Leadership moves. With this, many leaders often find themselves going from one organization or sector to another. For some, going through the motions of change can be quite difficult, especially on the aspects of adapting. Guest for this episode, Terry Kellam, is very familiar with this. From being at the University of British Columbia for seventeen years, Terry decided to move and become the executive director of the Mount Royal University Foundation. He shares with us how he approached the transition, particularly where the program represented more potential than achievement and went from a transactional fundraising mindset to one that is more focused on building long-term relationships. Furthermore, Terry then tells us how he builds a strong relationship with the new president and donors and engages his team.
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Mount Royal University Foundation With Terry Kellam
Our guest is Terry Kellam. He’s the Executive Director of the Mount Royal University Foundation and we’re pleased to have him on the show. Welcome, Terry.
Thanks, Doug. It’s good to be here.
Terry, to get started, tell us what’s going on in the program there at Mount Royal University.
I’ve been here for a few years. In the time that I’ve been here, we have been working fairly extensively, trying to rebuild both our development program and our alumni relations program. We came in at a time when things had languished for a while on the fundraising and alumni relations front. We’ve been singularly focused on strengthening the program and putting all the pieces in place for future success.
I know from other conversations that you and I’ve had that the program has come quite a long way. Before you get to Mount Royal University, you had been at the University of British Columbia for seventeen years in a program that was becoming increasingly sophisticated as a fundraising shop over that period of time. How did you approach starting in Mount Royal, where the program represented more potential than achievement?
I joined UBC at the time when they were in a period of rapid growth and expanding their development efforts. They were casting a pretty broad net trying to find some good fundraisers and grew the team significantly in the early 2000s. That gave me the grounding that I needed on my arrival here to be able to look at the program, understand what our strengths were, understand what our greatest challenges were and develop a plan to move forward in executing against a more strategic approach to our fundraising.
The first thing that we did was we brought in a sophisticated high-level fundraiser, one of Canada’s best fundraisers, to do a two-day onsite visit. We compiled a lot of data. We looked at our organizational structure. We brought forward a whole host of information and background for him to look at. We do some analysis and then sit down with our entire team over the course of two days to understand essentially what the current status was of the development program and the alumni relations program and understand what those critical next steps needed to be and start to create a roadmap for future success.
Can you think of a time or a story early on in your time at Mount Royal where you realized, “This isn’t Kansas anymore? This isn’t the University of British Columbia anymore.” You’re needing to take a breath and say, “How are we going to move from A to B?”
It was a bit of an eye-opener. I will credit Mount Royal University. They were candid in the interview process that I knew exactly what it was that I was getting into. I don’t think any of us truly appreciated the scope and breadth of the work that needed to be done to rebuild the program. I would say that what we were able to do after a two-day onsite visit was looked at those short-term priorities. We would look first at the low-hanging fruit, those easy wins that we could quickly knock off. We looked at the most urgent priorities in the shorter term and plan for execution against those priorities and then look at those longer-term things that needed to be addressed.
For example, we learned quite quickly that we essentially didn’t have any “product.” Nobody understood what the University’s priorities were. Our fundraising conversations were all reactive based on conversations with donors. Frankly, a lot of the money that came in the door at that time was money that would’ve come in the door anyway. The work that the development team was doing was somewhat more transactional in nature than it was relationship-based. One of the first things that we undertook was an assessment across campus with the academic leadership and with the other leaders on campus, student leaders, etc.
We need to understand what the greatest needs of the institution were and to begin to prepare that case for support that would allow us to represent our greatest needs, our highest priorities to our donor community. That’s one of the things that we did. The other thing that we knew that we needed to quickly fix was that our stewardship activities had fallen off. That’s a result of previous budget cuts and the elimination of some positions. I don’t think that our donor community here at Mount Royal University felt particularly well stewarded. That was another thing that was critical for the work that we intended to do.
That stewardship is what you do after gift, but it does set up a program for future gifts as we all know. One of the things that you said in there that I want to go back to is that a lot of our fundraising had been transactional and we knew we needed to change that. With the team that you have and the culture of philanthropy you have, how did you approach that transition from a transactional fundraising mindset to one that’s focused more on building long-term relationships?When a new president joins an institution, it is a unique opportunity to reengage with donors and supporters. Click To Tweet
The greatest thing that we needed to do quickly was start to devise donor strategies and start to identify those donors where we had sound relationships that could be built upon and then do all the work around the identification of new prospects and donors that we can start to reach out to and truly begin to build those relationships. The first thing that we needed to do was to rebuild the relationships with those donors that we have where those relationships had lapsed. We heard from our donor community loud and clear that they weren’t hearing from us as they would like to. We weren’t communicating the impacts of their support. We weren’t speaking to them around the outcomes that they are given.
In those conversations, is there a moment where you thought, “This is going to work. We’re going to be able to rebuild these relationships?” Did you have a few all are lost moments in those conversations?
We were optimistic right from the start. Our donor communities were receptive to our approach. We had candid conversations. We asked them about their experiences with Mount Royal University and we got candid answers. We responded in an authentic and genuine way that suggested that we were invested in making sure that any past shortcomings were addressed and that we could build upon those relationships. We were given a second chance, largely.
One of the things I know you spend a lot of time on initially has been positioning the president of the university in a different way with respect to fundraising. How did you go about engaging what at the time was a long-time serving president in fundraising in a way that he hadn’t been before?
It was simply on us to reach out and communicate to that president what we hoped to accomplish and clearly demonstrate what his role was in that process. As with any university president, they are certainly entirely open to doing the development work that is necessary at the leadership level to build a strong development program. It was simply a matter of working with him and giving him the context for the relationships that we were seeking to build and what his role would be. That’s something that was essentially fundamentally missing with the program prior to our arrival.
Was there any resistance from the president to take on a greater role in that relationship-building activities and that responsibility and accountability to those donor relationships?
I don’t think there was resistance, but there was an expectation that we would deploy him and his resources strategically. Our response to that was to make sure that he felt that he was being used in a strategic manner. We were engaging him in the conversations that needed to be happening at that time to advance the relationships that we had.
You work over a couple of years to build up that working relationship, build that credibility with that president and then he leaves. You get a new president, to the normal course of evolution of the institution. How did you prepare for your new president?
We were fortunate. We now have a president who is incredibly engaging and engaged both with the campus community, but also with the broader Calgary community. He came to us from the West Coast. He came with an open mind, wanting to understand how he could be the best president that he could be. He understood that Mount Royal University is uniquely positioned in the Calgary community and is widely seen to be very much a part of the Calgary community. Generally, he is highly regarded by the Calgary community. We wanted to make sure that that president had the right introductions to our community.
We undertook a number of initiatives. We worked with our donor base and our close friends and our greatest champions to organize some introductory events with the various sectors of Calgary’s community, the energy sector, the tech sector, the transportation sector and more broadly the community sector, the arts community. We had several introductory events where our president would speak before a group ranging from twenty at a breakfast to 80 at an end of day reception where he could speak and deliver his vision and what he hoped to accomplish as president of the university. They were generally well-attended and he was well-received. It was evident in an article that appeared in the Calgary Herald around Christmas time, where he was listed as one of the twenty compelling Calgarians from 2019.
That’s a good way to start a relationship with a new president. As the fundraising leader, one of the things you’ve seen happen across the sector, both in Canada and in the United States, a new president comes in and then typically nine to twelve months later, the head of fundraising departs and is replaced. It’s a common thing that happens. Sometimes it’s a fundraiser choosing to get a close relationship with the previous president. They’re wanting to find a relationship or wanting to sometimes follow that president to their next role. Other times it’s the change in culture, which means that the working relationship is different that the new president wants to make a change. Mindful of that, how did you approach that as the professional, as the leader of the fundraising program to make sure that you build that strong relationship with the new president?
It was important for us to demonstrate early on the credibility of this new president. We did so through our strategic and successful introduction of him to the community. I also recognize that we have a certain amount of credit with a president as we seek to engage him, in this case, with the community. It’s important that we use that credit wisely and strategically so that when he is out having conversations, he feels that he is advancing the university’s agenda and that he’s being well-received and respected for the message that he’s delivering. If we don’t use our president strategically, we squander that credit and it becomes more difficult in the future to tap into that with that president.
If we do use it strategically, as in the case where I believe we have at Mount Royal, then we continue to build that credibility. The president is increasingly engaged by the activities that we undertake and willing to participate in them. That’s what I’ve seen with our president. I wanted to make sure that he was well-informed at the outset. We did that through a number of things. We created some binders with documentation. One was a binder full of profiles of all of our donors so that he could familiarize himself with each of these individuals, foundations and corporations prior to those meetings. He could feel confident and comfortable entering those meetings. The second thing that we did was give him a binder of the issues. With him not having been a Calgarian, we wanted to make sure that he was well-versed in the issues as it relates to the economic climate and the challenges in the energy sector. We wanted to make sure he fully understood what issues were contributing to that.
The third thing that we gave him was essentially the fundraising plan and the strategy for the introduction. We all know that when a new president joins an institution, it is a once in a decade potentially unique opportunity to re-engage with our donors and our supporters. It’s the opportunity for him to go out and deliver a fresh message and be able to connect with them directly. It’s important that it be done very well and that it be well-received by the community and we accomplished that. To your question about working with that president, I believe that we have quickly established credibility with him to the extent that he is willing to give us the time that we asked for. He believes if we’re asking for it, that it has value for the institution and for him personally and he’s willing to do that. Our relationship is strong and continues to get stronger.Break down the barriers to make sure that you are not seen as an obstacle to success. Click To Tweet
Can you think of a story or a time either in a donor meeting or after an event where you thought, “This introduction is working, we’re going to be all right?”
Every time that we have engaged our president in those conversations, we’ve come back with an overwhelming feeling that these were wildly successful and continue to advance and strengthen our relationships in the community. There’s not been a time yet that I sensed it wasn’t productive and fruitful. I don’t think our president has sensed that either.
How have you managed to communicate that sense of strength and growing optimism to your team? You’re in those meetings with the president and the head of the fundraising offices. In those meetings with the senior and most folks at the university, translating that potential, that momentum, that enthusiasm across the development program can be a challenge. How do you make sure that the good news and that potential is shared?
Our president is approachable. We’re a smallish institution. The team that I lead has a chance on a fairly regular basis to chat with the president and get a sense. Certainly, I convey all of the outcomes of the meetings that we have together to my team because they’re actively engaged in the management of every one of our donors and our prospects. They’re directly involved in the creation of the strategy, the outcomes, and the follow-up. They typically have multiple conversations with the president around some of these prospects, donors and some of the outcomes.
How much has that contributed to being able to increase that culture of philanthropy at the level of the deans and across the campus?
We’re still focused on growing that significantly. With the arrival of a new president, much of our attention and our resources were focused on making sure that he had a good landing here and that he has been well-received. A few years ago, when I arrived here at Mount Royal, we weren’t perceived as adding a whole lot of value to the deans and to the faculties. I’ve been working hard to rebuild that credibility and those relationships with our deans. The way to doing that is to break down the barriers to make sure that we’re not seen as obstacles to success from their perspective, which is something that was the base a few years ago. We engage them and involve them in the work that we do. We’re a centralized office, so we don’t have embedded fundraisers within the faculties, but each of my development officers has forged a positive working relationship with each of the deans. We continue to increasingly engage them in the development conversations that we’re having in the community.
Are they receptive to that engagement?
Not only are they receptive to it, but they’re also clamoring for it. They want to be a part of the work that we do. We had a two-day session with some consultants a few years ago who helped us. They come onto the campus and we convene the entire academic leadership, including all the deans. We convene their volunteer leadership, which included our board of governors and the foundation board of directors, as well as the entire development alumni relations team. Anyone who at any time ever touched up against the fundraising efforts of this university, we got everyone into one room to hear a consistent message on how we could work together in advancing the development and alumni relations agendas. That was helpful in terms of getting the deans and those other academic leaders who previously had felt perhaps outside of the process. It was instrumental and successful in getting them on board and doing them with enthusiasm.
It always helps to have a little bit of success. When the academic leaders start to see dollars being invested by donors in other programs, it encourages other people to return your calls and emails a little bit faster.
It’s been a great process.
One of the challenges of growing a program can be sharing the big picture vision for what your program can be. How important is it to engage your whole team and understanding where you want the program to be? Not just at the end of this quarter or the end of this fiscal year, but 2, 3, 5 years down the road?
It’s critical there. Every single member of the team is so much a part of the work that we do on a daily basis and will be a part of our ultimate success. We couldn’t do it without having everybody buying into the mission of the university, agreeing with and understanding the needs of the university, and essentially being a part of that team of champions in the community.
It is often the case that as programs grow and you’re adding more people, it becomes harder to make sure everyone’s telling the same story and communicating the same message about the university. What do you do at Mount Royal to make sure that everyone has the same song sheet that they are talking about at the university?
That is focused on our institutional case for support. We all understand and could easily recite our entire case. We understand what the greatest needs of the institution are. We understand what the answer is or what the elevator speech is to the question of what’s happening at Mount Royal University these days. It gives us essentially the opportunity to answer that question fluently and consistently across the spectrum of our development team.
Looking back over the last few years, you’ve seen the program’s results increase significantly the complexity of the programs. Is there anything that has surprised you about that transition from a large decentralized and sophisticated program at the University of British Columbia to this more centralized program that you’re building it on?
Nothing has surprised me. We were somewhat decentralized when I arrived at Mount Royal and it didn’t make sense for a number of reasons. We had some development officers who had accountability to individual deans. They had a list of prospects and donors who didn’t align with the giving of a dean or a faculty. We were working with incongruent donor and prospect list and faculty priorities. It wasn’t serving us well. The movement to a more centralized model here, which is something that I quickly did, so that we could align the needs and take a more donor-centric approach to it was helpful. For an institution, our size relative to an institution the size of UBC, this is the model that has worked and my instincts have proven correct. It’s serving us well with the size of the scope of our programs.
Do you see a time down the road where you would hire a fundraiser into a particular faculty and start that process of decentralizing?
I do believe that day will come. I don’t know when that day will come. Our program needs to see much more growth. As the program grows and as we plan for future success, I imagine that we would be moving to that model. Because at some point, as these programs grow, that does make more sense. Part of our work has been educating our deans, some of whom have come from a more decentralized model, on why that’s not particularly the best model for our size and scope.Every single member of the team is so much a part of the work that will be a part of the ultimate success. Click To Tweet
It’ll be an interesting day when you hire that first fundraiser because it does mark a significant change in the structure and the working of the program. As you’re thinking about starting at Mount Royal on your first day, what advice would you give to somebody who is coming into a role as the fundraising lead to a program that needs a lot of lift?
The advice I would give to myself years ago would be there is an incredible opportunity here, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to create the foundations of a strong program. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in communicating what we need to do in order to make this program strong. The best thing that we could have done was seeking out that expert counsel early on in our program to make sure that we were starting on the right footing and focused on the right priorities to rebuild the program. That’s the advice I would give to anybody who came into a program that perhaps had been languishing the way ours had. To get a good and accurate snapshot of the current landscape, a sound assessment of those critical elements that need to be worked on to create the foundation for a strong program ultimately.
It’s one of the things we see throughout the Discovery Group with programs that have been struggling, particularly when it comes to that relationship base reaching your fundraising. There are a lot of opinions about the way the program should be, but not a lot of focus often on the way the program is doing. The more you can level set and get everybody on the same page. Certainly, we want to be raising more money. We want to be building stronger relationships. This is our shared starting point. If you don’t have that shared starting point, the misalignment and the expectations, whether realistic or unrealistic, getting the lay of the good work happening.
The advancement leadership team at Mount Royal spent a lot of time mapping out those strategies and devising those next steps so that ultimately, we could create those foundations. In my first year, we were probably meeting every other week for two hours at 7:00 in the morning to check in and see how we were doing against our plans and our targets in terms of building those foundational pieces. We were able to ease up after about the first year because we started to see those things that successfully implemented. It has been a tremendous help to have a great group that thinks around how best to implement these strategies and what was important and what was less important, making sure that we could go ahead with execution against those plans.
During your time at the University of British Columbia, you were often the strategic mastermind behind the scenes in building relationships and setting donor strategies. When you came to Mount Royal University, you’re the lead and you’re often the one out speaking with donors. How did you find that transition from the strategist role to the out the door activist fundraising role?
I found this to be terrific. It was a bit of a throwback to some of my earlier days in fundraising. You’re right. I moved to more of a behind the scene. The person who wasn’t necessarily dealing that frequently directly with our donor and donor community and our constituents. This takes me back to the earlier days of my fundraising activities and it’s been great fun. I don’t think those are skills you ever lose. With the experience that I had around strategy development, it certainly feeds into the conversations that I have with the leadership of this university around how best to engage with our donors. It’s been great to take those strategies forward and bring them directly into the conversations that we have in the interest of advancing those relationships.
Your enthusiasm for that comes through in your tone of voice and the words you’re choosing to describe that. It’s always a pleasure to talk to somebody who is well cast in the role that they have now. Thank you very much for sharing your insights and your stories with us here.
Thanks, Doug. I appreciate it very much. I appreciate the invitation.
Thank you very much.
About Terry Kellam
A skilled professional in non-profit leadership and management, with extensive experience that includes strategic planning, board relations, fund development, communications, government relations and advocacy, volunteer mobilization, event coordination, and research management, spanning small grass-roots organizations to large institutional environments