Great communities often have great universities at the heart of them. This has been proven true time and time again, as universities lead the way for development. Douglas Nelson sits down with the University of Calgary’s Interim Vice-President for Development and the leader for the “Energize: The Campaign for Eyes High” campaign that raised $1.41 Billion, Andrea Morris. Andrea talks about philanthropy in general, the challenges the campaign faced due to the global pandemic, and the importance of going back to basics. She also talks about connecting with people and humanizing them, not just as donors or colleagues but as real human beings.
Listen to the podcast here:
University of Calgary with Andrea Morris
On the show, our special guest is Andrea Morris. She’s the Interim Vice President of Advancement at the University of Calgary and a longtime friend. It’s great to have you on the show. Thank you, Andrea.
Thank you, Doug.
You have been up to quite a few things there at the University of Calgary. You wrapped your campaign at $1.41 billion on a goal of $1.3 billion at the height of the pandemic. What was that like as you knew that you were successful and needing to organize that big celebration of the campaign?
We thought in January of 2020, when we were starting to plan our close campaign celebration for June that we had achieved our goal and we thought we’d have 1,500 people, all of our closest friends and neighbors together at the Jack Simpson Gym on the main campus. By about April 1st, we realized, “That’s not going to happen.” There was a bit of mourning among our team because we were all looking forward to a meaningful celebration with people. The period of mourning lasted about a week where we thought, “We can’t have an event,” but everybody’s talking about 2020 in the various pivots. I remember the emotional week where we realized, “We have some skills here and we could mount something special online.”
The emails over the weekends from team members who were starting to craft ideas about meaningful engagement and what it could look like, all of the technology that we’re used to having for major public events wasn’t already used on a regular basis. I feel like we were pioneers in the planning of that and we tried some exciting things. I’m pleased that the event that did happen on June 30th turned out as well as it did. We had one of those great musical celebrations where musicians from campus students and faculty put together a great presentation, uplifting for the end of the event.We want to keep this culture going to preserve the gains and show the community that anything is possible when we work together. Click To Tweet
It was the first time they had done one of those where you see all the Zoom squares with people playing the same song. We managed to have something that we felt proud of. There was some mourning and we still had 3 or 4 months left of the campaign. Once the campaign events team had put together the plan and started to execute on that, the rest of us got to work trying to figure out how to finish as many gift conversations as we could ahead of the campaign and feel celebratory. Not just about the event itself, but about what we were celebrating, which was an extraordinary achievement for a university that is only 50-years-old.
It closed as the third-largest campaign in Canadian history at the time. For a 54-year-old institution, that was an extraordinary achievement. Ultimately, the fundraising plan and the event celebration plan came together. June 30th was a fabulous day for the university community. The team also submitted that event for the CASE Award, Council for Advancement and Support of Education Award and it won the gold for a best donor engagement event. I can’t remember the title of the category, but that was the icing on the cake a little later in the year, so it’s good.
One of the important things of a campaign wrap-up is the celebration. It feels like the Oscars for us fundraisers. It’s the big event. More importantly, it’s that feeling that the donors have that they’ve been a part of something special. One of the things that I would imagine would be hard to sustain and I’m interested in how you thought about it is that marking the end of the campaign is also how we lock-in the gains of a culture of philanthropy on campus. A promise made is a promise kept type of moment with somewhat skeptical faculty or our colleagues in the finance department who think we’re too expensive. Also, to see the impact of philanthropy on the campus and what it has meant over the last period of years and give some insight into what the role of philanthropy can be for the next campaign or even the next fiscal year. How did you think about capturing that moment of celebration for the entire university campus?
It’s as though we talked ahead of time, Doug because you set me up so well for something I wanted to tell you about. If one were to watch our campaign close celebration, we had a lot of people engaged in the event. We had people talk about what the campaign has meant to them. We made sure that we had the voices of our donors and volunteers, but as importantly, the voices of those who had been impacted by the philanthropy that came to the university during the period of the campaign. In person, you can think about creative ways of doing that, but in the close celebration we had, we wanted to have as many of those voices as possible. Not just to engage them personally, but to demonstrate the breadth of the philanthropy and its broad impact across the institution and in our community partnerships.
I feel like the spirit of our campaign close was the perfect kickoff to what we called our year of gratitude and impact. Our campaign was called Energize: The Campaign for Eyes High. Eyes High was the university vision set out in 2011 by our president, Elizabeth Cannon, and the campaign was meant to advance that vision. The year of gratitude was called Energized by You. We’ve spent the entire year since executing this plan that was meant to celebrate exactly what you said, which is not just the philanthropy and the donors. That’s important to us, but it says much to let our entire community see how that philanthropy connects to impact our research, student experience, community engagement that is facilitated by philanthropy, and shared values we have with our community. Also, how we connect those dots in order to achieve even more because we’re working together.
We built a beautiful website that has a lot of meaningful, authentic personal stories about both the motivations and decisions around making gifts, but also the impact to the individual who has received some benefit from it is. We hope that will be something we can preserve. Not just the archive of the stories, but the culture that we were hoping to create through that exercise. We began as we mean to go on. We want to keep this culture going to preserve the gains, but also to show the community that when we work together, anything is possible.
You’ve done an exceptional job of that. You were reflecting that most campaigns and in a flurry of energy and activity. Certainly, when we were colleagues together at the University of Alberta, there was a big flurry at the end of the campaign in 2008, and then that letdown that follows. This Energize campaign had a lot of bumps all at once and it turned into a bit of a rumble strip to finish. Walk us through it. A successful change in the presidency and as you’re coming to the end of the campaign, the pandemic. This campaign spent most of its active life in difficult economic times for the region that your university primarily serves and yet, you came out at the top of it. As a leader in the advancement program, how did you approach these curveballs at this rumble strip of upheaval as you went to the graceful end of the Energize campaign?
I hope we looked like ducks on water scurrying underneath but floating peacefully along the top. There’s no question we faced significant headwinds. There’s part of me that is proud of the achievement and the other side of me is gobsmacked that this community did it. You talked about the pandemic. That was one major part because it was pushing at the close of the campaign and we wanted to get things done and achieve as much as possible. Before that, even within our campaign period in the quiet phase, there was fire and massive floods in Alberta. In 2014, there’s a significant effect on the energy industry and that had a ripple effect throughout all of the Alberta community.
To launch a $1.3 billion campaign in the spring of 2016 when there was no end in sight to the economic challenges was audacious. In fact, the 50th anniversary book that was prepared by one of our faculty members, Aritha van Herk to celebrate the 50th anniversary was called The Age of Audacity. I have a copy of that book in my office and I often look at that word and think, “Exactly. That’s what this place is. It’s audacious.” Of the top 50-year-old institution, if you look at other institutions across the country that have mounted campaigns of this size, they’re all multiple generations older than we are.
I say all that to say this success is a testament to the ambition of this community through fire, flood, plague, and economic uncertainty. What we know is that great communities and great cities are built with great universities at the heart of them. Great universities are built on great philanthropy. They understand that they had to come to the plate 55 years ago to push to have our independent institution. While there have been ebbs and flows, they never wavered in their support of the institution and certain people have provided leadership at certain times.
When I think back to the people who were giving to us back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, their families are still committed to it now. You see the benefit of those endowments or long-term commitments that were set up in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s. We’re building on that foundation now and we tried to, as the advancement organization, tell that story in a way that people understand. We’re in this for the long term. The more you’re with us, the more we can do together. Back to your original question, every day, I’m shocked, surprised, grateful, and blown away, but at the same time, I’m like, “We have these relationships to nurture. How do we do that with the same commitment and long-term vision as these folks have with us?”
The presidential transition you asked about, yes, our president who was the architect of this campaign was involved in all of the significant gift conversations. She was a mentor to all of us who were working on it, in the trenches with us, and committed to the time and resources required to mount such an ambitious campaign. She stepped down at the end of 2018 and that was one of those pivot moments where we were surprised because we thought she was staying until June 30 of 2020. We had to think about how we would celebrate her leadership and the progress in the campaign at that time while not taking our foot off the gas.
We had a wonderful celebration of her leadership in late November of 2018. I got to plan that with her and her family and the rest of the institution. That was an extraordinary celebration. We had the good fortune of having our vice president of research take over the helm on January 1st, 2019. It was as seamless as any of those transitions can be. The reason it was seamless is because of the shared involvement in strategy and planning. We didn’t have to shift gears in terms of the vision of the institution and we didn’t have to shift priorities. We were building on a strong foundation. President Ed McCauley had been vice president of research since 2011. He was aware of and understood every decision, priority, commitment, and research investment. He knows the community well both internally and externally.
There was some catching up to do because she had been the key lead fundraiser for the institution, but the transition was relatively smooth given that our advancement organization was stable throughout. I find my role had to be in doing that handoff with relationships in an authentic way. That made the donors feel that we were as committed as ever to the same thing we had committed to but then when they made their gift. Presidential transition is resource-intensive, but it also gives you an opportunity to prioritize and make sure that we’re sticking to those values that we had committed to. It’s been good. It’s hard to believe it’s already been a few years.
The time does fly when you’re focused on all of those things. Campaigns like this take a full team of advancement professionals. As you’ve navigated this campaign and you had the floods, fires, then plague, how do you keep the team focused on connecting with donors? There’s a lot of reasons and we’ve seen this with organizations across the country over the pandemic period where a number of organizations where the fundraisers are down tools and let go of the rope. “We’ll get back to this when the pandemic is over.” Those organizations are struggling because they’ve let go of those relationships that you spoke so eloquently. How did you keep everyone focused on, “We need this campaign to be successful. We need to be talking to donors. We need to be putting the case in front of people making the role of philanthropy clear?” How did you keep them moving?
It’s almost not fair of me to answer that question. I’ve watched what other charitable organizations have gone through. Depending on where you are in the evolution of your program, this setback of the pandemic and the general stress that everyone’s feeling could be hard on an organization. Especially if you were just starting out or you were planning a campaign. There’s so much uncertainty. We were so fortunate, Doug because we had the close of the campaign to March towards. Even as we all went online at the end of March of 2020, we were committed to getting those conversations completed before June 30th.
Like any campaign, we were closing gifts and signing agreements right up until the last day. We probably had the best month of our campaign in June of 2020. That’s because we set a goal and a deadline. We wanted to be on time and on budget. Donors knew that deadline was looming. Had we not had that deadline, we might not have had the success we had at the beginning of our fiscal year. Our fiscal year starts April 1st. The first quarter of 2020 for us was extraordinary, but that was timing. Here’s the other benefit, even in challenging times, saying thank you is easy.
Getting visits with our supporters to say, “Thank you, and here’s the impact,” is not a difficult thing. The other thing I found is that people were home. We had no difficulty getting face-to-face conversations with our donors, although it wasn’t physically face-to-face. I talked about this Energize By You program. Behind the scenes, it is our year of impact and gratitude. We were focused on measuring thank yous. That made it easy for our team because all they had to do was continue to visit with our donors, say thanks, and find out how they’re doing.
You switched the metric. Fundraisers who are motivated by, “Give me my goal. How much money do I need to raise? How many assets do we need to make? How many meetings do we need to have?” You flipped it and made it about the thank yous that they need to have.
I also would say that everybody talks about going digital. Everything was going digital. I remember giving a talk at the beginning of the pandemic and I said, “We’re going analog.” What I meant by that is, “Let’s go back to basics. Let’s pick up the phone to people.” People were home. People were answering their phones. The prevalence of Zoom of getting people together to plan and strategize happened internally. We got a little more comfortable with it with our donor community within a couple of weeks or months. We picked up the phone in those first couple of months and tried to check in with people.
You know this. You call to say thank you or you call to check-in, and inevitably, you end up having a gift conversation either about a previous gift or something that they’re thinking about for the future. The other thing is people appreciated that touch base, so it gave us an opportunity to talk with people personally. I’m sure everybody’s feeling this where you see people in their homes and you see their partner, spouse, or pet walking behind. Their kids are dropping into meetings. This has humanized for a lot of us, where we might have felt a distance or we had more formal conversations. Now, we see people’s goofy backgrounds or something messy behind them in their Zoom call. We have gone more analog in a way and I hope that authentic personal connection that our staff and our academic leaders have with our donors remains after we come out of this, whatever that looks like.
I like that perspective. I love seeing people’s pets, kids, and things in the background. It is humanizing, but it also helps us show up more as our real selves in our conversations with colleagues. It’s a part of donors that we never see. Even if we’re sitting in their living room for a cup of tea or a glass of wine at the end of the day, you’re seeing what they’re presenting. Through Zoom, we’ve seen a lot of people as they are, which is great all around if we can hold on to that when we are allowed out of our houses again.
For example, we would normally have at least one event each year in our key markets, so cities where we have a congregation of alumni and donors. We also have a lot of snowbirds, as you can imagine. People leave here and go to Arizona or they go to California. Oftentimes, we would not be able to see those people. We wouldn’t get to visit with those people for the months or weeks that they’re away. I’ve talked to more people at their vacation homes and you get a little tour. You find out how they’re doing down there. You’re talking more about their recreation and their retirement and how they’re handling this. Everybody’s willing to talk about health.
We’re learning about people’s personal lives. We have a lot of staff who have been involved at the university for a long time and those relationships, those that we already had are deepening. We’re even finding that people are willing to take a quick call to find out what’s going on. People are curious about what’s happening in post-secondary education. We have long conversations about how the university’s pivoting. Often, they have children or grandchildren in school and they want to know from the academic leadership how we’re navigating this challenge. They want to understand the policy and its implications around health.We've got great smart people who can contribute, either students or faculty. Let's offer ourselves up to the community. Click To Tweet
Our Vice President for Research, Dr. Bill Ghali, was the head of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, leading up to March of 2020 when he took over as vice president. It’s great that we have these wonderful, smart academic leaders who come to donor meetings, either small groups or individually, and provide real insight into how this is affecting an important part of our economy. In particular, how it’s affecting this generation of students. That’s where we’re finding real engagement. People want to take advantage of the philanthropy that they have the opportunity to contribute to making sure that we come out of this as strong as possible. We’re having meaningful conversations.
I’m thrilled to see where this goes in the future because universities are going to play an important role in getting us out of this challenging situation through research, talent development, and making sure that we’re creating opportunities for social and economic development. We’re going to do that in partnership with the community because there are fewer resources to go around. We have an opportunity to provide leadership but also, as our President and McCauley would say, we have intellectual assets that we can bring to bear on the challenges we have in the community. Let’s make those connections because this is a time for us to give back. We’ve had so much success. We’ve got great smart people who can contribute, either students or faculty. Let’s offer ourselves up to the community. That is a great start to any conversation.
Andrea, you are undoubtedly the strongest fundraiser I’ve ever worked with. I had the privilege of walking around the campus there at the University of Calgary with you in early 2018 and it was cool to see you proud of the role that donors had played in building new buildings and renovating spaces. Also, building these chairs and the chairs are coming online. You knew the whole story of the faculty member that was joining the UFC as a result of the gift. It is not surprising at all for me to hear you pivot immediately from the end of the campaign to the future of the university and in the role of donors.
It was seamless. That speaks to both your enthusiasm and passion for the work, but also your professional acumen. I’m guessing there was a little in-between period and I’m hoping you’ll be human and candid with me about this. At the end of the campaign, you’ve worked so hard and so much has been accomplished. There were some tough odds that this campaign faced successfully and it’s over. What does it feel a month or two after the end of the campaign? Not just the day after because those can be fleeting emotions. As a leader, how did it feel to be in that post-campaign environment?
Reflective but productively so. I’m happy to talk about all of the great success of this campaign and I’m particularly grateful for the community and our volunteers who stuck with us, but inevitably, you do a bit of a self-assessment not just personally as a leader. How I spent my time? What does it look like now? What’s my responsibility to maintain the excitement and team spirit that got us there? There was definitely a personal reflection on what the future looks like for me. Probably the biggest thing we had to do is look in the mirror at where our successes were and why.
Organizationally, separate from the external community, while the number looks good, it’s $1.41 billion, if you do that clear analysis, we know where our successes were and we know that we had a lot of weaknesses as well. The data tells us. The data doesn’t lie. We started an exercise at that point to think, how can we build on our success for the future? What organizational and cultural changes need to happen in order to free us to be even more successful? Some of that was hard to look at. Inevitably, you’re looking at the metrics and results, what did you plan versus what ultimately happened.
We always have these wonderful cases for support, but what did you achieve that you would set out to achieve in 2012 or ‘13? All of that data and information together told us a clear story. The challenge was, the data told us a story that we didn’t necessarily want to hear. Not because it was bad news, but because I knew making the changes that needed to happen, were going to require a bit of a cultural and performance planning shift. That contemplation reflection is still underway, but it’s clearer to me what needs to happen in order for us to build on the success. Do you want me to tell you what those things are?
I do want to know that, but before that, note that one of the biggest challenges we often see with organizations, particularly ones that have been successful, is that they fall in love with more as a strategy, what we’ve done well, more. What’s your goal for next year? More. What do you need in terms of staffing? More. What are you going to do to advance the institution or advance the mission? More. That works to the extent that it works, but it’s ultimately self-defeating. We know that what made you successful, in your case, what made $1.41 billion successful, probably won’t make the next campaign successful. There’s going to need to be a change. You can’t do another campaign for $1.3 billion dollars and call it a success. You do need to be different. I’m curious, Andrea, how have you approached those changes? You’ve identified those changes. What are they?
I can speak to them generally because the specifics are still a little bit to be confirmed because they have to be done in collaboration with the academic leadership and the teams that are working on this. Our success was the greatest when we were working in collaboration. You know this. You’ve grown up in this business and did a lot of post-secondary work. Often, we set ourselves up to be competitive.
As universities, you usually win.
We compete within the organization sometimes. For me, collaboration is key. When we look at not only our largest gifts, but the ones that have the most traction that created fundamental change was when we work together. A good example of this is in 2013, great friends of the university, Doug and Diane Hunter, at the Hunter Family Foundation, and their son, Derrick, made a gift of $5 million to the Haskayne School of Business. This is to establish what was called the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. It was early days in the innovation world where universities have been shifting towards more innovation commercialization activities. They started in business school and quickly, that became successful. It became embedded in the curriculum. Students were raving about the courses that they were taking in the business school around entrepreneurial thinking. The donors thought, “Why is this just in the business school?” At the same time, we were re-upping our Eyes High strategy, a refresh after five years in the first phase.We have the greatest success when we work in collaboration. Click To Tweet
Entrepreneurial thinking was embedded in the vision of the institution because we realized, this is now 2016 or ‘17, Calgary wasn’t going to be the same Calgary as it was in history. We were going to have to take all the great entrepreneurial spirit and think about our future in a different way. We were going to have to be more resilient. We were going to have to give students opportunities to practice different things, perhaps fail. Look at different sectors and use their skills in different ways. At the same time, these two strategies converge. The donor said, “We want to make this education available to everybody across campus.” The university wanted to embed entrepreneurial thinking into its vision statement.
What resulted was a $40 million contribution for programming and a central location to make UCalgary the most entrepreneurial university and the country’s most enterprising city. To me, that was a good example of, if we had only kept doing things the way we were doing them, we might have continued to have unit and program-based successes that were going to make a strong impact. It’s when we think about what we can do as an institution? Where do our community partnership values align with our institutional academic research priorities where we can bring all of the resources to bear on these visions, and then think about how we engage donors?
To me, that internal competition that we often set up where we are all fishing in the same pond, being competitive, and seeing which one of us can achieve more, the future is collaborative in addition, not only collaborative within the university but outside the university. I know we’ve talked about this before. Inter-organizational partnerships are complex and challenging. We’re probably not properly resourced to do all this collaborative work either internally or even with other organizations. Our community should depend on us to do those things. We’re working in partnership with Alberta Cancer Foundation, thinking about what we can do together around this cancer hospital that’s coming out of the ground in the Foothills Campus. We have to think about ourselves as collaborators. We know that will result in better impact and likely, more transformative philanthropy. That’s philosophically where I’m going exactly how we do that. It’s mechanical. We can talk about that in another conversation.
I’m fascinated by the examples that you chose to tell that story. The role of philanthropy is at the core, so donors invest in something of importance to them and to the institution. It works in a bigger role for philanthropy and a bigger role for the institution as identified and those things move forward in lockstep. That is probably an easy story to tell in hindsight, but it’s difficult to do in large institutions. The amount of change required for both of that to work in the business school and then to work on a campus-wide basis is probably unique to the University of Calgary. It does require that cultural philanthropy to make it happen.
How you can continue to elevate that culture of philanthropy to inspire those kinds of gifts and that kind of change in the institution will be fun to watch over the next couple of years. We are coming to the end of our conversation, Andrea. I do want to ask you, if you could go back a couple of years, you know the campaign is going to be successful and there is lots of work to do. You come through and most of the way through, your year of gratitude. Looking back a couple of years, what advice would you give yourself as a professional leading a campaign that is in its final stages and coming out the other end?
I knew you would ask me something like this because I’ve read a few of your other podcasts. I don’t have a clear answer except to say that maybe the thing that I would tell myself is, “You’re on the right track.” I am ambitious for the team and for the institution, but in retrospect, you look back and realize you were laying tracks all along the way and there was no rush. I wish I could tell myself to relax, that we were going to get there, to not sweat the details so much, and to know that commitment to relationships as much internal as external will serve us well in the future.
To me, what has been an important factor in our transition as an organization and not just advancement, but the institution is that, at least for me, personally, I feel like we have strong authentic relationships. That has helped to make sure that we don’t lose a lot of ground. It’s easier to flip up the Zoom screen and to talk to somebody that you know well and that you’ve worked with in the trenches. What I would say to myself is, “Focus on the moment and make the most of the relationships internally to understand where people want to see the organization go and see how philanthropy might be able to advance that. Know that you don’t have to have the whole conversation done at once.” I’m learning that all the time.
It’s a good life lesson, too.
It’s okay to break up the conversation, even though you already know where you want to be. Say what needs to be said at the moment, enjoy the conversation, build relationships, and ultimately, the right thing will happen. It would be to relax and slow down. I don’t think my stress made our campaign any more successful. I’m going to try and take that into the return to work whenever that comes and try to slow down a bit and maintain those relationships that have set us up for where we are now.
That is great advice to follow. Many of our readers will be able to see themselves in that advice or the advice that they tell themselves. Andrea, thank you for being on the show.
- University of Calgary
- Energize: The Campaign for Eyes High
- The Age of Audacity
- O’Brien Institute for Public Health
- Hunter Family Foundation
- Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation
- Alberta Cancer Foundation
About Andrea Morris
Andrea Morris leads Development and Advancement Services for the University of Calgary and is one of two interim vice-presidents for Advancement.
Morris joined UCalgary in 2015 to lead Energize: The Campaign for Eyes High, a $1.41-billion philanthropic initiative that closed successfully in June 2020 as the third largest completed fundraising campaign in Canadian history. As associate vice-president (Campaign and Principal Gifts), and later as chief development officer, she led an enthusiastic team of volunteers and staff to mobilize a generous community to invest in UCalgary’s strategic priorities.
Working with faculty, staff and senior leadership, Morris and her teams are responsible for building and stewarding relationships with donors and stakeholders to support UCalgary student experience, advance research and enhance community connections. She has been a leader in its innovation ecosystem, helping to make UCalgary the most entrepreneurial university in the country’s most enterprising city.
Prior to 2015, Morris spent 15 years in development and alumni relations at the University of Alberta. She led the expansion of U of A’s presence in Calgary and was instrumental in the success of its $600-million centenary campaign.
Morris is a frequently called-upon speaker for conferences and professional associations, especially on topics related to leadership and talent-development, campaigns, and university innovation programs.
She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from the University of Ottawa.