When stepping into a bigger role, you have to be prepared to fill in the shoes—or even better, improve what has been worn out and make it new. When Danielle Dunbar took on the role of Chief Development Officer at the University of Saskatchewan, she needed to pull together the team from a decentralized structure. Just as we hear a lot about in developing programs at universities and even large healthcare institutions, Danielle had to create a change in the culture, change the culture of philanthropy. Now, the University of Saskatchewan has been growing year-over-year. In this episode, Danielle goes deep into the details of the changes she has implemented that ensure reaching their goals, from coordinating the dean and staff to having great and sincere relationships with donors with their fundraising programs. Gain some great wisdom from Danielle and see through the value of looking long-term than the day-to-day.
Listen to the podcast here:
University Of Saskatchewan With Danielle Dunbar
Our guest is Danielle Dunbar. She’s the Chief Development Officer at the University of Saskatchewan, a program that has been growing year-over-year through her impressive efforts and those of her team. Welcome to the show, Danielle.
Doug, thanks for having me.
Tell us a little bit about your experience as a fundraiser. You’ve been at the University of Saskatchewan now for a few years. How did you get your start in fundraising?
I started fundraising primarily working in nonprofits. I started in the festival circuit in Winnipeg working for the Folk Arts Council and a festival that’s called Folklorama. It was great fun working with the community and I felt like this is something that is of real interest to me. I started to move into working at the Children’s Hospital Foundation and then I was lucky enough to become a part of the University of Manitoba Development Team. I did every position there at the University of Manitoba. I worked in most of the faculties and had an exciting opportunity to work in the MFV Active Health Sciences. During that time, I got to see how philanthropy can make such a huge difference in ensuring that colleges and faculties are moving forward and seeing it at that highest level. We started planning for a comprehensive campaign and I had the opportunity to join the service central development team, the leadership team at the U of M. I’ve got to be a part of working with an inspirational leader, John Kiersey at the U of M and changing the culture there and moving towards a comprehensive campaign, building it, doing everything we could to bring everybody on board. It was an exciting time.
Danielle, you mentioned the magic word. You said, “Changing the culture.” That’s something that we hear a lot about in development programs at universities and large healthcare institutions are we need to change the culture, change the culture of philanthropy. What was the culture like at the University of Manitoba that needed to be changed?
Fundraising and the development function wasn’t seen as a partner in helping to ensure that the big priorities across the university came to fruition. The culture was building trust. It was helping them to see us as partners and drivers of change. Building that network of people who understood the importance of philanthropy and engaging our donors in different kinds of conversations and changing the mindset. Part of that was proving it. We needed to prove that we could be strong partners in this. By doing that, we were able to build a strong team that was able to move towards finalizing their campaign. It was a successful transition, but it was building trust and proving it.
When people talk about culture, often in a conference presentation or in the theoretical context, they talk about culture almost as a destination, that we’ll have this culture of philanthropy and then great things will happen. My experience and I’m curious if it’s yours too that culture is a slow evolution over time and it’s never finished. There’s never that perfect culture of philanthropy.
If we could turn a switch and everybody thinks differently, that would be wonderful, but that’s not the case. The thing is that the university’s leadership changes on a regular basis. You can work with one dean for a period of time and be successful in these types of conversations. That leadership changes. It’s continually having those interactions with your internal leadership, but also engaging them with the community, so that they can see why people want to invest in institutions.
Changing that view of why people want to invest, that’s a large part of preparing for a comprehensive campaign, which you’re a part of the leadership of the successful campaign at the University of Manitoba. In 2017, you moved on to the University of Saskatchewan. What prompted you to take on the role of Chief Development Officer at the U of S?
It was the grounding and the experience that I had at the University of Manitoba that made me want to take on this larger role. I had the opportunity at the U of M to be the Acting Associate Vice President for a period of time. It was the year that we launched the campaign, so it was an interesting time. The position at the University of Saskatchewan, it was different because it was the AVP of Development and the Chief Development Officer. That was a bit daunting when you look at it because this means that this position is driving the fundraising entity for the entire university, working closely with our president and with our VP of University Relations and all the leadership across campus. It was an opportunity for me to grow as a professional but it was also exciting. When I saw the alumni of the University of Saskatchewan living in Manitoba for a long period of time, there are a lot of people who are from the U of S who are living in Winnipeg and all around Manitoba. I saw that alumni pride and how much they loved this place. I was excited to join the team and be a part of that. We needed to make a lot of changes here. There were a lot of things that needed to happen. I love being a part of building things and going through large institutional change. It was an exciting opportunity.
One of my favorite questions to ask our guests is asking them to remember and tell us a story of your first day. What was it like coming into your office as the Chief Development Officer and Associate Vice President at the University of Saskatchewan? Do you remember that day?
I sure do. It was not as glamorous as I thought it would be. You always have a framework of how you think this is going to roll out. When I came in, people are friendly and welcoming, but then I quickly realized my office was in the basement of an academic building. I’m now on the third floor of that same academic building, but all the same. I was hidden away from the rest of the campus. People could not find out where my office was. I also realized that I didn’t even know how many people reported in my position because the structure here was decentralized. It took us a while to figure out and to meet with all of our development staff that were spread across campus. It was a surprise to me to see how decentralized we had become.
[bctt tweet=”Conversations with donors are more about helping them understand the vision.” username=””]
Danielle, was that a function of a specific plan to have a decentralized program or was it something that had grown-up organically in the institution?
It had grown-up organically over a number of years. This unit, which we call University Relations as a whole, went without leadership for quite a long period of time. We had started to restructure, we had a new president, we had a VP but we didn’t have a leadership team. The VP was brand new as well, Debra Pozega Osburn. She started to build a team from a non-existent team. There was nobody in the positions, some of them are new positions. My position, in particular, had changed quite significantly to include the Chief Development Officer portion of the role. It had over time and also by not having leadership, what had happened was the development officers that were embedded in the colleges started to become a part of that college and were driven by the college priorities but we were uncoordinated. Many people across campus had multiple relationships with the same donor and nothing was coordinated. There was a real strong need to pull that team together and to work in a more sophisticated and more coordinated fashion to ensure that we weren’t driving our donors crazy, that we were able to have bigger successes, to work in a much more collaborative fashion and to make sure that one hand knew what the other hand was doing.
First, that one hand was interested in what the other hand was doing. One of the things through our work here at the Discovery Group, we work with organizations that are trying to rapidly professionalize so go through a decade worth of fundraising program evolution in 2 to 3 years. One of the roles that we often see for people who are in those faculty programs or those decentralized college programs is the role of Chief of Staff. They will do anything for the dean, organizing lectures, sending out alumni notices, writing the magazine and occasionally talking to donors. Were their roles like that at the University of Saskatchewan?
Many of our development staff had become the go-to person for their dean, which is wonderful because they have great relationships with their deans, but we weren’t prioritizing our interactions with donors. We also weren’t in a way that was a bedspread across campus setting funding priorities or understanding institutional priorities and how college priorities would fit into those. It was when you needed to focus on number one, helping our deans to understand and to work with our development staff in a different way. Part of that is by setting metrics so that our deans understand that if they are focusing on this kind of work, it will increase your fundraising revenue. Long-term, we’re trying to push people to think in a different way and not a short-term fiscal year, but what does this look like over a five-year period?
How are we setting our goals? How are we having different conversations with our alumni and donors to help engage them in the work that we’re doing but also so that they are making more transformative gifts? We were transactional in the way that we dealt with donors. I found that the way that we used to report was on cashflow. We would report on how much money has come in through the fundraising entity in a fiscal year. We didn’t look at long-term thinking around pledges and gifts. What that drove people to do was focus on closing gifts quickly and not thinking about the longer period, more transformative, more visionary discussions with our donors and even engaging them in that kind of conversation. It was more about how do we ensure that we’re reaching our goals this year?
That is a critical point that when fundraising programs are driven by cashflow, one of the challenges can be that major gift fundraisers in particular, focus on high annual gifts. It’s better to get a $50,000 gift every year from the same family than it is to talk about $1 million gift over five years. We’ll leave the finance group alone in this conversation, but how do you change the focus of the fundraisers themselves who do want to have those great and sincere relationships with donors but had been incentivized in a very transactional way in the past?
Part of that comes from even how we talk about metrics so that we can sit down and do a performance review with our staff. It’s that we can help them to understand what they’re doing and how their work can be done differently. The other piece is making sure that we understand what the priorities are for fundraising for a long period of time because if we don’t have priorities, the easiest thing to talk about is student awards. Student awards are important and are a part of our priorities, but when they become more of a go-to because there isn’t an awareness of other priorities. That’s when we get into that transactional interaction with donors and they’re often making a significant annual gift, which is wonderful, but we’re not having that bigger conversation. It’s helping our fundraisers and development staff to understand that what we’re going to be evaluated on over a period of time is how many donors are we engaging in a different way.
I remember in an earlier conversation that you and I had, you’re saying that the feeling around the campus was the donors would only give to capital projects and student awards. Your question to that prevailing wisdom was what have we asked them for and it was capital projects and student awards. There’s room to change that conversation. How did you start to change that conversation, not on campus but with the donors that have been generous to the university?
It is having conversations with them, helping them to see what else is happening on campus. One of the things that our significant donors said, even to me when I walked into the door, was you’ve got to get it together. They want to hear what’s going on in the campus. They want to meet with our faculty members. They want to have these discussions but we weren’t necessarily opening the door to either the right people or to help them have those contacts. Our conversations with donors are more about helping them to understand what the vision of the university is. Our president is now moving into a second term, Peter Stoicheff is seen in the community as a visionary leader and someone who helped to stabilize the University of Saskatchewan which is what we needed. Donors trust him and they trust his vision. We’re able to share the president’s vision but also to have a coordinated voice so that when we’re talking to our donors, they understand that college priorities, we call it our colleges not faculties, they are the priority.
They fit into the priority of the institution and we understand the pathway to it. It’s having broader conversations with our donors, helping them and making sure we’re reporting back on impact. A lot of our donors have been long-term, amazingly committed donors that we haven’t shared enough information with. We’re lucky. We have many donors who care deeply about this university and are engaged in the life of the university. Huskie Athletics and many of them are graduates of multiple colleges and they come back and volunteer. We weren’t doing a great job of sharing the impact of their giving with them. It’s changing that conversation.
How have those conversations changed over the last couple of years? You don’t have to name the donor, but the donor that said you’ve got to get it together. Have you been able to get it together? What does that look like in the conversation with donors?
We’ve been able to get it together. We’re still working. You can’t let your eye off the prize. You have to keep focusing on this type of work. The conversations with donors and these significant donors who have been committed to us, it has changed and they’re seeing us as a united voice. That’s the key. I would never want the significant donors who have been involved with us for so long not to have contacts with the people that they are funding. They still have contacts across campus. We’re doing it in a coordinated way. It’s allowing them to see what else there is across campus going on and they’re giving has increased. They are giving to areas that they would never have thought of before. They wouldn’t have seen it as an opportunity because we wouldn’t have had that conversation.
[bctt tweet=”You can’t let your eyes off the prize. You have to keep focusing on the work.” username=””]
I want to pivot a little bit. One of the things that I realized when I had the chance in my career to become a Chief Development Officer was that the Board of Governors for university pays fairly close attention to what happens in the development office. That’s something that you’re not aware of until you’re in that chair where you’re supporting those board meetings or in those board meetings. How has the Board of Governors changed or how have they started to look at the development function over the course of the last couple of years?
That was a big change when I started and even when Debra started was the way that we reported to the board changed. We used to report on cashflow. It wasn’t about changing the numbers and the way that we report, it was the way that we talk about philanthropy and our donors. It’s important for us to talk about our donors as people so that they understand that they’re investing in the institution and in the work that they’re doing and they want to be partners with us, that they aren’t making a gift. We understand that it is a gift, so changing that conversation also talking more about the importance of other aspects of giving. How long does it take to have a conversation about a significant gift? It’s more about relationships.
Are we putting the right people in front of donors? Are we having the right conversations and helping our board to understand what it takes on average about eighteen months to have a conversation about a significant gift? That’s if you have a great relationship with those individuals. It was a shift from thinking fiscally and more about how much money has come through the door and shifting to think about fundraising as partnership opportunities and investment opportunities and that these donors are truly people who are wanting to be engaged in our university.
One of the things that often jumps out at me when I have the chance to be in front of a Board of Governors is that they view development or fundraising in general as a marker of a reputation for the institution. They see the brand of the institution and the reputation is embodied by or enhanced by significant philanthropy to an institution. Is that something that comes up around the board table at the University of Saskatchewan?
It’s part of the way that we talk about how the unit of university relations works. It is under Debra Pozega Osburn’s direction and of her leadership. All of those functions are a key part of the work that we do to alumni relations, communications and marketing. Government relations is another big piece here especially for the University of Saskatchewan. We have new leadership in all those areas. The real key to all of this is how do we work together to ensure that reputation is rising. Fundraising dollars are often a good indicator that you see. People understand that they have faith in us. They believe in what we’re doing and that our reputation is rising. That is much more a part of our conversations at the board level as well, that they see that direct correlation between all of those groups.
It’s fascinating when boards start to see the connection between philanthropy as revenue and reputation. It does become a virtuous circle that fuels both their investment in development programs but the rising of the institution. One of the things I wanted to make sure we got to is you have focused on that rapid professionalization. Moving from an organically growing development program and that has great independence and decentralization to at least joint reporting for all fundraisers on campus through to your office. How has that experience been for you as the leader in setting that goal to professionalize and then driving the institutions toward it?
It’s been interesting, Doug. When I first walked through the door, that was the one thing that stood out to me is that we need to work in a more coordinated fashion. However we wanted to do that, we needed to do that. That was the end goal. As we started working with our deans, what I discovered is we needed to build trust. Our internal community needed to trust the development office, they needed to trust the VP’s office, that we truly were the experts in this field and that the advice that we can provide in the mentorship and the guidance. That we can provide to the development staff across campus would be a huge asset to them. A big part of this was truly conversations with all of our deans, helping them to understand this work, but also to trust us that they could turn to us when they had questions and that we could help them in ensuring that their priorities are met. We would help them set goals and we would help their development officers do that. We’ve gotten to the point where we have dual reporting across campus.
I always thought it would feel better, but it is a constant discussion. It’s about making sure that our donors have a good experience. The only way to do that is to ensure that there’s at least a minimum level of experience for those donors. Various colleges are bigger and smaller, so there’s a different interaction with their deans and with their faculty members. To ensure that level of experience that our donors are having across campus is somewhat equalized. This whole process of bringing in the dual reports was to ensure that it’s not about controlling everything that’s happening, it’s about making sure the experience for our donors is a good one.
Throughout this conversation and other conversations you and I had, you always bring it back to the donor experience and the responsibility of the institution to report back, to steward donors and make them feel engaged in the life of the place. This project to professionalize to accelerate the fundraising at the university, can you share a story of a time when you thought this is starting to work, we’re making progress?
There are lots of stories. I have to think of a good one. We see this and this is an easy one. With our College of Dentistry, we have a new dean in place. We have a development professional who’s worked in that college for quite some time but the actual fundraising that they were doing in the college was more around annual fundraising, which is wonderful but the vision for the college is much broader. Through conversations that we were having around, what’s our vision? What does the college want to do? How do we work together on this? They were able to secure one of the largest gifts that they’ve ever received in the college. Part of that was the partnership with all of the groups across campus. Ensuring that we’re having the right conversation when we’re stewarding the donor involved all the appropriate parties to make the donor feel like they’ve given this gift to the University of Saskatchewan even though they want to support a college in particular.
Helping a development officer who has never worked on a gift of this level, had never been engaged in major gift fundraising. Helping them through that process is exciting. That’s one example. There’s a number of examples like that across campus. It’s when you see it happening and you see the excitement of a development professional who’s never been able to have these types of conversations doing this work. To see a dean who has a big vision to see the importance of a donor getting excited about that. We’ve seen this even on the other side is dealing with some of our most significant donors that we’re having different conversations with them now. They’re more transformative conversations. They’re about their legacy. What do they want to ensure is in place at this institution? What do they want their legacy to look like? It does not involve one area. It’s about involving all of the areas that they have interest in across campus. That’s when we see this is working.
In that example with Dentistry, the gift comes in, you hear about the gift. What is your personal thought on that? What is your personal reflection on that? You talked about the success of the fundraiser and for the dean, but what did it feel like for you as Chief Development Officer?
[bctt tweet=”We’re all evaluated by how successful we are in securing gifts, but you need to be looking long-term.” username=””]
I was proud of the work that we’ve done. I was proud and excited to see this can work. We’re doing the right things. We’re going in the right direction. I’m the type of person that, “That’s great. Let’s make sure this is happening across campus.” I’m not a big celebrator. It could be better, but it gave me a lot of faith that we’re working in the right direction.
It is important to mark those successes because others will often remind you or remark when things aren’t successful. We sometimes have to mark when they are. Ambitious targets at the University of Saskatchewan are nearly tripling the revenue in a relatively short period of time. You’ve made some great strides to that. I want to ask you one final question. A lot of our audience are people who want to move into senior leadership positions in the not-for-profit or social profit space. What advice would you give to someone who’s maybe a couple of years away from moving into that Chief Development Officer or similar role? What advice would you give them for what they should be thinking about, what they should be focusing on to prepare for taking on the role?
The most important part of this role is ensuring that you have a strong relationship with your internal community, with your president, with your deans across campus. Without that, you won’t be successful. It’s making sure that people understand the importance of internal relationships. We’re all evaluated by how successful we are in securing gifts, but you need to be looking long-term. It’s helping people understand that we can’t look at the day-to-day. It is how are we driving institutional change? How are we making sure that we are making long-term plans? It’s changing the conversation. The key is having good trusting relationships within your institution, within your university or your organization, but also making sure that you’re looking at the long game, which is the most important thing.
It’s interesting that when the director of development, when someone’s a director of development, leading a college or a faculty program, their job is often about bringing donors to the campus and to the organization. One of the things that I’ve admired watching your experience over the last couple of years has been you more than bringing the donors to the university, you’ve spent a lot of time putting donors at the heart of the university. Having those larger institutional priority conversations and getting the leadership of the organization to see donors as an essential partner to the ambitions of the university. That is an ongoing challenge that you manage well on a day-to-day basis.
Thank you, Doug. It is an ongoing challenge. It’s the most important thing that we can do and it’ll set the tone for our future success.
I want to thank you for being on the show. Thank you for reminding our audience of the importance of bringing that donor voice to the table at our universities, our hospitals and our social profit organizations all across the spectrum. Thank you, Danielle.
Thank you, Doug.
About Danielle Dunbar
Experienced Associate Vice President, Development and Chief Development Officer with a demonstrated history of working in the higher education industry.
Skilled in Nonprofit Organizations, Philanthropy, Fundraising, Stewardship, and Community Outreach. Strong community and social services professional with a Bachelor of Recreation Studies focused in Event Management and Community Development from University of Manitoba.