As the world keeps changing, research continues to provide understanding and knowledge about the things that affect us in our daily lives. It keeps us informed and, in times of crisis, prepared. In a global health crisis, the power of research—especially medical research—is undeniable. However, we can’t deny the fact that it can be quite costly. Responding to this concern, a group of community citizens who believed that investment in research would improve health outcomes created the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation. In this episode, Douglas Nelson invites its CEO, Joanne Bath, to share with us the interesting work they are doing in the organization and how they are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Joanne takes us inside their partnerships and donor relationships, as well as her journey of growing into this space and how she is taking charge of impacting social change and improving people’s lives.
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Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation With Joanne Bath
Our guest is Joanne Bath. She’s the CEO of Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We are happy to have her on the show. Welcome, Joanne.
Thank you for having me.
We have been talking to leaders across the country about how other organizations have been responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. I do want to spend some time digging into some of the interesting things and interesting work that your organization is doing on that front. First, I want to understand a little bit more about you and about your organization. For our readers that don’t know, tell me a little bit about what the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation is and what your work is in normal times?
We were created in 1978 by a group of community citizens who believed that investment in research would improve health outcomes, not just for Maritimers but Canadians around the world. They believed that creating a foundation that supported the university’s medical research efforts at that time would be a way to increase our investment in the research enterprise, which is a unique and different type of organization. I don’t know that one exactly like ours exists. We’re independent. We have our own board. We partner with our colleagues in the Dalhousie Advancement Office, but we exist solely originally in medical research. We’ve expanded to the faculties of health and dentistry so that we can have a more interdisciplinary focus on health. We research from everything from improving the healthcare system to social sciences, to discovery science and clinical science across the spectrum of all diseases.
It is very rewarding because we get to connect donors who may be interested in Huntington’s disease or cancer or Alzheimer’s or even sometimes obscure orphan diseases like fever that they may have a personal connection to. We have the opportunity to connect them to researchers who are doing that work and trying to find a cure. Often when you’re diagnosed with a disease or your loved one is living with Alzheimer’s, you can feel hopeless and not know how to fix the situation. One way to feel like you’re making an improvement on the world is to invest in research that will help other people. It’s a rewarding space for us.
We get to work with brilliant researchers every day. A lot of the times they had to explain what they’re talking about, so that I can then explain in layman’s terms to the public. Our team is dedicated to understanding the work and those researchers is unique in our organization that we have such solid access to the researchers. I can call any of them up at any time. They’ll give me time to meet with a donor, come out, have a tea, and leave their lab for an hour to come out and build the community goodwill around research. It’s exciting.
A lot of organizations invest a lot of their energy in building that culture of philanthropy, where the doctors, researchers and healthcare professionals are willing to sit down with donors and talk about their work. That’s powerful that you have that as a tool to use in your work.
It’s powerful. I’ve never worked in an environment where researchers were so dedicated. We have an annual Thankathon where researchers, students, the dean of medicine, the dean of health, they will take a list of ten donors and call them to have chats and say, “Thank you.” It’s fantastic. We trust those researchers with the donor relationships. That’s not an easy thing to do in philanthropy because you take a risk of researchers maybe not understanding philanthropy or understanding how to make the ask or steward the gift. We have fantastic relationships and that goes back in 1978. I can’t take credit for that at all. We work hard on that every day. We treat them as a stakeholder and many of our researchers are donors. It goes back to how our organization was created.
You can’t take credit for all of the work over the years, but you certainly are accountable for maintaining that standard. I don’t think I’d be doing our readers a service if I didn’t ask you this. I’m sure you were asked this all the time, but how does that partnership with Dalhousie Advancement work? How did you get your foundation separate and independent as you described it and working closely and in lockstep with the university?Educating the next generation of researchers, physicians, nurses, and dentists is critical to everybody’s health. Click To Tweet
There are number of stakeholders within the university that we have important relationships with. The researchers are one. It’s important to us that our deans and our vice president of research and innovation are on the research agenda. We want to make sure that we have fair and equitable granting competitions for our researchers, that they know how to access funds from us. We’re not just asking them for their time to go see donors, but they are engaging with us and investing time with us helps them and others in the research community. It’s important to us that we are in lockstep with the university’s overall research agenda. Donors can direct to any area of research that they choose. We want to be telling stories that forward the agenda like around immunotherapy, infectious disease and vaccinology.
We’ve been building up that file for a number of years and focused on supporting that research. That’s been the priority of the university and faculty of medicine. With our partners in the Advancement Office, for the last number of years, we have been the de facto fundraising arm for health research at the university. We work closely with them. Going into the future, Dalhousie will at some point go into a campaign and health will be a major priority of that campaign. It’s going to be important that we’re working with them even more closely to identify major donors and transformational opportunities that intersect between education, healthcare and research.
It’s a delicate balance but it sounds like you’ve managed to strike it very well.
Ultimately, we exist as an independent organization to improve health outcomes through research. As long as we align ourselves with partners who have the same sense of social purpose, we’ll be successful.
That’s a great perspective and finding where there is that alignment, and building on that rather than looking for the differences and arguing about it. That’s a good example for a lot of the sector. You spend a lot of your career in healthcare philanthropy. I’m interested in what originally drew you to the work of fundraising in healthcare?
I grew up in a small town of Newfoundland. There are 700 people that live there and I love it. Ever since I was a child, I wanted to do something to improve people’s lives and people’s health out. I was always driven by this sense of urgency for social purpose. I studied social work. I respect the profession of social work. I respect people who do that work. I felt limited by my ability to impact social change. Even though you are impacting social change and improving people’s lives every day, I wanted to lead that charge. I applied for a job at a Boys and Girls Club.
I thought I would be social working at the Boys and Girls Club helping families and helping them find jobs and homes but I wasn’t. I was fundraising and they hired me. At the time I thought, “Why do these people hire me? I don’t know what fundraising is.” I read Fundraising for Dummies. I researched a lot on my own because it was a small organization. I did that for about three years at the Boys and Girls Club. I loved that experience. I learned a lot from researches across Canada and mentorship was a key for me.
I moved to Halifax from Newfoundland and I applied for a job at the IWK, which is the children’s hospital here. I worked there for about seven years and I loved healthcare. I loved the reward of meeting a family with a child in an incubator and buying a new incubator so that more children could be helped. I’m working with donors to do that. There was such a sense of helping and see results and seeing impact on people’s lives. I was there for about seven years and then a recruiter called me about the job at the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation. I thought, “I don’t know anything about research.” I know a lot about healthcare, but research has not been something that I know a lot about. I took the job and I had to learn about research and understand. That whole world of academia and the intersection with healthcare. I love science. It’s a lot of fun for me to get to meet these brilliant young people and older people who’ve dedicated their lives to research. To try and translate that.
One of the things that I always found compelling about work and healthcare philanthropy was the idea that regardless of what’s happening to a person or happening in their family, often our role as fundraisers, we’re seeing the very best of people at sometimes the very worst times in their life. There’s a constant source of inspiration for what we see from our donors and the patients that are benefiting from the work that we’re able to fund as a result.
We were in a privileged position with any donors. Oftentimes, we sit in their homes and we get to hear the most vulnerable parts of their lives when they experienced the most pain. We get to be a part of that and to help them heal. I’m grateful that we get to learn about people’s healthcare journeys and be in a position that we can do something about it. A lot of people have suffered, for example, through COVID-19. We’re able to be involved in the research that might solve this thing from one angle or another, or at least help us understand it better. It is a privileged position. I’m grateful to be able to fundraise for healthcare and education because educating the next generation of researchers, physicians, nurses and dentists is critical to everybody’s health.
You are part of a growing trend. I hope it becomes the norm of leading the fundraising program to leading the entire organization. You’ve been in the CEO role since June of 2019, and confirmed as the permanent CEO in December 2019. What has that transition been like as responsible for the fundraising, looking after the details, the nuts and bolts, as well as the relationships to not having that broader view of being a CEO? How has that transition felt for you? What’s that been like?
It’s an interesting question because it’s a delicate balance. You love fundraising. If you’ve been fundraising for lots of years, you love it. You’re always going to love it. You’re always going to have opinions about it, get excited when donors make gifts, and when you get to grant those gifts out. I love the idea of having the whole picture. I’ve seen when the money comes to us and how we get to granted out, and how the board intersects in that and has an impact.
As a fundraiser, I could look forward and see where I wanted to go and how I thought I could have a bigger impact. That’s what driven me in my career. How can I have more of an impact on people’s lives and on healthcare system and academia. It is a delicate balance because as an internal candidate, you are seen as the fundraiser. It’s been important to me to be very purposeful, to hire someone to take over as the Director of Philanthropy who is a skilled fundraiser, so that I can lean into the CEO role, and for my team, board, and donors to see me in that role.
It’s not just as the person raising money, but the person making critical decisions and having a vision for the organization. Through the search, it was critical for me to show the people in the search committee who had known me for years, that I had a vision that was beyond how much money we can raise. The vision was about how we take this organization, our brand and the brand of Dalhousie Research further? How do we make best decisions about research granting? Have do we optimizes our people? In fundraising, it’s difficult to retain people.
How are we going to address those big questions? I would say it probably would have been a bit of a tricky transition without a pandemic. With a pandemic, it’s been a little more challenging, but I’ve enjoyed the challenge of moving everybody to work from home, keeping people motivated and interested, protecting people’s mental health. We are healthcare agency, if we can’t protect your staff’s mental health, we’re doing something wrong. It would have been a bit of a tricky transition regardless, but I think that coming in as a CEO, as someone who understands philanthropy and respects it, it will help all of our relationships in the institution with all of our stakeholders.
I want to give a shout out to that Director of Philanthropy that you’ve hired, Alyssa Grace, who’s joining you from Kamloops, BC. She’s someone that I’ve worked with at a number of places. I wish you all the best working with her. Was there one thing that jumped out at you that was a surprise when you made that change? You were an internal candidate who was acting for a while but once you sit in the big chair, was there something that was different that you didn’t anticipate or didn’t expect?
I had a board member and his best piece of advice was that I protect my time, and that I ensure that my time is my time. I don’t let everybody else control my agenda. I thought, “Yeah.” It’s so true. Probably, the most difficult part of managing my day-to-day work is saying no or delaying an outcome because I’m very achievement oriented. I want to have everything done yesterday. Protecting my time has been probably the best advice that I’ve received but also still a surprise, even though he told me to expect it.
It is the being in service to everyone around you as the CEO. People who haven’t been in those roles think that you’re the boss. You get to tell people what to do. My experience was very different. It felt like every board member and every member of the team could put things on my schedule and make things a priority. If I wasn’t careful about it, I could do a week and not be sure what I’d accomplished.If a healthcare agency can't protect their staff's mental health, then they are doing something wrong. Click To Tweet
I completely hear you and I agree with the sentiment around being of service to others. It’s always been important to me. Finding that balance of being of service to the researcher, when they call and ask for money to fund an important project and a board member who has an idea or a staff member who needs my support. It’s a fine balance of ensuring that you are there and that you have other people’s backs and that you can be depended upon while still seeing the five-year plan and pushing towards the vision that you and the other stakeholders have for the organization.
You’ve mentioned it a couple of times. The transition to the CEO role would have been challenging enough if not for the pandemic. You mentioned a new ambitious strategic plan in our conversation, which would have been ambitious and difficult without a pandemic, but we’ve had a pandemic. I’m interested in hearing your perspective of it. Things are moving along, achievement oriented, getting things done, then the pandemic happens. What was that like? Was it a slow-motion change for you? Was there a moment in time where you’re like, “This is different?”
Because we’re at the center of research and we have great researchers here who are at the epicenter of the international efforts with COVID-19. One of our researchers got a text at midnight on New Year’s Eve from his daughter who’s a researcher in virology, and he’s a researcher in virology. She said, “I think something’s coming. We have to do something here.” We saw something was coming. We prepare the staff to be ready to work from home from a technological perspective and started to shift our thinking as to, “What does this mean for all of our other research areas?” A lot of organizations have struggled to keep granting to cancer and cardiology. Donors probably mostly want to hear about COVID-19.
In the beginning, we wondered, “How do we shift?” We weren’t entirely surprised, but I was surprised by the pace at which we needed to move to make decisions and the pace at which we were able to shift so quickly. Our Molly Appeal is our annual fundraising campaign and we call our donors Molly donors. They’ve been giving for 42 years or 40 years to that campaign. That campaign was based upon a woman who many years ago, when our founders went into a home to ask this very influential philanthropist for a major donation to start our organization, her housekeeper overheard the conversation and said, “I don’t have much, but I can give you a little bit.” The rumor was that it was $5. I believe that if everybody does their part, we can have an impact on research. That story has been powerful for us and the basis of what we were built upon is that everybody coming together.
When we saw this crisis coming, we had had a plan for our Molly Appeal to focus on primary care and access to primary care, which is an issue here in Nova Scotia and many provinces in Canada. We had to shift to COVID-19 and we were fortunate that one of the researchers at the epicenter of SARS, for example, who has a laboratory in China and has collaborators in Spain and Italy, he’s here at Dalhousie and we were able to call him up and say, “We want to write a letter. Will you be the spokesperson for the letter?” Instantly he said, “Yes.” Within a day, we had a letter written. We were able to move so quickly because we’d built up all this goodwill in the community with our researchers, but also our donors.
When we sent a letter to them to say, “We want you to support the COVID-19 research.” They knew that we had the reputation to do this work, that we had built the expertise, and that this wasn’t some made up story of, “We’re going to do COVID-19 research because we need to.” It was we are doing it and we’ve been doing virology and vaccinology for a long time. We can do something about this if everybody comes together and gives their part. That’s been rewarding for us. We were able to move quickly because we had built up such goodwill. Our staff were able to move so quickly. I was impressed by how everyone has responded and our board.
Is there a donor story that jumps out at you that symbolizes that coming together around this COVID response?
We have a donor in Toronto. He has given to us. He’s has no connection to Dalhousie, no connection to Atlantic Canada, Eastern Canada, Halifax. I met him a few times. He made a gift to invest in mental health, and then made another gift immediately within the same year for mental health. I called him to see how he was doing with COVID-19. He said he wanted to make another $25,000 gift. We were able to match that with another donor and fund a fellowship in vaccinology on the vaccine that’s being developed by some Dalhousie researchers.
I think people have a real appetite for partnering. The other great story is that with our Molly Appeal, usually what we do is go out to the community and we do a competition with our researchers and they apply for the funding. We were going to do that as it related to COVID-19. The Faculty of Medicine dean called me and said, “What if we were able to pull a few organizations together?” The Nova Scotia Health Authority said, “We are in.” The Research Nova Scotia, the Dartmouth General Hospital Foundation. There were eight partners in total that pooled together. Within hours, we had eight partners and we had this $1.5 million earmarked.
The head of our Scientific Advisory Council and one another research leads at Nova Scotia Health Authority led a call for proposals. We thought we’d get 70 applications from researchers and we’ve got 260. We reviewed them within four days. We had hundreds of reviewers and within four days we were able to announce that we had funded 40 research projects across the spectrum of improving healthcare delivery, social sciences and understanding impact. For example, the impact of social isolation on mental health, within discovery science, with vaccines and PPE development and clinical research. Within no time, the community here came together and while that’s not necessarily our donors, it shows a spirit of coming together and the impact that it can have. Not that everybody is egotistical. Everybody parked their politics and their ego and said, “Let’s do this. Who cares about the recognition? Let’s get this together and fund this work.” That’s been exciting.
That speed of partnership, which is often something our sector is criticized for, is that it’s difficult to collaborate between organizations and coordinate messaging or funding or fundraising. Among the silver linings of this pandemic has been stories like the one you shared of organizations coming together quickly to get the job done. It may have taken months if not years to get that collaboration put together, absent the crisis. It’s great to hear that came together so quickly for them. As we start to move out of the pandemic or out of this first phase of the pandemic, a lot of organizations are like, “When do we get back to our core mission? When do we get back to not talking about COVID or the COVID overlaying our mission?” How are you approaching that at Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation?
We had those discussions almost daily and that’s how we’re doing it. In the beginning, we started to make a six-week plan. We have an annual plan for the year. We have the strategic plan and we’re still moving ahead on the five-year vision. In the middle of the pandemic, it was the second week we’re at home, we had a virtual board meeting and the board approved the five-year plan. Even though we were entering this weird economic time and a pandemic, they approved the five-year vision. While moving ahead on that and the overall vision, we’re also taking six-week chunks, and we’re saying, “What’s going to happen in the next six weeks? What’s our communication strategy or fundraising strategy or granting strategy?” We’re trying to keep our finger on the pulse. One of the things that we’ve started to do is weekly we’ve been emailing donors, videos of researchers talking about some aspect of COVID-19 research. We’ve been doing our very best to vary that from the mental health aspect, to the impact on children, to frailty and vaccine development.
We’re trying to keep the pulse and the reaction from donors has been positive. We get emails back that say, “We love this. Keep doing it.” The videos aren’t produced truly. I wouldn’t say they’re guerrilla style, but they’re just seeing a researcher in their home trying to manage everything that they’re managing while being brilliant and trying to solve this thing. We are now starting to say, “Let’s keep talking about COVID-19 because it’s not going away anytime soon,” but donors still care about things like supporting young researchers and supporting glass technology in biomedical engineering. We are still having those conversations with donors. We’re still moving all of that forward because that research doesn’t go away. Many of our researchers had to leave their laboratories, which is unfortunate.
There will be no doubt an impact on research progress. If you’re not in your laboratory and you can’t do your work, and now you’ve got to try and come back and restart everything. The focus is not necessarily over what do people want to hear about, but what do we actually have to do to keep this research going? That’s going to be our focus in the next little while. We have an annual impact reception where we report to donors on the impact of their gifts, and we’re going to host it virtually. It will not just be about COVID-19. It will be about everything else that our researchers have accomplished this year and how we’ve improved health.
Are you finding donors that are willing to have conversations about gifts to other areas during this time?
I had a conversation with a donor who wants to start a fund and support early career investigators. He’s grateful that his first research grant ever was from the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation when he was post-residency. He now has a real interest in creating a fund DMRF. The intent is to grow that to $1 million over time and lifetime and stay a gift. Donors are still thinking about the future. A lot of the gifts that we get, especially for major gift donors, are gifts of shares. If donors have invested in tech or food or many industries, they’re still okay, and they still care about what we’re doing. They still want to find cures to many of the diseases of the day that impacts many people.
We’re still having those conversations and moving it forward. I’m not sure. I would say as a CEO, I’m usually very good at projecting, “We’ll definitely hit that target,” or “We definitely won’t and here’s why.” In this time, I think we’ll do okay but I can’t say for certain that we’re going to hit the target because if there’s another wave and people are again on lockdown and the government’s trying to figure it supports, there’s no way to know. It’s the first time we’ve ever experienced anything like this in our generation. You’ve got to roll with it a little bit while still having your vision for growth.
It sounds like you and your organization are rolling with it very well. As we come to the end of our conversation, how have you been looking after yourself through all of this? As a leader, there are many demands on your time, emotional support needed that you’re giving to other people.If everybody does their part, we can have an impact on research. Click To Tweet
I’ll talk about that but for me, the most important thing has been to look after my team. Everyone’s working incredibly hard. We have one of the most driven teams I’ve ever experienced. They care about our social purpose and our social profits. They want to have an impact on society. They’re all working so hard while all managing their own lives. I’ve been focused on ensuring that. As a leader, I’m listening, I’m asking them questions and I’m checking in on them because their success is my success.
If I know they’re all good, that does help my mental health. I’m even more driven to support research. My mom was diagnosed with MDS, which is a blood cancer. I moved over from Newfoundland to her and my dad. My husband and I become their primary caregivers. I truly understand the importance of research now more than ever and the importance of self-care because we are managing a lot. I want to be successful for DMRF. I’m want DMRF to be successful. I also know that I’ve got to take walks and I’ve got to talk to friends. I’ve got to reach out to other CEOs. As you and I were talking about before, CEOs can feel so alone sometimes. It’s important to build that network of other people that you can call and say, “I don’t know what I’m doing here. Can you give me some advice?” and be vulnerable.
That feeling of not knowing what you’re doing is very real, but it sounds like you’re taking all of the right steps in terms of positioning your organization well and looking after your team. It’s been a real pleasure to get to hear about your approach and learn more about what’s happening at the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation. Thank you for being on the show.
Thank you so much. I appreciate the work that you do.
- Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation
- Molly Appeal
- Fundraising for Dummies
- Nova Scotia Health Authority
- Research Nova Scotia
- Dartmouth General Hospital Foundation
About Joanne Bath
Joanne has already shown herself to be an asset to DMRF and community. She joined DMRF over seven years ago as Director of Philanthropy, implementing the organization’s first major gifts program and expanding the Foundation’s integrated fundraising efforts. With over 17 years of experience in the philanthropic sector, Joanne has built and led high-performing teams, raising millions of dollars for social change through entrepreneurial thinking, meticulous vision, fundraising acumen, and thoughtful leadership. She has vigorously mobilized these skills over the last 14 years in Halifax, supporting the growth of the IWK Foundation (2005 – 2011) and DMRF (2011 – present), with an enthusiasm for seeing the region prosper.
Hailing from a small community in La Scie, Newfoundland, Joanne obtained a Bachelor of Social Work from Memorial University. While working for a time in the social work field, Joanne was serendipitously introduced to fundraising, where she discovered a penchant for development relationship-building and ultimately, helping others. After making Halifax, Nova Scotia her home in 2005, she honed her philanthropic and leadership skills by working diligently in the non profit industry, partaking in extensive training courses, and by volunteering on several boards including the Association of Fundraising Professionals of Nova Scotia, Canadian Progress Club Halifax Citadel, and Chisholm Services for Children.
DMRF was formed in 1979 by a group of determined and community-minded business leaders who believed this region could and should be a leader in health research. Forty years later, the initial dedication and tenacity of these individuals has seen DMRF raise tens of millions of dollars for health research. DMRF is committed to continuing on this aggressive growth trajectory. Joanne’s strong work ethic, strategic vision, dedication and demonstrated can-do attitude matches the characteristics of our founding members, making her the ideal person to take DMRF into the future. Already, she has shown herself to be an asset to DMRF and community.