No one is insignificant in driving forward that sense of mission and purpose when you are part of a social profit organization. Barbara Grantham, CEO of VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation, dives into the power of healthcare philanthropy as she instills the vision and mission of their organization. Accentuating their purpose to allow people to show a different side of them, Barbara shares how they built their hospital foundation organically and identified the points of leverage which contributed to their expansion. In this interview, explore the myth around healthcare philanthropy and how it is changing over time, and discover how ruthless execution with some room for opportunism can create a significant impact as an organization.
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Barbara Grantham: Impact Philanthropy
On this episode, we have Barbara Grantham. She’s the CEO of the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a shining light in the social profit sector and an example of what a strategic plan that’s well-executed can do in healthcare philanthropy. Barbara, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me.
You have experience as a leader in a social profit sector in a number of organizations. You have worked as a leading consultant in the sector. Then you went back to be the CEO at VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation. Tell us a little bit more about that journey and what’s going on at the foundation.
It is a journey and now that I’m reaching a riper age and I spend most of my days with team members who are only a little bit older than my own children, I’m realizing that it is a journey. I have been in this sector mostly based here in BC for many years now. I have had the real honor and privilege of working with some of the leading organizations in our business. Ranging from United Way, Vancouver Foundation, Children’s Hospital Foundation, Canadian Mental Health Association, the Streettohome Foundation and here at the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation. What I have learned along the way in that journey is there is a purposefulness to this work. It differentiates it from my colleagues and my friends and the people in my life who work in the private sector or the public sector.
All of us want to wake up every single day feeling like we’re adding value in some way to the world in which we live. The way in which this sector has an opportunity to engage with people and show a different side of themselves. Whether as a volunteer or a staff person, the mission-driven sense of purposefulness about the work and the creative ways in which we have the opportunity to have conversations with people, spark their passions and use resources meaningfully, innovatively and creatively. That’s what has kept me in this field for such a long time.
It’s a great perspective, allowing people to show a different side of themselves. In this sector, you have worked on several sites. Tell me about your timing when you went from working actively working in organizations to being more on the consultant side.
In the first years of my career, I’d been organizationally-focused. I started with United Way and then the Canadian Mental Health and then onto Children’s. I had leadership roles particularly the latter two of those, my first CEO role and then a 2IC role. Then I started frankly having children on my own. I wanted to keep my hand in the game professionally because I knew at some point once our kids reached a certain point in their life trajectory that I would want to go back into an organization. I didn’t know when that would be. I knew that I didn’t want to step back from the workforce. I knew, for me anyway, I needed the mental health invigoration of continuing to work, but I also wanted to find a flexible way to find that ever elusive work-life balance.
I had a consulting practice for the better part of ten years. I was probably very different from you in that part of my professional journey. I started out literally taking tiny little contracts to keep my foot in the door and my hand in the game. I had no business plan. I had no construct or framework of how I was going to build this out. It moved very organically, but within a few years, you have already a fairly robust enterprise. I was always pretty clear that it wasn’t forever. I’m an extrovert and I thrive in environments where my ideas can play off of those of others. Through that exercise, we come up with something that’s even better.
That day-to-day stimulation and the sense of energy that comes from creating and building, then having the privilege to work with a talented team of people. I knew I would find my way back into that. It was a point where two Venn diagram circles began to merge. One was my kids were starting to move out on their own and launch themselves. I started to get some nibbles about finding the right thing. I was very fortunate when the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation gave me that first call. It was a moment in my life when I was ready to have a conversation.Every single person in an organization has a role to play in success. No one can sit on the side. Click To Tweet
They were very fortunate to have made the call to you given how the results had played out over the last number of years. One of the things I have encountered about you that made me excited to have you on the show was I have worked with organizations who have said, “We worked with Barbara Grantham.” That was their badge of honor, so that they were a credible and good organization because they had you as a consultant years ago. I have also encountered a lot of people in senior roles who say, “You have to understand, I worked for Barbara Grantham.” I also wear a badge of honor and I know how this works.
My children would say it was a bit of a punishment.
You have a very active fan base that is working in this sector all across BC.
You’re very kind. Thank you.
That sense of team is so important in these leadership roles. Not just that people say that they have encountered you along with their own career, but also that sense of team that gets built with the board. As the new CEO, how did you approach those early relationships with the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation Board?
When the board hired me, I was very clear with them that this organization was fundamentally very strong and very sound. I saw an opportunity to grow. I’d already been in the organization in a senior role, but not the CEO for quite a few months. I had had an opportunity to get a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the organization and how that was playing out in the larger external market place. I saw a huge opportunity for this organization to grow or some of those strengths in a more impactful way.
I was very clear with the search committee. I said, “If you’re looking to continue on the trajectory that this organization has, which is a very sound one, that’s a very reasonable decision for you to take. If that’s the decision you take, then I am not the CEO for you because I see huge potential here for this organization to leap forward. I have at least some of the abilities to move that needle for the organization. I have the ability to find other people in this community, both as staff for the foundation and as volunteers who we can build a team that together want to make that happen.” I was very fortunate and honored that they made that choice.
I want to dig in a little bit on something you said there. There were these points of leverage that you saw. How did you identify those points of leverage and those opportunities for the organization? What jumped out at you and how did you learn more about them?
Everybody who’s coming into a CEO conversation with the board, if you’re an internal candidate, you’ve got advantages and you know a lot of that. You know where the strengths are, but you also know where the little dark things under the rocks are. Those are both advantages and disadvantages from the perspective of a board. Then the board, depending on how they’re doing their searches probably are also looking at a number of candidates from outside. My main message to that group of people was there’s a piece of healthcare philanthropy in this problem that nobody’s having a conversation about. This foundation has a unique opportunity to have that conversation with the philanthropic community. It’s not about us as an organization. It’s about the needs of British Columbians and how to drive forward in that sense of mission and purpose. We’re the right organization to do that work because there isn’t another foundation that is well-placed to be able to do this.
That shift in mission and vision is often a conversation that gets the boards excited. They wanted to see the organization be something better, different and adding more value to the community. It’s also one of the places where a lot of senior leadership teams and the teams and organizations put up, inadvertently sometimes and intentionally other times, barriers to prevent that shift in mission. How did you bring the team together to expand the mission of the organization?
In the first couple of years, it was a lot of inside work of getting some key leadership roles and some core leadership competencies in place at the organization and then building out teams from there. We had a pretty rigorous first year, the board and the leadership team in creating a strategic plan that operationalized or put forward a notion of how to execute what I put out to you in a mission-driven language. We created a strategic plan that was very focused, very measurable and the board and the leadership team quite literally wrapped our arms around that plan. We have executed that plan fairly ruthlessly. We stick to the plan.
We are absolutely focused. We always try to leave a little bit of room for opportunistic things that come along, but we came out of that exercise in 2014. We articulated the mission and vision. We drove it for three years with very strong results and we sat back in 2017. We took a little breath and said, “Are we on the right path? The board and the leadership team said, “We need to tweak it a little bit, but we’re going to drive it forward for another few years. We’re now in the sunset if you like of that six-year horizon.”
That is very impressive. Looking back to those first conversations about the initial strategic plan, what are the differences in the organization that you as a leader feel on a day-to-day basis?
I feel that everybody here at the end of the day understands why we are here and what our purpose is. They can go home at the end of the day being able to say that out loud. I also feel that in the main, we have created an environment here both for staff and volunteers, but particularly for the staff because this is our life work in a more intentional way. Everybody understands that every single person in this organization has a role to play in our success. No one can sit to the side and no one is unimportant in driving forward that sense of mission and purpose.
That is the hallmark of an aligned organization and one that is capable of achieving big things and you have. As the organization has grown, both in terms of the dollars raised but in terms of the impact that you’re able to have, what has your leadership focus been? What has been your message to your team to keep that focus on ruthless execution?
That’s evolved and that’s changed a little bit. In the first few years, a lot of it was teaching ourselves because I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert in it. You look at the hallmark of successful organizations and there are some pretty clear things. You got to have the right people on the bus and you have got to have the bus moving in the same direction. In the first three years and this has brought an overstatement or a little bit of a generalization, but the first three years was about getting the right people on the bus and helping everybody see where the bus was going. How all of the different parts of this organization are essential to contributing and making sure that the bus is on the road and moving in the right direction.
For the latter half, we have been a little more externally focused and that we have been able to say, “We’re on the road now.” Our growth trajectory is very strong. The long-term horizon of our longer-term outlook is also very strong. We have been able to shift the message from less about building the organization and more about sustaining it for the longer term and building the next generation of leadership beyond this generation. Driving more and more of our conversations about the impact that we’re having on healthcare. I’m less interested at the end of the day in how much we have raised in a particular year or over a particular horizon of time. Far more meaningful for board and staff and the people who are in our family is understanding the impact that we have and we have been able because we have “proven our worth on the business.” We have been able to have more and more conversations about impact.
Particularly in health philanthropy, that impact is largely derived from the scale. That is being able to consistently deliver the revenue required to have that impact and the credibility to be at the tables where those big decisions and those big ideas are happening. How have you worked within the health system itself to make sure that you’re at that table and making sure that the dreams and the aspirations are high enough to warrant the impact that you’re trying to create?No one is unimportant in driving forward the sense of mission and purpose in a social profit organization. Click To Tweet
There are some myths around healthcare philanthropy and how we work with our partners. They think that there’s a room that we all go into and foundations raise a bunch of money and we sit down with the CEO of our healthcare partner, whether it’s a single hospital or a health authority or a system and we make decisions. These two people, over a cup of coffee, make a bunch of decisions. You and I both know that it doesn’t work that way at all. We have put a lot of effort and one of the ways in which we have clarified that that notion around mission has been in alignment with our partner.
We are remarkably fortunate to have an exceptional healthcare partner in Vancouver Coastal Health. We represent philanthropically a family or an ecosystem of healthcare delivery organizations that includes VGH & UBC Hospital, G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Center, the Research Institute, which is the academic arm of Vancouver Coastal Health as well as all of the community health services across the city of Vancouver. We’re not about raising money for VGH anymore. Healthcare is changing and the way in which people receive their healthcare is evolving quickly.
You and I both know that as citizens, as taxpayers, as users of the system. We have trained this organization as being about that bigger conversation. We have been fortunate to have exceptional leadership on the healthcare partner side and together we have embraced that vision. They are moving aggressively down on that road to innovation and transformation of the system. We offer them a little bit of opportunity as a philanthropic partner to bring some financing to the table to help make some of those things happen for them.
One of the things that you have done so well is making it clear to donors, how they can be a part of that transformation. The role of philanthropy as a startup funder or as a test pilot project funder and then as a sustainer of those projects that work.
There’s a change going on in the donor marketplace. As healthcare is changing and evolving, so too is giving. You know this as well as I do and younger generations of leaders in this community are coming to the fore. The profile of donors in a macro across the country is changing. This community reflects that very much in terms of its diversity. As we shift to younger people who are now thinking about their own philanthropy, the way in which they want to engage in that act of giving is changing. The expectations they have of us as philanthropic organizations are changing dramatically. We have to change too in how we deliver exceptional service to them.
One of the things, I’m encouraged by in our sector is the dialogue is shifting away from, “This next generation is asking too many questions or different kinds of questions,” to embracing the importance of those questions which is, “What is the long-term impact? What differences are we doing?”
“How will we know if we’re successful?”
Organizations that continue to focus and our goal is to do more of what we have always done are going to find it harder and harder to raise the dollars and to have the impact that they themselves are wanting to have in the community.
We have been fortunate in that we have been able to find a bit of a sweet spot or an alignment between trying to move where the donor marketplace is moving, shifting and pivoting this organization. At the same time holding close, like being very joined at the hip with our healthcare partner and that’s not just CEO to CEO. We have clinical relationships well down. Our teams reach out deep into the research and clinical teams here at VCH to make sure that we understand what each of those departments, divisions, programs and centers are doing and what their dreams are. As we scan the donor marketplace as much as possible, we’re able to do that brokerage to make both sides of the conversation feel happy.
Part of the decision is important. One of the things you mentioned there and I want to get back to your board. The focus is moving beyond the four walls of VGH or the complex of buildings that is there at Vancouver General Hospital. I would imagine you have a number of board members who came on because they have a commitment or connection to that hospital and to those four walls and what happens inside of it. How have you worked with the board to share that broader community health vision that you were describing?
I think through a few ways. I was very fortunate to be hired by an amazingly talented group of board members who are some of Canada’s finest corporate business and community leaders. The allegiance of this foundation that how we were founded was VGH and that was the original foundation was the VGH Hospital Foundation. Over time, we have been able through formal and informal ways all the time, every board meeting, we have VCH leadership at the table that reinforces where VCH is going. We have lots of opportunities through educational events to donor events by moving our board meetings around the organization. By giving board members opportunities to formally and informally engage with leaders across Vancouver Coastal Health.
As citizens and leaders in this community themselves, they see it. All of us have patients or family or friends that are going into emerge and you see the situation. They understand why we need to use technology differently. Why we need to look at virtual health, why we need to look at different ways of moving people along the continuum of health care. Now they understand as well that there’s a very small but powerful role that philanthropy can play. They have wrapped their arms around that and are committed and passionate about that sense of purpose.
That sounds great. One of the things I like about that is it reminds me of my own experience. When you want boards to think differently, you need to hold the meetings in a different place. The idea of moving around, whether it’s to a cancer center in another part of the province or whether it’s to a community health organization. It helps reframe for the board members in a very tactical way that as an organization, we need to be thinking beyond those four walls.
I couldn’t agree with you more.
Is your conversation with your board different? How have they changed from that first strategic plan as you’re coming to the end of your second strategic plan?
Initially, in the first year or two, it was about setting the course and then it was about their role as the governors and the stewards of the organization. Are we on the course? Are there things that we need to be ensuring that we need to be doing more of or doing less of or investing indifferently as the governors of the organization? In order to ensure that we see through this plan and meet or exceed the goals that we have set. I think they’re pivoting a little bit more even again. As we come into the latter end of this strategic plan, we’re looking at what we loosely call Beyond 2020.
The way in which we have opportunities to leverage the assets. I mean that very broadly defined, but the assets of this foundation to have healthcare impact. There are all other kinds of possibilities open to us now as this marketplace shifts and changes. Our job now, the job of the leadership team and the board is to figure out that right set of new possibilities that are open to us as a sector. As the healthcare environment continues to change, what are the best assets we can leverage for the best possible impact for Vancouver Coastal Health? That’s very generative strategic work that is a nice shift for any board to be able to move into.
It’s much different than just receiving finance reports and watching a PowerPoint slide.
Our best tactical move was going to a consent agenda because it’s opened up all kinds of time in the meeting for the board to have thoughtful conversations.
The consent agenda is often my number one or first recommendation to boards. Asking the question, “Do you use that consent agenda?? “You should.” It fundamentally changes the conversation.
It’s the litmus test and I say this because like you, I had many years as a consultant and I worked with dozens of boards. It’s a bit of a litmus test of how a board sees itself and how it wants to spend its precious time. Those three hours are expensive and you need to get the ROI out of that 180 minutes.
We’re talking about what Beyond 2020 looks like. It reminded me of conversations you and I had a number of years ago about building an organization that was strong enough to think beyond itself, was how you phrased it. That resonated with me then and I think of it frequently. You have an organization that has immense credibility and immense scale and that Beyond 2020, it sounds like you’re moving to think about how do we leverage that scale? How do we apply that scale in a way that is potentially transformative? That must be very exciting for the board and very exciting for your team. How does it make you feel to have gotten to the place you were seeking to get?
Mostly, I feel so proud that we have built a team here of volunteers and staff who have come to the point that we are even now able to have that conversation. The next phase of what’s possible for healthcare philanthropy and for this organization is an open and rich possibilities field. I feel excited and energized that we have got a team of people here including the board in many ways, particularly with the board that is just chomping it a bit to get that work underway.
It has been nearly six years of very hard work to get to the place where you can ask those questions or you have those options as an organization. I want to summarize a couple of the things that you have shared with us now. The purpose of this work is that it allows us all to share a different side of ourselves. The real key to those first plans of building the organization was ruthless execution with some room for opportunism were presented. Making it clear that everyone has a role and no one can sit on the sides, whether that’s on the board or whether that’s on your team. It’s been wonderful to watch the growth of your organization under your leadership. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next as you move Beyond 2020. Thanks for being here, Barbara.
Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
- VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation
- United Way
- Vancouver Foundation
- Children’s Hospital Foundation
- Canadian Mental Health Association
- Streettohome Foundation
- Vancouver Coastal Health
About Barbara Grantham
Barbara Grantham brings notable experience and success as a senior executive and consultant in the philanthropic, non-profit and public sectors, across BC and nationally. She thrives in opportunities that stimulate dialogue on important public policy issues, with organizations and teams that share an innovative and ambitious vision, are committed to excellence in strategy and execution, and welcome new ideas and change. Barbara is dedicated to working with citizens, leaders and organizations to make communities better places for everyone.