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Elizabeth Cannon on Developing A Fundraising Campaign And A Clear Institutional Strategy
Our guest on this episode is Dr. Elizabeth Cannon. She’s the President Emerita of the University of Calgary and Officer of the Order of Canada. As President of the University of Calgary, she positioned the university as a top institution in the country and a vital part of its home province. All of that work culminated in the $1.3 billion Energize campaign. Welcome.
Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.
A lot of our readers are fundraisers themselves or organizational leaders where fundraising is a big part of what they do. From your perspective, what’s the role of the president in a large campaign like Energize?
I’m a strong believer that if you’re going to launch a campaign of any size, it has to be helping support a strong institutional strategy. As fundraisers, when they are out in the community to help tell the story of the institution, its aspirations and the resources needed to reach those aspirations. There has to be a strong consensus of what that future state looks like. The president, one of their main responsibilities as a leader is to help ensure and help lead the development of a clear institutional strategy. Once that is in place, that provides not only just the narrative but provides a common vernacular, a common set of the goals to where the institution wants to go. It’s leveraging that to develop a campaign of how then we’re going to achieve those goals through engaging the philanthropic community. It starts with having that strong strategy, having that strong narrative about the future, and then saying, “What do we need to get there?”
One of the things that we hear a lot through our work at the Discovery Pod is organizations wanting to raise more money. One of the first questions we ask them is, “You need to say what it’s for first.” A lot of organizations struggle with that. As a comprehensive university medical school, how did you balance all of the priorities that came through in that conversation of building an institutional strategy?
One of the things that our institutional strategy does is it sets broad parameters of where the University of Calgary wants to go. We call it the Eyes High strategy. In there we talk about the placement of the university in the community. That is a global intellectual hub in Canada’s most enterprising city. We talk about our aspirations for our teaching and learning environment and our student experience, exposed to research, exposed to hands-on learning and entrepreneurial thinking. We talk about our aspirations to be a top-five research university and also leading and serving our community. Those are very broad parameters of which a lot can fit under. That is good because what it spoke to when we launched the strategy in 2011 we said, “If you boil this down to one word, it is excellence.” What we’re trying to do is to help support initiatives that truly drive teaching and learning, research and scholarship and community engagement through a lens of excellence and impact.If you're going to launch a campaign of any size, it has to help support a strong institutional strategy. Click To Tweet
What we did do is make some priority choices of what is going to help lead us to get there. It’s not saying that’s the only thing we’re going to do, but differentially, we needed to select areas which were going to help identify strong pillars in the institution. We selected six research thematic areas that are based on excellence, capacity and opportunity. We looked at the teaching area. Where did we need to invest in creating an innovative environment for teaching incubation and technology adoption as well as in the community? What are some of the things we needed to do to bridge between the institution and our major supporters and initiatives beyond the walls of the institution? By setting those parameters that provided both the screen and a lens start is giving support to our various deans and other units to put forward ideas that would allow them at the faculty level to contribute to the institutional strategy and therefore be appropriate for fundraising in the Energize campaign.
They certainly did come forward with that in the case for support. I want to go back to much earlier in your career. One of the lines I’ve heard from a number of leaders particularly in postsecondary is, “Nothing in my PhD program prepared me for doing this fundraising.” To find a magic PhD program that had advancement work, is that part of one of the core courses?
Yes and no. I would say probably not directly, but I’m an engineer by training. What I found very helpful in terms of providing perhaps context and experience for fundraising is as an academic, I started my career with not too much money. You had to go out and hustle. You had to find resources to help support your graduate students to get equipment and so on. The concept of making a case, putting proposals together and going out, in my case in engineering, often to industry leaders to solicit funds, help solve problems, drive impact in those organizations. I had quite a bit of experience developed as an ambitious and probably hungry academic. That is very applicable to fundraising. The difference is that obviously you as a president or a fundraiser, are often fundraising for things that you don’t actually execute yourself or control, which is an interesting spin on that. The idea of putting down a comprehensive program or initiative of going out and selling it in a positive way of the impact it’s going to make and getting people to get on board and get excited about what you’re doing. Those are some skills that I think I did incubate a little bit as a young academic.
Before you were president, you were the dean of engineering. How did your experience in fundraising as a dean inform how you were acted as a fundraiser, as president of the institution?
It’s a matter of scale. In the engineering school, we launched a smaller campaign to help support a building that we were undertaking in the engineering school. The idea of being clear, we developed a strategy for engineering school. We have a strategy. We are identifying in the strategy priorities. One of them being around infrastructure. Building a campaign around that and going out and very clearly and consistently. One of the things one has to remember when you’re fundraising is you can’t throw things out the wall and see what sticks. You’ve got to be consistent. What are your priorities? Stick to them so people understand that it’s important. I think the community, they see in the case of engineering was around the building. We needed more space. We needed a higher-quality space. If you’re consistent around that as a goal, people will see how they can fit in to support that. That was a great experience moving up to being a president of the institution, both in understanding the importance of strategy and then leveraging strategy to attract additional resources through philanthropy.
How did your view of the dean’s role in development change once you became the president?
I think a lot of the importance of deans in fundraising to help support their part of the institution. I probably appreciate it at a higher level. When we did our Eyes High strategy, which is an institutional strategy. As a dean, what we expected is that each dean would lead on behalf of their faculty the development of a faculty strategic plan, which would identify and support their ability to contribute in their way as appropriate for their disciplines to the institutional plan. Every faculty here at the University of Calgary has a strategic plan. For example, the Faculty of Arts is going to contribute to the Eyes High institutional plan in a different way than the Schulich School of Engineering or the Haskayne School of Business. That’s appropriate. That’s what you want.
Once that’s in place, then it allows the dean to be able to fundraise at the faculty level in support of their strategy, but ultimately through that supporting the Eyes High strategy as well. I think by having all of those pieces in place, it helps set up the dean for success as opposed to them doing things on their own. They’re doing it in support of their faculty but in the context of where the institution wants to go. Having the president and having the deans singing from the same song sheet in terms of, “Where are we trying to go institutionally and where does each faculty fit on that spectrum?” The more clarity we can provide to a dean, the better job they can do to help engage their local communities.
As a very active president, when it came to fundraising and development, how much do you think that was leading by example and showing the way for your colleagues who are deans of the different faculties?
It’s absolutely critical. We all know how tight resources are and philanthropy isn’t just about bringing more dollars to the table. It’s bringing ambassadors into the institution champions from the community who can help not only support but provide advice and tell the story of the institution to their friends, colleagues and neighbors. You do want to lead by example. It is a key part of not only I did what I enjoyed doing because you’re building friends in the community. That is extremely important to help build the reputation of the institution. I try to lead by example both in the time and energy that I put into fundraising and hopefully also in the strategic lens of which we looked at philanthropy to help drive and support the institutional strategy.
I know a number of people who’ve worked for you during your time as the president who both of them marveled at how you are able to balance the administrative responsibilities with the external facing responsibilities of being president. Did you feel that tension?
I looked at it as all part and parcel of what a president does. Your role as a president is to have a clear strategy. It is to hire a very strong capable team and to help nurture that team. It’s not just bringing people to the table, but they need to understand their roles, be empowered. Make sure that the operational plan that is how you execute the strategy is clear. We did that through an academic plan and a research plan. Draw very clear KPIs and performance plans for each member of the executive. Once you have all of that structure in place that brings clarity to everybody’s role, how they’re going to contribute to the future of the institution. You need to be managing things day-to-day, but if you set things up well, you can take a step outside the institution and interface externally whether it is with government or with donors or other members in the community to help achieve the institution’s role.Stick to your priorities so people understand that it's important. Click To Tweet
That to me is a key part of what you need to be doing as president. By the time you get everything set up, I always kept front and center as where can I add value as a president that nobody else in my team can do? Provost can do a fantastic job leading the academy being your chief operations officer. Your VP finance and services are going to do a great job, IT, HR and finance. You need to keep abreast of what’s happening, but you don’t need it to be into their business day-to-day. Where I could create value as president is getting things set up, make sure strategically we’re clear where we want to go, and help bridge to the external community in getting the support we need in all its flavors to move the institution and to deliver on the strategy.
You mentioned your fundraising team in building a strong team to help execute. What were you looking for from the development team when you became president?
We were thin on the ground in terms of our fundraising team. We had some great people in place. We didn’t have enough to launch a major $1.3 billion campaign. We had to scale up, but I was looking for people who had worked at this level. In Canada, you haven’t seen a lot of large campaigns. We’re the third-largest that’s been publicly announced in Canada at $1.3 billion. You needed people who could think at that scale that wasn’t afraid of that number. When we launched, that was a huge gasp in the community. Even Calgary had never seen anything like it. For a young institution, when we launched, we were literally turning 50 years of age.
That was the stretch goal in a way, but we knew it was realistic from all of the groundwork we had done. I wanted people who had a lot of experience, had worked at that level before and were excited about being part of something that was going to be transformational. Also, I wanted to ensure that the people on the team understood and believed in the strategy of the institution. You don’t raise money for money’s sake. It is all there to support the strategy. If you’re not fully invested in the future state through, in our case the Eyes High strategy, it’s not going to go very well. Having that level of alignment to the strategy and what we’re trying to do was critically important.
Did your reliance on the team or what you were looking for from your fundraising team, did that change over the course of your presidency?
I was fortunate that when I started, I had a vice president development who had a lot of experience. He did a great job of helping to set the stage for the campaign. He had been in his role for quite a long time and felt that this was going to be a multi-year processes campaign. He got things started but said, “I know this is going to take another few years. I think it’s appropriate that once things get laid down, I hand the baton onto the next person so they can carry out and deliver the campaign and see it through it.” I was fortunate that partway through we transitioned to a new of vice president development. It was quite seamless and good. She’s brought in the deans, brought in a great team around her to execute the campaign and to close it on time. I know it will exceed expectations. It’s been a great experience with some devoted people to the campaign and to the institution. Through that, the community around us near and far has seen the campaign as an ability to help transform the University of Calgary.
Do you recall your first donor meeting when you became president?
I do, in fact, it was a funny story. As president, you inherit lots of issues. There was a little problem that I inherited that my first donor call was to help solve a problem. It wasn’t like, “Here’s a check,” or me asking for money. It was more, “I gave me money and something didn’t happen. You need to fix it or else you will not get another check.” That’s part and parcel of the job too. It is donor relations. You inherit relationships. You have to build on those relationships. Sometimes those relationships are under some stress, but that’s part and parcel of working with people in the community. That was my first meeting. Luckily, those have been few and far between.
I worked very closely with Indira Samarasekera when she was the President of the University of Alberta. She and I had a meeting like that and very early on in our working together, we walked out, as we got into the elevator to go down, she said, “Douglas, that was racing.” This will be the shortest ten years for a chief development officer ever.
One of the wonderful things about fundraising is the great people that you meet. They are investing their resources into your institution. They have expectations usually as defined in their agreements and prior discussions. That stewarding of those relationships, that listening and make sure that you’re delivering. I think that’s something that I learned as a young researcher when I talked about going to get money from industry sponsors or government sponsors. It’s one thing to take money, but you’ve got to deliver at the end of the day what you committed and it’s full circle. It’s not just the fun of getting the money and announcing it. You actually have to deliver the goods and I take that very seriously.
How did your conversations with donors change over the course of your presidency?
One of the nice things is you get to know your donors on a very different level from the first meeting to the fifth, sixth or tenth. Calgary, I call it a big small town. You see people out and about quite frequently. You get very friendly with people. They became close colleagues or friends. There’s a warm relationship that gets developed. You get to tell a more coherent story about the institution. When you start, here are the high-level aspirations, and then you launch your strategy, which puts those writing as a commitment to your community. It takes a few years before you can say, “We said we were going to do this and here is what’s actually happening. Here’s the difference. Here are the metrics. We produced an annual report card on our KPIs.” The community’s like that. They want to know that you’re walking the talk. Your ability to tell the story of the institution and get people engaged and your credibility, not just as a leader but as an institution to do what it says it’s going to do. That strengthens over time and that is appealing to donors. Through that, the conversations with donors also evolve in a good way.Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Click To Tweet
The work that your fundraising team is doing is quite different as those relationships mature as well, I would assume?
They are able to tell the story of the institution, point to successes, and help define where an investment in the institution can make a difference and align to the strategic goals of where you’re trying to go. It makes everyone’s job easier. One of the biggest points of satisfaction as the president is when you see us all lined up. You’ve got a strong strategy, you’ve got a strong team, you’ve got the community aligned. One of the things we did is every couple of years we did an employee engagement survey. A third-party would do it for our faculty and staff. One of the questions that would be asked is, “Do you understand the Eyes High strategy of the University of Calgary?” Of all of the questions that were asked through that engagement survey, the question that came out with the strongest positive feedback is that question around understanding the strategy. 82% of our faculty and staff say they understand the Eyes High strategy. When you’ve got that level of understanding, alignment and support in your future direction, it makes everybody’s job easier particularly fundraising because you are out positioning in the community a narrative that you know is supported by your colleagues on campus. That’s a real strength. You’re supporting a movement on our campus towards where we want to go.
Do you recall a conversation with a donor where you started to realize, “This is starting to work?” The focus on the strategy is starting to pay off.
It’s when you start getting the strategy told back to you. That’s very powerful, rather than you coming in to talk about, “Here’s where we want to go, here’s what we want to do.” Your donors would lead with, “Your strategy is great. I understand it.” It would stick with them. They would verbalize. Use the language Eyes High back to you. By that time, you knew, this isn’t just something that’s resonating on our campus. It’s being understood, whether it’s through our political leadership, community leaders, or by those in the philanthropic community. They were telling us about the strategy and how they could see it transforming the institution and then they want to be part of it.
The story is resonating when you start to hear it back from the donors. The campaign still has a small bit of running and you concluded your presidency in December of 2018. As you look back over that, what do you hope your legacy is in terms of fundraising or development in support of the University of Calgary?
I’ll go back to strategy. You want the institution first to believe in itself. In our Eyes High strategy, we talk about being a top-five research university. When we came out with that, that was a pretty bold statement to make. It’s aspirational, but if you look at some of the data, we’re well on our way to get there. Having the institution believe in itself and having the culture on our campus being at an Eyes High visionary level, that was very important. Culture, as they say, eats strategy for breakfast. As much time as we put into strategy, we put more time into the culture. Once you get those two pieces together, that to me is a strong legacy that is felt beyond the walls of the university because your donors are not just talking to the president and the vice president of development. They are talking to students that maybe their kids or grandkids, neighbors and friends come to your institution. You want the strategy and the culture to resonate and emanate throughout the institution to your donors.
If they feel that this is not just what the last president said or a nice glossy brochure that it’s defining the values of the institution, that keeps donors for life because they understand that it’s part of the DNA of the campus. To me, it’s important that when you talk about transforming a university through strategy and culture to gain external support through philanthropy because we are so grateful for that support to create value-added opportunities on our campus that we can point to. All of those things need to be there in a very authentic way. I believe that the University of Calgary, through the work that so many people have done, including the work of donors, that there has been a transformation in the level of confidence, stature, aspiration that is matched to the city because Calgary is a great city. We always talk that the institutional values need to match the city. When we get that right, the community will come on board to support us and they’ll be here to stay.
It is quite very much your legacy as president. I want to ask one more question. I have a good idea about what your advice might be to a new president coming in about building the strategy and sticking to it. What advice would you give to a vice president development who’s in the role with the new president about to come in as head of the institution? What advice would you give that VP for a successful start of that relationship?
I think when you’ve got a new president, they have to first off be themselves. Every president is going to be different. You have to be your authentic self, especially when you’re new. You don’t have to ask anybody for anything. It’s letting the community get to know you as a person. The community’s curious about who the next president is. They want to get to know them. They want to interface. You are a recognized leader in the community. Your vice president development to me should be setting up the new president to allow the new person to be seen, not just visible, but for people to get to know them on a personal level. Once you start building those personal relationships, all of the more direct mechanics around fundraising, they start to take care of itself. We have a great team of fundraisers, as many other institutions do. Letting the character and the personality of the new president shine through because that’s what people are curious about and that’s what they want to get to know.
That’s very good advice. Thank you very much for being a part of this episode of Discovery Pod. I hope everybody that’s reading takes note that focus on strategy and sticking to it was a very common theme through our whole discussion. I thank you very much for sharing it.
About Elizabeth Cannon
Dr. Elizabeth Cannon is president emerita and professor, geomatics engineering at the University of Calgary after serving as president and vice-chancellor from July 2010 until December 2018. Prior to her term as president, Dr. Cannon served as dean of the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary. An expert in Geomatics Engineering and Professional Engineer, Dr. Cannon’s research has been on the forefront of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) since 1984 in both industrial and academic environments, and she has commercialized technology to over 200 agencies worldwide. Dr. Cannon’s work has been recognized with many national and international honors including the Johannes Kepler Award from the U.S. Institute of Navigation, APEGA’s Centennial Leadership Award and the Gold Medal Award from Engineers Canada.
Dr. Cannon is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Canadian Academy of Engineering as well as an elected foreign associate of the National Academy of Engineering. She served as co-chair of the Business-Higher Education Roundtable and is a past chair of Universities Canada. Previously, she was a member of the federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) in addition to many other boards and advisory councils.
In 1998, Dr. Cannon was selected as one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 and in 2006 was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network. Dr. Cannon holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in mathematics from Acadia University as well as a BSc, MSc and PhD in geomatics engineering from the University of Calgary, and has received honorary degrees from the University of Ottawa, Acadia University, the Université de Montréal and SAIT.