do that without funding? That’s where philanthropy comes in.

Communicating Value And Impact

That margin of excellence matters a lot to the women and men who do the work in research and health care. How do you communicate the value or impact that donors can have when you’re sitting across the table with a family that’s considering making a significant gift?

The families are loved ones of patients. They are sitting across the table from us because they truly want to be able to impact the quality of care for themselves, their family, and their community. We do it through storytelling, helping them understand what this means to them and their community. Science is complicated. It is difficult to understand. We have to get away from that and jump ahead of what it is that we’re trying to achieve.

One of the campaigns that we’re working on, which is inspiring, is we’re going to cure arthritis. We made it simple. We all want to cure arthritis. We all know someone who is afflicted by it. When we’re having those conversations, sharing the ambition that we have with the people sitting across the table with us links us emotionally and with great passion.

Those are great stories when you have the chance to sit across from families and communicate that bold ambition. One of the things that is unique about healthcare philanthropy in particular is you don’t need to communicate the need. Donors who are experiencing it, whether it’s themselves, a loved one, or someone close to them, know the system is where it could be or where it needs to be in some cases. Often, the messaging that foundations are in the role of is telling people there is a better way and a brighter future. How do you balance that critical need with the ambition of UHN?

I love the way you’ve put it. I hadn’t thought of it that way but we’re the solution hub. I’ve worked on the hospital side. That’s a huge benefit to the work that I do. I spent several years as a Senior Manager within the McGill hospital system. It was extremely frustrating to continuously try to advance different projects and initiatives. Philanthropy is the solution hub. It is the funding that allows us to match our big dreams and ambitions and get it done. It’s so simple. You have a generous family, a brilliant team, and an ambitious goal. We get it done. It’s black and white. It’s not government bureaucracy or policy change. You just get it done. To me, that is making sure that we all work together towards that common goal.

In the scope of UHN and healthcare in general, how do you communicate to donors or help donors see the vital role that they can play, the space where philanthropy can play in that leveraging position and change the way that status quo is operated?

It’s harder in an organization like UHN because we are so large. We do rehab, education, cardiac, and transplant. We can go on and on. It’s much easier when you’re on one mission. We do pediatrics and cancer in a much simpler, clear message. It’s one of the reasons that we launched our new advertising campaign called United. It’s to try and bring forward the many different stories of the way that UHN is already innovating.

A lot of these advertising campaigns are about ambitions for the future. If you give us a donation, we will do this. We want it to be very different. We wanted to share the stories of how we are already bold and transforming healthcare. To your point, people need to understand that it’s not just an ambition for the future. We’ve already done it. We’ve got a track record of changing the status quo of healthcare. If we work together, here’s how we can do even better.

Leveraging the credibility of the system as it sets you up to be able to tell those big stories for ambition in the future. How are those stories resonating in the conversations with donors? How’s that connecting to your fundraising?

It’s interesting. A lot of donors are surprised. They didn’t know that right here in their backyard they had the number one hospital in the country and publicly funded hospital in the world. There’s a great sense of pride that starts to happen in what they have contributed to and what they’ve helped to build. There’s a 100% chance that we need healthcare. The wonderful thing about fundraising and healthcare is that it affects everyone. What do we all want? If we are ill or we have a parent who’s not well, we want to see the very best doctors, nurses, and staff in the world.

We don’t want someone who’s done it a couple of times to do surgery on our parents. We want to have the very best surgeon. How do you do that? You make sure that you create an environment where you’re going to support the big dreams and ambitions of those great doctors and nurses. A great doctor or nurse research on the side. They don’t just practice medicine. Those conversations are inspiring because they know how this impacts them. I don’t need to explain. They know that they need access to the best care right around the corner.

How Philanthropy Amplifies The Work

It’s not about need. It’s about the role of philanthropy. United is focusing on telling the stories of the people who are doing the work here. What are some of your favorite examples of how philanthropy has amplified that work here at UHN?

There’s an incredible physician, Gelareh Zadeh, who is the only female neurosurgeon here at UHN. She’s also the Chief. She’s the most inspiring person I’ve met in a long time. She’s a refugee from Iran and has achieved some of the greatest research. She was the recipient of the Gairdner Award in 2023. While I was onboarding, I was sitting in a donor stewardship meeting where we were showing the donors what she had done with their investment and the small contribution that they had been putting in for the last couple of years.

She was presenting how she had cured three patients with glioblastoma. It was presented in a way where it was like, “Here’s what I’ve done. Thank you so much.” I was like, “Wait a minute. I’ve been in healthcare for 25 years. We have never been able to advance anything at all to cure or better diagnose glioblastoma. This takes our young adults.”

It always hits in the early twenties. You have six months to live upon diagnosis. It’s terrible for families. Here she was with a small donation and had cured three patients. She was telling us how she was going to scale it up with research grants. I was blown away. It reconfirmed how happy I am to have joined this great institution because, for me, it was fulfilling. The work that we’re doing is curing people. How amazing is that? That’s impact.

That’s very remarkable. I like that you chose an example that wasn’t the most transformative gift. Those are wonderful as well but it also speaks to the vital role that philanthropy can play. It often buys the space or the time for brilliant women and men who are doing this lifesaving work to think differently, do it slightly differently, and innovate how they’re doing their clinical care through that research. It’s not always the fanciest piece of equipment that makes the biggest difference.

Philanthropy often buys the space or the time for brilliant women and men who are doing this lifesaving work to think differently, and innovate how they're doing their clinical care. Click To Tweet

It’s the biggest, craziest research that usually generates results. They are never funded by research grants. Seed funding for research goes a long way. It’s leveraged in certain cases. Our philanthropic dollar can allow us to get up to $6 from federal grants. It’s quite meaningful but without philanthropy, we can’t do it. UHN would not be number one in Canada. We’re doing $500 million of research a year here. $200 million of it comes from philanthropy. That’s all seed funding. We’ve more than doubled it with grants. How great is that?

In my experience, donors are willing to fund those off-the-wall or off-the-beaten-path ideas. They’re willing to fund research that isn’t going to work. You go back to a donor after a study has happened or a project has started up and you say, “This is what we learned. It’s not going to be what we’d hoped it would be but here’s what we’re going to do next.” Donors are willing to say, “I’m in. What’s next?”

You’re right. There’s a perfect example here. A number of years ago, one of our lung surgeons had this crazy idea that he could fix a lung before a transplant. He received an initial $3 million donation from one of his supporters. He created what we call an ex vivo machine that keeps the lung breathing post-withdrawal. He’s been able to, over the years, enhance the lungs to increase the survival of the lung post-transplant.

What he created with that initial $3 million grant has become the standard of care across the world and has increased by more than 50%, the number of transplants done. He’s taking it to another level and we’re doing it for other organs as well. It wasn’t a huge grant at the time but he has secured more than $30 million in research grants to be able to continue this project.

I love stories like that. It does talk about how important donors are in our system. One of the things you’ve touched on a little bit in our conversation is something that I hear a lot in working with CEOs of healthcare philanthropy foundations across the country. Organizations get to a certain size and then they start to wonder, “We’re so big. Maybe donors won’t see that we have a need.” It can be a challenge to show that size is an advantage. At UHN, you can’t pretend to be small. How do you view the size and capacity of your foundation as an advantage the donor should be attracted to, rather than seeing it as a foundation with a lot of money?

It’s a comment that we receive regularly, especially with our endowment fund but it’s 100% designated to support fellowships, chairs, and so on. We can’t use that for any project that we want. It is a challenge but the way we speak with donors is that they are looking for someone with a track record. If they’re going to invest large sums, they’re going to make a big donation. They want to make sure that you’re going to deliver on what you have said you were going to deliver.

That track record is important. You do not make a $100 million donation if you don’t have a profound belief that the hospital and the foundation are going to deliver exactly what you’ve asked them to deliver. The fact that we are a larger foundation means that we also have the capacity to track the money going into the hospital and ensure that it happens and that we can report back in great detail to the donors.

We found over the years that the donors want to be involved. They don’t support institutions anymore. They don’t just support us because their family has been involved with this institution and here’s their annual check. They invest because they want to see results. They want to meet with the physicians on a regular basis and the researchers and understand and be part of it.

Growth Accelerators

They want to be one of those cool kids in the research lab figuring out a cause or an issue that matters a lot to them. You’ve been in the role since August 2023 so you’ve got it all figured out. You got it all down. As you look ahead, what do you see as the strongest accelerators of growth here at UHN Foundation?

One of the greatest challenges that we have here at UHN is to grow the community of support. I dream of the day that our donor base looks like our patient base. It’s an important moment. We need to be able to help the smaller donors understand the impact that they’re having. It’s easy for someone at $100 million to put in a detailed agreement on what they want to see as a result but it’s a harder conversation when someone is giving $1,000.

Discovery Pod | Julie Quenneville | UHN Foundation

UHN Foundation: One of the greatest challenges that we have here at UHN is to grow the community of support.


We have a million patients. If a million people decided to contribute even $250, imagine what we could do as an organization. It’s the growth that is inspiring the loved ones, patients, and community in general and mobilizing. The community has built UHN. It has made it possible for UHN to be the number one publicly funded hospital. We need to inspire them to be united with us.

As an organization, you have demonstrated the capacity, willingness, and ability to attract those significant donations. Focusing on all donors is a source of potential growth. What does it look like inside the foundation to take advantage of that opportunity and capture that much broader audience that you’re describing?

It takes a massive reorganization of resources. It is crucial for us to continue to be the strongest major gift team in the country, which we’ve always been. We have to sustain that capacity and continue to grow talent within that team. At the same time, we need to grow teams that didn’t exist before. We did not have a media relations team or a marketing team before. We’re growing in all of those different areas.

We have launched, as you noted, our first brand marketing campaign in UHN history and rebranded the hospital. It was important to share those great stories more widely with the community and also work on communication with patients, which we haven’t done in the past. That takes a dedicated team and a way of thinking about how you share those stories more widely with the patients and loved ones who are most affected by the impact of this foundation.

As a new leader, you’re describing a very significant change in the orientation of the foundation. How did you approach communicating that change to the team? Was it day one that everything was going to be different?

No. When I came in, my plan was to bring about change very slowly. I thought I would be in the position for about a year and then we would start to evolve. I found that when you remove the gate of change, suddenly it starts to flood in and people have been sitting on projects that they wanted to do. Suddenly, you’ve opened the door to that possibility. Change has come more rapidly than I would have liked it to be, and that’s the challenge as a CEO.

What is the right rhythm of change? You don’t want to slow down momentum because momentum is incredibly important when you’re trying to do that turning point but at the same time, you don’t want to lose your team along the way. My number one priority since I arrived has always been people and culture. It is extremely important that we communicate better.

I’m trying to continuously readjust how I communicate with the team and how the managers communicate with the team. Bringing people back into the office doesn’t need to be full-time time but bringing everyone back one day a week and having that excitement is important, especially when you work in a foundation. I am unbelievably passionate about the work that I’m doing because I meet the patients, doctors, and teams each and every day.

see and feel it. That keeps me passionate. When I’ve had a bad day, I remember why I’m doing this and the impact of it. It’s important for everybody on the team to feel that. Whether you’re doing data entry or working in finance or fundraising, you need to remember that your work matters. Coming into the office every once in a while and the hospital and seeing the walls is important.

Taking Charge

Seeing the work in action matters a lot to fundraisers in this space. On your first day, you’re going to take it easy for the first year with no big changes and then you said that that’s more quickly than you had imagined. Take us back to that first day. You put your hand on the door. You’re coming through as CEO. What was that like? What were you feeling as you came through the door on that first day?

I was feeling extremely insecure. I came from an organization where I had built the team from the ground up. I loved all the physicians. I knew every inch of the institution. I had been there for many years so coming in not knowing where the coffee is, who’s going to be on my team, and who’s going to try to prevent change and movement is destabilizing.

One of the reasons I came is I wanted to make a difference in healthcare. If you care about healthcare, then you want to be in the best place in the world to have an impact. I kept reminding myself why I was here. For the most part, people were incredibly welcoming and that helps. The team here at the foundation is extraordinary. They started to work very rapidly, the physicians, as well as the executive team.

If you care about healthcare, then you really want to be in the best place in the world to have impact. Click To Tweet

Here’s what I find fantastic for other CEOs reading. In my previous role, I was not invited to the executive committee of the hospital. Here at UHN, I am a member of the executive team. I attend all hospital board meetings. Having that connection between the foundation and the hospital is a game-changer to me. There were a lot of things here that I found exciting and motivated me that we can make an even bigger difference than the foundation’s made before.

A question we often hear from a meeting with senior members of executives on the health side is why isn’t the foundation raising those $50, $30, or $100 million? My response is always, “How much time do you spend at your executive meetings talking about donors?” They say, “That’s not our job.” “If you want to attract gifts of that size, it is your job.”

You are right. The success of this foundation has been the engagement of the teams on the ground. I did get a few who complained that the money has historically always gone to the other physician. I said, “What did you do? Have you referred any grateful patients? Have you been involved with the foundation?” The individuals are receiving $100 million in donations because they are actively involved and that’s incredibly important.

In fundraising, we work with those who are willing to work with us. It’s a coalition of the willing and it builds from there. That usually tends to bring other physicians and researchers on-site as you move forward. You mentioned that the pace of change has been quite rapid. One of the things that I often hear from board members is that they want to advise the new CEO.

If you would imagine around a board table, and we’re not talking about your board, but around a general board table, there will be people saying, “Julie, go fast. There’s opportunity. We got to be ready. It’s the season. We got to move quickly.” There’ll be other board members who are like, “This is a big organization. We need to take our time. You have to understand before you don’t know which way to jump.” How do you think through those voices, whether you hear them out loud or not? “Go fast or go slow.” How do you regulate that in your conversations with the board?

That’s a big challenge because when you’re onboarding in a new organization, you should take a couple of months to understand the organization before you make any big strategic decisions. I remember after about three months, a few board members said, “Where’s your strategic plan?” I said, “It’s a work in progress.” You cannot make drastic decisions without understanding the organization.

Discovery Pod | Julie Quenneville | UHN Foundation

UHN Foundation: You cannot make drastic decisions without really understanding the organization.


I did make some drastic decisions in the first week and then in the first four months but those were very obvious. There was a full consensus in the organization. I was left with a tough job to do. It is a challenge but it’s communication with the board. They will never be aligned because their backgrounds make it so. Some are from the corporate sector, some are families, and some are senior-level and executives. They will never be 100% aligned on what is the pace of change that they are comfortable with. They want to see the result but when change frazzles people, they get uncomfortable at a board level.

I try to communicate with them as much as possible. I use my board updates to be able to be very honest with the challenges that we face when we are moving forward with this change. Always been my strategy is the risk because if you give them more, they will want even more information. At the same time, they should know that change is hard in an organization. We know exactly what we need to do to be able to grow this organization. We can see an immense amount of growth right around the corner but while we are moving forward with this immense change, there are growing pains.

As new to the organization as a CEO working with the board, the board often won’t know all of the details and some of the things you may find around corners or under rocks that may peek out of you. Particularly first-time CEOs tend to want to hide those things and say, “I’m going to fix that, and not let them know.” You’re not a first-time CEO. You’re very experienced. You know to share that but it is a balance because if the board sees that you’re only identifying problems, they’re like, “What are you going to do about it?”

That can shift overnight. Whether it’s 3 months or 3 years, if it shifts without the CEO knowing it, she or he can be in a lot of trouble. The other thing is if you don’t tell the board what’s going on, they’re not going to give you good advice. You’re not going to be able to leverage the experience, commitment, and expertise of those people sitting around your board table. It’s giving them enough that they can help but I’m giving them so much that they want to help a lot.

What KPIs are you sharing with the board? Some boards are very proactive. I had one board in the past that was demanding certain KPIs. I had to push back to say, “You shouldn’t be looking at this.” It was a very proactive board but I’ve come into an organization that was only looking at the revenue KPI. I am beginning to integrate new ways of looking at our successes or failures. It is important to determine what you want to show them that is linked with the ambitions that you have.

I’ll give you a concrete example. This board had never looked at the number of donors. It wasn’t important because the revenue target was important and you could reach your revenue target in any way you want. This is a new number that I’m showing them. It is a pressure because when you’re looking at donor acquisition, the growth is not as rapid as when you’re looking at revenue. One big donation can push you over the top. Growth in the number of donors in an organization takes time and investment.

I need them to understand because otherwise, they will not support the investments that I want to make in that growth. That’s important. Sometimes, there have been things that I have discovered that are problematic but they don’t necessarily need to go to the board. It will make them very nervous that they’re at risk in terms of their reputation. What I do is note to files. I document them incredibly well like, “Here are my findings. Here’s what we’ve done. Here’s how we’ve closed the loopholes.”

Those things are important as a CEO because when you have seen it, you have to determine who you share it with. The most important is what you are going to do about it. I have a very low tolerance for risk. Different CEOs have different mentalities. I always said, “It ends up on the front page of The Globe and Mail. Am I going to be comfortable?” My comfort level is very low. I’ve made it my mission to look under every rock and make sure that I’m comfortable with everything.

That’s a big project for the first year.

Too much change, yes.

One of the questions I was looking forward to asking you is this. Having built the foundation in Montreal and McGill and then you’re here in Toronto, are there differences in the conversations you’re having with donors between Montreal and Toronto?

Huge differences. Montreal is still very institutional-based. It’s interesting, partially because English institutions are always at risk of being destroyed, demolished, and closed down. The tension between the government and the minorities makes it so that the families support specific institutions. They’re not looking for any major impact in healthcare. Some of them are. I’m generalizing but they were families that were very much associated with institutions for that purpose. My old hospital is the only remaining bilingual institution in the province. That was a different kind of conversation.

Here, I find that the community is ambitious and very optimistic. As an outsider, I am amazed in every way. The construction here is challenging. We see it in our donor base that they want to be number one. I hear this all the time, “It’s fantastic that UHN has made it to the number three spot. How do we get to number one?” I find that wonderful that they are partnering with us. They have a vision and ambitions for their institution. They care about having the very best talented staff at the hospital.

How powerful do they see philanthropy as a way to get there?

They understand that philanthropy. These are the sophisticated donors. It comes back to the track record of the UHN Foundation. We have demonstrated that the foundation has an impact on healthcare and UHN itself.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

We’re coming to the end of our conversation. I’ve got two last questions for you. One is, what advice would you go back and give yourself on that first day as you came through the door?

Integrate the hospital and take the time. I was very busy in the first few weeks with the foundation team, the board, and the important donors. I wished I could have spent two months meeting with everyone in the hospital, walking the units, and having that relationship. To me, the foundation has to be fully integrated into the fiber of the hospital. I wish I would have had that opportunity in the first few weeks.

My favorite question to ask all of our guests is this. Julie, what are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to seeing the impact of all of the actions that we are putting into place. I’m looking forward to seeing more patients and loved ones joining and being united with the foundation and seeing the number of donors start to climb. We are launching our first peer-to-peer event. It had never been done at UHM. I’m looking forward to seeing the hundreds of people walking the streets and showing their support for their hospital. That’s a very meaningful moment and it builds pride in the institution.

One of the things that comes through in our conversation is that you talked about being the best, third best in the world, best in Canada, best publicly funded hospital, and best research taking place. You keep coming back to your donors and talking about growing the number of people, making it available, accessible, and engaging for more donors. How do you balance that in your mind? Being the best is usually thinking we need those billion-dollar gifts and campaigns. Yes, you need those. How do you see all of those donors who are joining your foundation as a part of that getting to number one?

It’s essential that we continue to have the support from our major donors and grow that. There is a transfer of wealth occurring across the country. It is a challenge for us as foundations to make sure that we inspire the next generation. One of the reasons I have faith and confidence that they will continue to support UHN is because they are very global and they want to support causes that have an impact worldwide. That’s one.

You’re right. We will not remain the best if we do not continue to have those very large donations but it doesn’t mean that everyone else can’t join the big families. This is the one place where everyone is equal. Everyone has access to the same care. We serve at UHN our homeless population in the same hospital where we’re serving the wealthiest Canadians. I don’t think that the two are in contradiction.

As a CEO, I need to separate that to make sure everything gets done. The bigger question is how do you get everything done all at the same time? Through the years, what I’ve realized is that you need dedicated teams. You can’t have one team that is responsible for speaking to our wealthiest Canadians and the same team has to worry about how you inspire someone to give you $1,000. It’s not the same conversation. It’s much more global.

Develop dedicated teams. You can’t do this on the side of your desk. This is your responsibility and say, “Julie, your responsibility this year is to acquire 3,000 new donors. Show me your plan on how to get there.” We have the benefit of having a larger team and we can afford to dedicate each team to a very clear and tangible performance. We have dedicated KPIs for everybody.

The beauty of that as a team, and I’m coming back as a CEO, is I want everyone to know their role and understand the impact that they’re having in the organization. My ultimate goal is to be able to break down our organizational KPIs into every person so I know at the beginning of the year, what will success look like for me. That’s how I feel. We can be able to deliver all of those ambitious goals at the same time.

You’re on a great path and you’re moving very quickly. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Thank you so much for the invitation.


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