This year has been a pivotal time for charity organizations and even the more established names are not spared the challenges. Despite the hardships, however, Variety, the Children’s Charity remains committed in fulfilling its mission, especially in this time of utmost need. Coming into a leadership position with a strong background in fundraising, CEO Cally Wesson gives the organization the kind of leadership that is sorely needed during these challenging times. Listen to her interview with Douglas Nelson, where she shares the work she has been doing to engage donors to continue contributing to their cause. She also shares how she engages her team to do their specific tasks that contribute meaningfully to the bigger picture of where the organization is heading.
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Variety The Children’s Charity With Cally Wesson
Our guest on the show is Cally Wesson, the CEO of Variety The Children’s Charity located in British Columbia. Welcome, Cally.
Thanks. I’m excited to be here. It’s nice to be able to talk about leadership and fundraising. You don’t often get the chance to do that.
You’re an example of the fundraiser grown up to be the CEO. I want to spend a little bit of time on that, but before we do that, tell us a little bit about Variety and what’s been going on as you’ve been coping with the pandemic?
I think for everyone, the pandemic has been a stressful time. For fundraisers, we’ve had to reinvent ourselves. We had our year calendar planned and those plans were thrown out the window on March 13, 2020. It’s also been a good opportunity for us to look at who we are as an organization and be innovative and look at how to exist in this new, always changing world.
What does that change look like at Variety?
We were a heavily event-based charity. Our summer calendar was golf tournaments and all those things. It was looking at how we connect with our donors in a new and meaningful way. At the same time, we also were experiencing an increase in demand even before the pandemic. Our applications for help had almost doubled. By the end of March 2020, in a little bit of a panic, we had a waiting list, we’re starting to get more of a waiting list.
Variety is the last resort charity that helps special needs kids. If we weren’t there to help these kids, who’s going to help them? For me, it was about 3 or 4 months of sleepless nights wondering how we were going to do that. We pulled together as a team. We looked at how to connect to our donors and how to refine that message and it worked. We’ve had a great year and I’m happy to say that we don’t have a waiting list. I’m proud of that as a team.
You’ve done it in an interesting way, that pivot away from those events that simply couldn’t happen with connecting with your donors, but you’ve also reinvigorated your corporate giving programming. Maybe you could talk a little bit about the strategy behind that and how that works?The strongest fundraisers are the people who are really connected to the mission. Click To Tweet
That’s been something that’s a new focus is we’re a grassroots charity. Our donors are the everyday person who wants to help kids, which is amazing, but looking at connecting with some of our corporate partners. We have corporate partners that we’ve been partners with for many years. RBC was one of them. We are looking at that relationship and how to make that more meaningful. The team at RBC has been great at getting to know Variety again and reinvigorating that relationship.
To looking at our relationship with Global, Kenton Boston, who’s the VP, is our board chair. He’s been helpful in working with me and with the team to refine our message that we are sharing with Global and our Variety Week. We are all quite instrumental in pulling together that fundraising campaign. That’s something that’s probably Variety’s biggest opportunity is reaching out to new corporates because with both our Variety Week and our Telethon, there are great opportunities for corporate engagement, for all those things, for team members to get involved and connect to the cause and to the kids in British Columbia.
You said, “Our corporate partners are getting to know Variety again.” What is that process like? As the CEO, how do you approach a corporation, a corporate donor and say, “It’s time to reintroduce ourselves?”
One of the great things about being a long-term brand is everyone knows you but everyone becomes familiar with you. Variety has been in some cases the parents of our corporate donors, even their charity of choice. It’s been about educating and letting them know how we are impacting kids across the province. Focusing on that experience for that family has been meaningful to the corporate donors. If you’re providing a track, mental health counseling, any of those things, it’s explaining to the donor where the family and child’s at before Variety comes in and how their donation is transforming that family, that child, that community’s whole existence by us supporting. When you look at a kid who’s struggling with mental health challenges or even something like dyslexia and tutoring.
We might take for granted that a family can afford tutoring, but they can’t. That impacts the relationship at home. Kids are stressed out and if you can show that impact of that child who’s gotten tutoring, who now has self-esteem and is excited to go to school. I think that’s what reconnecting with the corporate donors is all about. For me, at least it’s connecting them to that moment when they can change the life of a family and a child.
That’s the goal of a lot of fundraising or all fundraising is that connection to mission. As a professional fundraiser that went on to be the CEO of the organization that you lead now, what have you learned through that transition from Director of Development, Vice President to CEO about keeping a focus on the mission?
When you’re an on the ground fundraiser, you’re busy engaging all the donors, having those conversations. When you step away, not that you’re not still having those conversations, but you’re looking at the big picture and you’re able to give that guidance because the best thing as a leader is if you’ve done every job in the organization because you almost understand what your team members going through the struggles. The transition from Director of Development to CEO has helped me be able to mentor my team in a more meaningful way.
You can see that when I work with the team, that we’re talking about how to get that connection to mission whether it’s in marketing. Even our philanthropy services team is keen on how do we link that mission to the cause or to the donor. That’s where the experience of being a CEO, that’s transitioned from a director of development is advantageous. I feel like going into this job, there definitely has been some challenges in any new role. One of the benefits for me was I knew the culture of the organization. I knew what you could impact immediately and things that you needed to take time to grow. For me, that’s been super powerful.
Looking back at your director of development self, what advice would you give as the CEO to either yourself or to anybody who’s acting in that director development role? What they can do to see the bigger picture of the organization while they’re in the day to day the transaction of fundraising?
It’s to almost to step away from yourself and put yourself in the donor’s shoes because sometimes when we’re out fundraising, it becomes a little bit transactional. If you can look at what the donor needs to hear, what the actual good that you’re doing in the community and if you can attach yourself to that, you’re going to be a stronger fundraiser. When I look at my team, the people who are definitely the strongest fundraisers are the people who are connected to that mission. They see the thank you letter from the family that’s been helped and they’re in tears because the work that we’re doing is meaningful.
One of the big changes that people go through when they move from the VP or the director level to the CEO’s chair is that direct relationship with the board of directors. How has that transition been for you, made it over the course of several years now, but what was that process like for you?
I was fortunate as the Director of Development because I was in most of the Variety board meetings talking about fundraising. I was already acquainted with the board, but I think for me, the biggest change is you can see in those board conversations as a fundraising CEO where those conversations can should be and they’re not always there. I think it’s something that has been in my role a little bit frustrating, when as the leader, you see the big potential of the organization and you see how the board members could impacting kids and how they can be changing lives. That’s not always what the conversation at the board level is. That can be frustrating.
We know and we are in the organization and we’re interacting with donors who care about the mission. It can be easier, more straightforward at least, to keep the focus on the mission. I’m not speaking of your board, but sometimes other boards that we work with through The Discovery Group, we see boards that are focused either on their own process or on their own transactions within the board rather than putting that mission forward.
It can be a real challenge for leaders to keep that focus on, “We’re here to do. Let’s get focused on the mission.” You can only say that many times as the CEO before the board starts to tune that out. It can be difficult. You’ve got a unique challenge that your board started many years ago as a community service club and started to transition towards being that contemporary charitable organization. The decision was made to make that transition when you became a CEO. What is the journey been like since then?
It’s hard before and I have complete empathy for the transition from the social club that does fundraising versus the professional charity. There’s power. I always say like, “You can’t take the fun out of fundraising.” As we fundraise, we build friendships, families and it becomes part of who we are. That’s what you see in Variety. One of the strengths in Variety is that if these people who are passionate about the organization but maybe sometimes the focus isn’t where it needs to be to accomplish the bigger picture.
As the leader of the charity, I think many people have this amazing passion, but they’re caught up in maybe the politics or some other thing that they’ve been doing for the past many years. When I can see that their talents can be better used somewhere else, but in that transition into a governance board, it’s not quite there that we can direct people in that positive way. For me, that’s frustrating because you see this big potential for the organization and you see these talented people who have the potential to help us push it forward, but they’re not focused on the pushing forward.If you make a mistake, just own up to it and figure out a solution. Click To Tweet
They’re focused on something else that is probably in their reality, completely important to them, but it’s not helping us do what we need to do which is raise more money to help more kids. I can even give you an example for Variety Week. We had over 11,000 people donate, which is transformational, but all those people need a thank you call. Sometimes it’s not the super glamorous stuff. It’s not being the chair of a community or it’s the simple stuff that sometimes we need help as staff doing.
Sometimes, I feel that’s lost when you ask people, “Can you make a few Thank You calls for me? Can you do this?” It doesn’t sound as exciting as, “Can you chair the committee in the next gala that we’re having? Can you do this?” It’s stuff that’s important in fundraising. I feel like sometimes the politics of the organization is not helping us get the simple things done that we need to get done. That’s where, as a leader, it can be frustrating.
One of the phrases that I’ve fallen for has been, “Simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy,” so that we have these things that are relatively straightforward, that we need words to do, or we need volunteers to do and activating to do so can be quite challenging, particularly when we know the benefit of what we’re asking them to do. Also, knowing that when you’re in the leadership position, the number of things on your plate, you need something taken off of your plate. How do you prior to prioritize when you find that there are more things to do than there are hours in the day?
I think that’s everyone’s struggle now. We went through a bit of a restructure too. The team is definitely at a smaller compliment than it was before. For me, it’s always looking at, “What is going to bring in the revenue?” At the end of the day, as a not-for-profit CEO, that’s your number one thing. That’s been one of the things that attribute to the success of our latest fundraiser, which was Variety Week.
We had a summer that didn’t have these 9,000 things going on and the team could focus on connecting with the donors who were likely to give, getting the messaging right, figuring out how we’re going to get that message out in the community through marketing and through digital media. Looking at our email solicitation, how we could ramp that up. All those things to me, when you’re prioritizing, it’s focusing on what you need to do to bring the revenue in.
COVID has definitely been a negative for everyone. In some ways, it has allowed organizations to focus on what they need to do to bring in the money as opposed to what brings in the money. That’s been powerful in terms of managing that workload. Some days, I’ll start working at 7:00 AM then suddenly it’s 8:00 PM and you’re like, “How did the day disappear?” Keeping your team focused too is super important. What we need from volunteers is connecting and thanking our donors. I can’t echo how hard that is to get people to do.
That’s usually the most joyful part of being on a board is the thank you calling because that helps connect to the people who are giving and supporting the mission. You mentioned keeping your team focused. I know you’re working in a remote work environment as an organization. How have you managed to keep your senior management team and your whole team focused on bringing in the revenue, as you say?
One of the great things that I experienced at one point in my career was I worked from home as a fundraiser. It was going to this experience of COVID helped. I had the tools of organizing my day in how to connect, but what supersedes all that is the fact that people who had a strong team going into this work from home situation. Especially with the senior leadership team, we all trust each other. We all know each other. It’s a bigger thing than just, “That’s my colleague.” It’s someone who you trust and we’re all united by the mission. As a team, the most important thing is continuing to pull people together and to focus on, “You guys are doing a good job. These are the things we’ve accomplished. Did you know?”
Those reminders, “I know that you’re having a bad day because you have been isolated for the past five days by yourself.” It’s recognizing everyone’s struggle but also reminding people of what we have been able to accomplish in the past 6 or 7 months. That’s how I like to even start team meetings. It’s, “Did you know that we did these six things we said we’re going to do and now we need to do these six other things?” It keeps the momentum going.
How important is it for your team to know the big picture?
It’s super important. That’s part of management is making people feel included in what is the big picture. The worst thing you can do as a leader is say, “Do X task for me,” but not tell the person how that task is going to impact the bigger picture or it could be the smallest thing that transforms the project you’re working on. Everyone has to be aware of how they’re impacting the bigger picture. Especially, you’re working with a team that’s drained, they need to know that like, “Non only that thing you’re doing is super impacting us bringing in $2 million for this event or $2.7 million,” but it’s also then reminding them of, “These are the kids you’re helping.”
I’m a big fan of transparency as you probably know from me, but keeping being transparent about these are the initiatives. I know one of the powerful things that happened and I’ll give my director of development, Jennifer, credit for this is bringing the grant manager of granting and the manager or the director of philanthropy services who has tons of fundraising experience. She’s been in the business for a long-time, bringing her into the development meetings because I think everyone now has a sense of what we’re working on when we’re fundraising because the granting manager is the one who is showing the impact. She’s picking out the kids that were sharing their stories. If she knows what we’re doing, that messaging is going to be even better. Those things are important to me. We’re a team.
That effort to make the mission tangible for your management team, for your organization has lasting benefits when they’re talking to donors or when it’s time to make that one last phone call or do that one last thing in a day, it helps move things forward. How can your team earn an extra gold star with you?
My big thing in general life is if you make a mistake, own up to it and figure out a solution to it. That’s something that I respect in colleagues in general. No one’s perfect. I always say like, “Fundraising isn’t brain surgery.” For me, a huge part is owning up if something goes wrong, but not just coming to me with I made a mistake. It’s also coming to me with how you think you’re going to fix that. That’s something I respect in colleagues, in general. Number two, for me is being challenged as a leader. I love when I have an idea and my team says, “I think that’s great idea, but what if we add this to the idea? What if we do this?” That’s something I respect when I’m hiring my team or creating my team. I don’t want yes people. They respect me as a leader, but they also can give input into what we’re trying to create here.
That reminds me when I worked with a great marketing leader, Patsy Worrall, for a number of years. Whenever I would go into her office and say, “I have this idea or that idea.” When it was a good idea, she’d say, “Let’s get going. Let’s talk about when we can do this next week.” When it was a bad idea, she’d say, “I’m going to have to think about that.” It became our shorthand for, “I think that’s a terrible idea.” I called her on one day, “I know what that means. You can tell me it’s a bad idea.” She goes, “No. I feel like I need to say that because you might be right and I need to think about it.” I said, “You’ve never come back to me once and said, ‘I thought about it. That’s a good idea.’” She goes, “No.” They’re usually bad. I valued the opportunity to have someone who would tell me in a slightly indirect way, “That’s a terrible idea. We’re not going to do that. That’s a distraction.” As leaders, we need that in our team and we need to facilitate that throughout the organization if we’re going to get things right because these issues we’re dealing with in the sector are complicated and we need as many perspectives as we can to get it right.
I think that’s probably one of the most important parts of being in a not-for-profit is even on a board, you have a diverse group of people often being able to take what everyone has to say and pull it all together to get a result that ultimately supports your mission.You can’t avoid change. You just have to be flexible and always be inventing. Click To Tweet
As a leader and having grown the organization as significantly as you have over the last couple of years, when you’ve hit either a roadblock, a barrier or feeling challenged with something, who or where do you turn to find answers to unstick situations?
There’s your family that know too much about your work. I know my partner is probably like, “Please stop talking about Variety.” There’s definitely that, but that’s where having a great board of directors is powerful. With having Kenton in 2020 step up as board chair, that’s been powerful for me because I’m able to have some of those conversations. He’s a strong leader and he can get me the insights and the experience that he has and that’s definitely helping me grow as a leader.
Sometimes, it’s reading stuff online or a show like this where you take a break and read about other people’s challenges or talk to other colleagues and say, “Have you had this experience before?” As a leader, you’re not able to always share every single detail with your team so that can be, in some ways, quite isolating. At the same time, that is the role why having a strong board with experience is important because those are the people that you need to be able to go to for advice sometimes when there’s a roadblock.
As a leader, what’s the best or preferred way to receive feedback whether from the board or from your team as you’re navigating a lot of these changes?
I’m a direct person. I appreciate feedback told to me on the spot, in that moment. I’ve had definitely with team members where they’ve given me feedback, “This might’ve worked better.” I do appreciate that. Am I a fan of the 360 Review? Not all the time because that sometimes can be too exposé, but at the same time, I do think from a board perspective whether it be when you’re presenting, you can tell this from this conversation but it can be a little convoluted at times.
Sometimes feedback, even after you’ve done a presentation at the board level or you’re chatting with the board and someone will say, “Maybe tackle one issue instead of 27 issues in your presentation.” I’m like, “That’s probably a good idea and it shortens the board meeting a little bit.” Those things, but I do appreciate direct and honest feedback. I think the closer you can give that feedback to the time when something’s happening, that’s always the best. No one wants to hear two weeks later, “Remember that day that you said this?” You’re like, “No, I don’t remember.”
You have navigated a lot of operational change in your organization through the pandemic. You are in the midst of navigating a significant governance change in your organization. What lessons are you hoping to take with you as we move through the pandemic into what will hopefully be in 2021 a back to normal or the new normal life?
What everyone has learned is you can’t avoid change, you have to be open, flexible, have that ability to always be inventing. If I’ve learned anything is that people don’t like change. They want things to stay the same and there’s something to be said about that. As you look at things like Blockbuster or Sears, you look at all these companies that ultimately failed because they weren’t open to change and to taking a leadership role in that change. If Blockbuster would have become Netflix, we’d all be logging into Blockbuster at night instead of Netflix. To me, that is the biggest lesson of the pandemic and you have to be on the leading edge. You can’t be following. You have to be the person who takes the first step because if you’re taking two steps behind in this climate, you’re not going to be successful.
How do you make sure that your board is there to take that step with you?
That’s the challenge because I definitely have a lot of trust on the board, but I think there are people that their goals are different than what is the organizational goals. That’s the most difficult thing to manage is when you have a board where one person has one goal and other people have other goals, and you see that two conversations are happening that aren’t supporting each other. Like you have a group of people who definitely their goal is to recruit great talent and raise as much money as possible and there’s other people who their goals are more, “Let’s nurture our history,” which is important. At the same time, the nurturing of the history can’t overtake moving forward. Otherwise, we are going to be the Blockbuster of charities.
When you look ahead to the next number of months, the end of 2020 and beyond, what’s giving you hope and optimism for what’s to come?
I’m super excited because I feel like we’ve taken a leap with Variety Week. We blew it out of the water and raised $2.7 million in the matter of two weeks, which was transformational. For me, what loops into how we started this conversation is expanding our relationships with corporate partners and looking at new corporates. That’s something that’s exciting. I feel with Telethon and we’re going to reinvent that a little bit, but there’s an opportunity to maybe engage some new people that we haven’t engaged in the past and having those conversations.
One of the best parts of my job is being able to go out and say, “If you support us, you’re going to help a kid because every day we help at least one child.” Being able to be out in the community or whether it’s a Zoom call because that seems to be the reality of corporate meetings or it’s connecting with a donor on the phone. It’s that excitement of being able to say, “We did it. We got that kid a wheelchair. That child who has been in an abusive situation now has mental health counseling, thanks to you.” That’s what excites me.
That’s a lot of things to be excited about. I want to thank you for making the time to be on the show and for sharing in such a candid and straightforward way a bit about your journey and the work that’s happening at Variety.
Thank you for having me. That was fun.