Money can be a great blessing to the one who gives and receives when it comes out of genuine support. Raising money for a cause is not everyone’s cup of tea. Mike House, however, is an exception. Mike’s fervor rooted from what he went through as a child with some pretty severe health issues. Bringing children’s healthcare forward, Mike became the CEO and President of Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation. He lets us in on his big role with the foundation as he reveals the three things where leadership should be based, sharing as well his success and growth strategy. A values-based leader, he tackles the best way to work with your board and how to be most effective in conversations.
Listen to the podcast here:
From Passion To Fruition: Children’s Healthcare Fundraising with Mike House
We’re joined by a very special guest, the CEO and President of Stollery Children’s Hospital, Mike House. Mike, thanks for joining us.
Thank you, Doug.
Mike, one of the things we always ask people when they come on the Discovery Pod is how you got started. How did you become CEO? I want to start with what would you be doing if you weren’t CEO of the Stollery Children’s Hospital?
I think if I wasn’t here, I would be out doing something else related to charity, raising money. That’s where my passion is. That’s what I love to do. I’m passionate about lots of causes. Not every cause, but lots of them. That coupled with the curiosity of the world, that’s probably what I’d be spending my time doing.
Is it that passion that brought you to the job you have now?
Partly, for sure. I definitely have an affinity for this particular charity that’s unique. It is related to my own personal circumstances as being a child that went through some pretty serious health issues. It’s pretty close to my home and to my heart. That perpetuated every time you meet a kid who you see the potential inside of them and you get excited and you say, “I want to try to help them with whatever that potential looks like to let them unlock that as well.”
With that personal connection to the organization and to the cause, that’s a powerful message which I’m sure resonates very well with prospective donors and the entire community. Walk us through your career very briefly about how you got to be the CEO.
[bctt tweet=”The tone that you set coming into the building in addressing people has so much to do with how successful you’re going to be.” username=””]
If you don’t mind, I’ll start when I was born because it does come to that. I was born in the ‘60s with a condition called Craniosynostosis. That is when the plates in your baby’s head fuse prematurely. There’s about 70% chance of mortality at that time, 20% chance that a child will be disabled and a very small percentage where a kid will come out through the other side. I was one of the lucky ones. I had two skull surgeries before the age of two. It impacted me and it impacted my family and how they reacted around me. That sent me on this path. Kids who come through trauma, sometimes they feel like they’re born under a bit of a lucky star. They don’t want to waste the time they have on this Earth because you never know when it’s going to be done.
From an early age, I felt like I had some social bones. I wanted to give back to those people who need it most. I went to business school and I recognized quickly that most of my friends are going to be accountants and real estate agents and those kinds of things. I totally took a different path and I went into the arts. I went into the nonprofit sector. Unlike a lot of people who come into the nonprofit sector, I was at it from the very beginning. I brought a balance of interest in business and entrepreneurship with this desire to try to make the world a better place. A number of different jobs in the arts and then shifting from a passion for marketing and sponsorship into major gifts and other activities exposed me to a wide world of different kinds of charities, whether it’s social services or education or health. I was at the University of Alberta. I was the Assistant Dean of the School of Business for seven years. I’m raising money there. Then the job for the Stollery came up. It’s not very glamorous, but I applied for it as per what people normally do when they want a job and I was a successful candidate.
You’re one of the people in the sector that I often remark as perfectly cast for the job that you’re in, both with your personal history and your real commitment to the organization. You look like someone who is exactly in the right place at the right time.
I actually feel that way. When you’re not making it too clever and you’re being yourself or your authentic version of who you are. You’re excited about coming to work every day and you’re excited about the work that you’re doing and you keep it simple, it’s pretty powerful. I do feel like I’m in the right spot at the right time and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
They’re very lucky to have you. You’ve been with the organization for many years now. If you could think back to when you were first walking through the doors as the new CEO, what advice did you receive about being a first time CEO?
There were lots of things. First of all, I was thinking about that question way before the first day I walked through the doors. There’s a lot of preparation that I would recommend to anybody in any job, especially as a CEO. When you’re going to start, you only get one first day. You only get one first week, one first month. The tone that you set coming into the building, addressing people, where your focus is, has so much to do with how successful you’re going to be. I’ve got a couple of good pieces of advice coming into my job ahead of time. One of them was to decide on the kind of leader that you want to be. I made the decision quickly that I was going to be a values-based leader. What I mean by that is if I’m going to try to be as authentic and real around people as I can be, I better figure out what makes me tick and what do I believe in. I boiled that down into the three or four things and that’s what I stuck by.
Then the other thing that I did is on my first day I could have done anything. I could have walked around and I could have spent time with our key donors or our board members who had hired me. I could have picked out furniture. I could have done anything. I spent the first seven days getting to know my team quickly and also getting them to know me. It was after that first week that I had a good sense of who was aligned with what my values were and what I wanted the values of the organization to be and who was maybe not going to be there. That allowed me to expedite some changes that I felt I needed to make quickly without it being too quick or too slow. As a CEO, you’re responsible and you’re ultimately going to be judged by the results and judged by the style and the skills you bring to the table. It’s high stakes which means that you have to take it seriously and you have to be very clear about what you want to do. Being wishy-washy or being uncertain is almost worse than picking the wrong direction.
Take us inside those conversations. What were you looking for in those value-based conversations with your staff in that first week?
Like a lot of people, we all read a lot of books and we all have different things that resonate with us. For me, the book that resonated with me at that time that I was investigating how I want to boil things down was a book called The Character Triangle by Lorne Rubis. The basic premise of the book from Lorne’s perspective was that leadership is based on three things: accountability, respect and the ability to give back to people and to be collaborative and to share yourself with others. That resonated with me. It was very powerful. I use that as the cornerstone for the values that I wanted to set up. The other thing that I did is our foundation is named after a family that originally contributed the money towards spending it up.
I went to that family and I asked what the patriarchs of the family believed in. Those values were around altruism and giving back, making sure that the hospital was inclusive so that no child was left because of socioeconomic status or geography or whatever happened to be. Also that it was not just about giving back, but being a leader and giving back. I have six values that if you take the first letters of each of the words, it spells out ARIEL, which means to move forward and to move ahead. My strategy was to always make it simple and make it something that everybody can remember and something that people can believe in. Over time we’ve hired to those values and we’ve hired to pick people that already lived that anyway. It’s easier to get more momentum going when your entire team already believes that these are the things that they want to live their life by.
One of the things that have been impressive about your time there is seeing the donor’s response to the organization in terms of the sheer amount of money that’s being donated, but also the great job that you’ve been doing and putting that money to work. I’m interested that your first steps weren’t to look at the balance sheet, weren’t to look at the dollars and cents coming in or the investments in the programs, but to spend time with the people. How did you weave those two things together? As we know, being nice enough isn’t good enough in the social profit sector. How do you pair those things as you move forward after that first week?
I’ve been spending my entire career in the nonprofit sector and I’ve had a lot of different bosses and a lot of different experiences. Some of them are good and some of them are not so good. Over time I’ve built a philosophy on what I would like to do if I was in a privileged position to lead. I was a major gifts officer, which does not mean that I don’t believe that we have value in other types of fundraising, but from the biggest bang for your buck perspective, planned giving and major gifts were the areas that I truly believe we’re being underperforming and the organization we were at. It was a skill set that I, in particular, brought to the table. I wanted to get the organization to be more accountable, to be more accurate, to be respectful of each other.
I also knew at the end of the day, the board is going to look at what is your performance. It’s bringing those values in. I remember making a big bet at the time saying, “This is our growth strategy. This is where we’re going to get the money. This is what I think is going to happen.” I truly believed it. I hired to that goal and I was able to deliver the opportunities and then people did the jobs the way we had asked them to and we were successful. It then bought some time for us to put in other structures that were required that may be less evident or less clear in terms of how the impact is going to be on the organization overall. It’s quick wins, major gifts, hiring the right people right up front.
Getting that air cover from some quick wins to build sustainable infrastructure underneath seems to be a common theme for successful CEOs in the sector. You mentioned your board. When you first became CEO, what advice did you get about the best way to work with your board and how you can be most successful in those conversations?
[bctt tweet=”Being uncertain is almost worse than picking the wrong direction.” username=””]
One of them was just to make everybody clear on what we were trying to accomplish. I remember looking at the mission that we had at the time as an organization. I can remember it, although it was a long time ago, it’s still pretty clear. That was to build a teaching intensive and children intensive hospital that was focused on research and education. That’s a mouthful. Everybody was saying it a little bit different and everybody was saying it with a different slant on it. If those people who are closest to driving your strategy don’t even seem to be on the same page on what it is that you’re trying to do every day as a priority, that’s a challenge.
I’ve got some good advice from an anonymous source. I remember that phone call clearly. He said to me, “In a lot of ways, foundations do the same thing. They raise money, they thank people and they tell people where the money’s going.” That stuck with me. Just saying that as a mission and getting the board to buy into that, and they did buy into it very easily, really crystallized what we were trying to accomplish as an organization. The other thing that I did early on that helped was to differentiate what was an operational conversation and what was a strategic conversation. I made it clear, “If you want to run the organization yourselves, I’m not the guy. If you let me run the organization on an operational basis and you help me by guiding strategy, together we can do amazing things.”
I know you’ve got a great board and you’ve got a healthy board turnover. Maybe you can feel comfortable enough to answer this. Could you give us an example of where the board was too close to the operations and where you had to push back and how you approach that?
Prior to me being the CEO, the last two CEOs were board members. The reason why I think they were board members was that there was this attitude that, “It’s no big deal. We could raise money. I sit on this board. I understand what’s going on.” The individuals that were coming into the CEO seat had no experience raising money. They had very little experience in terms of managing people and especially people that have a complex organizational relationship to the health authority. They are great people, but for example, if you put an entrepreneur in that position, one of the key factors about being in a foundation is you have to get along with everybody because you’re beholden to making sure that you’re donor-centric.
We had one CEO who was a board member prior to mine, spot on in the organization, that aggressively and assertively decided to pick a fight with our largest donor. Even though that was a decade ago, it still lingers in our community. It’s still being talked about from time to time. There’s nothing I can do about it other than to move forward. We had board members that felt like they could do the work but had no experience in doing it. They stepped in because they were frustrated by the fact that they knew that there was a great amount of work to do and great progress to be made, but they just don’t know how to do it. Hiring a professional fundraiser to lead an organization doesn’t happen every day. When it happens, that focus becomes the foundation’s job. You can see the results.
I’m always concerned when I see organizations hiring people who have no grounding in the core business of the organization, whether that’s to deliver programs or whether that’s to raise and invest philanthropic dollars. They’re hiring people that don’t have that background and assuming that they’ll be able to pick that up on the fly. I heard a board member that remarked, “I don’t know why organizations do that. It’s like the Royal Bank hiring somebody who had only ever been in a bank to cash a check, even if they’ve run a big business.” You just need to understand that core business. It sounds like you did a good job of making clear what the core business was to your board and you were able to bring them onsite. How much of your time did you spend in that first year working directly with your board?
I would say about 50% of my time. At the time, this may be common or it may be uncommon, I had two board factions. They were divisive against each other and I inadvertently had been placed into the middle. It’s not that the fact that the two different divisions saw things differently from a big picture perspective, but they had different approaches to it. We needed to smooth out those waters. In the end, the two leaders of the two directions both agreed that what was best for the organization was to part ways with the organization and let the organization come together. That was a lot of work and a lot of conversation. We tried to get past the hurt feelings part of it to what’s best for the organization as a whole.
50% is fairly typical for new CEOs in the first year. What would you say the percentage is now?
I would say it’s closer to 30% to 40% of it but I want to qualify that. I have a board that’s both a governance board and a fundraising board. When I say I spent some time with my board members, they are our greatest ambassadors, our greatest door openers, our greatest advocates for what we’re trying to accomplish. Sometimes I spend time with a board member because we want to raise money together. Sometimes we spend time because we want to talk strategy. In the last few years, sometimes we talk together because we want to advocate for change. We’re working within a system that allows for us to garner support through government and other special interest groups. It’s gone down but it’s still pretty high I suppose, but it’s a different kind of work.
That distinction between working on, building relationships, focusing on raising more dollars and building those coalitions that you need particularly in children’s health, is one thing. It’s the focus on the governance of the organization. I’m often struck by speaking to board members and I have the chance to ask many of them, “What percentage of time do you think your CEO spends on governance issues related to the organization or related to the board?” The numbers usually come back 5%, 10% and most CEOs that I speak with are in that 25%, 30% range if they’ve been a CEO for a while. The new CEOs or organizations that are in crisis, it’s often over 50%. There’s a real variance between how board members view the time of the CEO and how the CEO is actually spending the time. You’ve talked about fundraising and governance board, which is the standard that all organizations are seeking to get to. What is one of the questions that you wish the board asks you but they often don’t?
I feel like we’ve come to a place where they’re asking the right kinds of questions. For a long time, the board was not asking questions around risk. For a long time, it was more about what is the performance of the organization? That was fine to report to that, to give them some sense of what the business is like. I feel like the two questions that the board have to address at every chance they get is around, “Are we going in the right direction? Is the strategy correct? What are the entity risks that we’re facing?” They could always ask more questions around entity risk. An entity risk would include things that are internal. Cybersecurity is a big internal risk that all charities face. It’s not a question of if but when we will have to face that challenge.
What are the mitigating strategies that we’re putting into place to try to protect ourselves as much as possible? An external risk might be fundraising, but it might also be your relationships, for example, with your hospital or your health authority or the ministry. As we’ve started to branch out into children and adolescent mental health, multiple ministries now. What are our relationships around that and how are we helping to put our opinions forward in terms of shaping the direction? Then overarching could be anything from what is the relationship with the CEO to what are our broader spectrum risks around why are people refusing to give or why are they holding back or environmental risks?
It’s interesting to hear that you’ve got the board to that place. That’s the standard that a lot of organizations are trying to meet. One of the things that we see a lot here at the Discovery group are organizations that have Zombie issues, things that just won’t go away, “Why did we give up on that event? Why did we move away from this? Why has this now staff-led, instead of being volunteer-led?” That goes on for meeting after meeting or even year after year in some cases. Have you encountered any of those Zombie issues and how did you manage to beat them back?
I don’t know if we have issues that remain problem issues. We’re living in an interesting place in Alberta where we have one health authority. That health authority has been around for many years now. The way that health is being delivered in the province is changing. It’s shifting away from acute care models to more community-based models. That’s forcing us to look at things differently. If I was to say there is the one Zombie thing that it’s not so much that we’re not addressing it, but it’s a hard question to answer, is around our digital strategy and how giving is transforming in so many different ways. We do not necessarily have the resources to be able to adapt or adjust as much as we’d like or as fast as we’d like.
[bctt tweet=”It’s easier to get more momentum going when your entire team already believes in the values of the organization.” username=””]
I’ll give you a good example. We’ve got a check from Facebook for $37,000. These are people that are using the Facebook application to raise money for whenever it happens to be but dedicated back to Stollery. It could be a birthday party on an average or whatever it happens to be. We have systems in place to deal with that on our own platforms. This is a whole other world that’s going out there. How do we protect data and how do we engage those donors? How do we say thank you? How do we take care of that? If a Zombie issue is anything, it is how do we catch up to the rest of the world when we are still focusing on the same things that we’ve always been doing around attracting donors and building relationships?
I imagine with your fundraiser mind, a check for $37,000 comes in and you think, “That’s great. Could it have been $100,000? How do we make this more money?”
It’s both impressive and scary. It’s a new revenue stream I need to think about.
I’m thinking more about the broader sector, not necessarily and not about the board at the Stollery. What do you see as something we can do better in terms of board engagement in board management
I fundamentally believe that board members are there to add value to the organization. Until organizations understand that it’s their responsibility to unlock that value and to determine the best way to engage that core member, we’re never going to have board members that are completely satisfied with their experience and that impacts our reputation. One of the quickest ways though that we have gotten engagement, regardless of what background they have, is to get our board members to say thank you. One of the easiest ways to do that is we have donations that come in, small donations, big donations, donations from companies, donations from individuals. On a monthly basis, we pick a person or a corporation or a foundation to have our board members send an email out or to make a phone call or to say thank you.
If we’re getting our board member engaged in fundraising, stewardship is a big piece of it. It’s an easy piece of it because the person’s already given. All of a sudden, you’ve got a board member that goes out and does a check presentation at a local school. A board member sends an email to another person in his or her industry that they may or may not know, but saying thank you on behalf of the donation that their employees have given. The kind of impact that makes, both to engage the donors but also to engage your volunteers as board members, have been powerful. From that point, then you can start to say things like, “Let’s get you to open up doors. We already told you, we’re going to make your gift but now you understand why it’s important. Now you understand why it’s important to give us some information in the market around who you know.”
The other part of it is the government element. When we’re bringing people on, orientation is so important so we can get people up to speed and running as quickly as possible. We recruit to let people know that we’re going to spend a solid day orienting people in terms of what the responsibilities are, what they’re being asked of, the time commitment and another responsibility. Those two things are what we do pretty well. The feedback we get from our surveys is that we always got room to improve, but doing a pretty good job of that.
Mike, you are someone who has added a lot of energy and a lot of creativity to a more conventional part of the social profit sector in a hospital foundation. You’ve done it in a relatively quick period of time. My final question for you is to tell me something that’s true that almost no one else agrees with you about. No one agrees it’s true, but you know it’s true.
The first one that sticks in my head is almost everybody tells me that the economy is bad and so giving is going down. I disagree. I know that people are going to disagree with me on that. One of our greatest opportunities here at the Stollery is we have 40% of the people who come to the hospital outside of Edmonton City. There are rural communities with locked-up potential to give but no one’s asked them for anything. Our objective is to partner with rural foundations to unlock some of that potential, to not just have a bigger piece of the pie but absolutely raise more money.
When you can raise more money, you can start to talk about truly transformational change for children’s health. Truly transformational change for children’s health, to me this is my bias, that’s the building blocks of everything. It allows for people to get better educated. It allows for people to dream. It allows people to find happiness and quality of life. Many people that are adults, they could trace their roots of how healthy they are back to their childhood. For me, the children’s health is important. We’ve got to raise more money. People are telling me that all of the markets are down and I get that they’re down in certain circumstances, but I do not believe that we have hit the ceiling on people’s ability to give or the money that’s out there.
It’s a great note to end on, Mike. Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us here on the Discovery Pod. I hope all goes well for the Stollery and you have another great year ahead.
Thanks, Doug. Thanks for inviting me.
About Mike House
Mike House is the president & CEO of the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Mike previously served as the assistant dean, development & stakeholder relations for the Alberta School of Business, University of Alberta. Under Mike’s leadership, the Alberta School of Business garnered more than $40 million from various donors, corporations and alumni, including the School’s Preservation of the Name campaign that raised $21 million in pledges over 24 months.
From 2000 to 2005, Mike was a senior consultant with KCI Ketchum Canada, where he managed fundraising campaigns ranging from $5 million to $25 million. Working throughout Alberta, Mike has been a part of many noteworthy capital campaigns for a variety of organizations in health, education and social services, including STARS Air Ambulance, Canadian Cancer Society, Lakeland College, and Discovery House Women’s Shelter in Calgary.
Prior to his direct work in the fundraising profession, Mike enjoyed an extensive and productive career as a senior marketing and communications leader in the arts and culture sector. He has worked in senior positions throughout the US and Canada at such organizations as the Edmonton Opera and The Citadel Theatre
in Edmonton, Alberta, Theatre Projects in Calgary and the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, PA.
His academic credentials include an MBA specializing in finance and an undergraduate business degree in marketing from the University of Alberta. Mike also holds a CFRE designation that is recognized internationally within the fundraising profession.