The Ronald McDonald House is a home away from home for families who have a child being treated at the BC Children’s Hospital. This house has created a culture of care and support for one another that even long-time families welcome the new families in. Learn that you are not in this alone. Join your host Douglas Nelson as he talks to Richard Pass on his career in fundraising and how he got the house made. Richard is now the CEO of the Ronald McDonald House and he is dedicated to serving families who are at the worst point in their lives. Learn how he led the capital campaign to build a new Ronald McDonald House and more in today’s episode.
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Ronald McDonald House BC & Yukon with Richard Pass
Our guest is Richard Pass. He’s the CEO of Ronald McDonald House of BC and we’re thrilled to have him as our guest. Welcome, Richard.
Richard, we’ve been looking forward to this conversation for quite a while because you are someone who’s been in your role for a long time. You’ve demonstrated tremendous leadership, not just in your organization but in the sector. I want to get into your journey to becoming the leader that you are as we go through the conversation. For our readers, tell us a little bit about the work of Ronald McDonald House of BC.
Ronald McDonald House of British Columbia in Yukon is a facility that we refer to as a home away from home for families where they stay when their child is being treated for a serious illness at BC Children’s Hospital and they have nowhere else to stay. The new house, as we refer to it, has served 73 families at a time, and that translates to about 2,000 families a year.
The families come for checkups after they’ve had treatments that might be 2 or 3 days. Also, once there’s a newly diagnosed illness, if it’s cancer, for example, then we’ve had families in this particular location stay 497 days straight. This is their home for that whole time while the treatment of the child is being undertaken. Also, it’s for the whole family. We try to keep the whole family together as much as possible so that the sick child has the most support systems around.
You mentioned the new house that was completed in 2014. You’ve also opened spaces in other places around the province. I’m interested that an organization that’s so place-based come to the house that focused on opening other spaces around the province. What was that like as an organization? What drove the organization to make that choice?
The way that the BC medical system is set up, the majority of serious illnesses is treated at BC Children’s Hospital. The main house makes sense for us to be as close to the hospital as possible for the convenience of the family. We were able to get a land lease on hospital property to build the house. The service mission is to serve families with sick children, and to expand that further to the percentage of illnesses that still gets treated at the local hospitals in different cities.
[bctt tweet=”Give support to families who are in the worst possible time of their lives.” via=”no”]
At the Surrey Memorial Hospital, it turned out to be the same day we opened the Family Room. The other programs are called Family Rooms. A Family Room is a condo within the hospital that does the same things as the main house. It provides rooms for families to stay in but also a space like a condo would have to wash clothes, have a shower, make lunch, have the siblings play at an area, and that type of thing. Just to get out of the clinical atmosphere of the hospital, and get into a place to get some respite from that and take a breather.
We opened the Surrey Memorial and then the next one that’s going to open is in Kamloops. That’s going to open in 2024. The Royal Columbian Hospital looks like that’ll be the next one, probably in 2026. We try to spread our service mission throughout the province as much as we can. That’s what the other programs do.
As you expand the service offerings beyond the main house, did that have any implications or did that change the culture of the organization and how the organization operates? How did you make sure that the warmth and family space of the main house carries through into those Family Rooms?
It can make a change but we’re conscious of having one culture for the whole organization. That culture is the caring and supportive culture that wraps our arms around the family and provides that support. We do that through hiring practices and our training, and the connection to the house so far because Surrey isn’t that far away.
The staff that we have also work in the house. We have that crossover back and forth so that the people aren’t dangled out like, “You’re over there and we’re here. We’re doing the real work.” We try to pull everybody in and make sure everybody is a part of everything with our round tables because it’s the same service. We’re helping families in the worst possible time of their lives when their child is seriously ill. They are upset and are needing support and help.
That crossover between the Family Room space in Surrey and the main house, you’ve got the same people doing the same work. That’s important. How has that one culture for the organization evolved over time? You moved into the new house in 2014. It’s been some time since then. Have you seen that culture changing or taking root in different ways?
The expansion to a larger facility and the Surrey program has given us the opportunity to do more. That has helped grow our culture of service at the original house. Although we had some programs serving thirteen families at a time, there wasn’t an opportunity to do more. We didn’t have the space to do more. Now, programs to support the families include art classes, music classes, and different programs for adults. We bring a fitness trainer in so that the parents can workout in the gym that we have and get those supports.
It’s a multitude of different programs that try to keep the normalcy of what life at home would be. That caring and supportive culture is felt by the families. Also, the other piece of that is that families support families. It’s not just the staff and volunteers that support families. A new family is going into the kitchen on their first day and someone else is saying, “What’s your name? What’s your kid got? What drugs are they on? I’ve been here for 300 days.” They know right away that they’re not in it alone. There’s that incredible support. That’s unique to the Ronald McDonald Houses.
That peer connection or that connection to other families probably means a lot for people who were in the house. As a leader, how do you stay connected to that culture and mission?
I live in it. Our offices are here. Every day when I get to work, I walk through the house. Not just to the office, but I’m up and down all the time. I’m walking through, interacting with the families, with the programs, and with the kids. It keeps you grounded because the families are on such a roller coaster. If you saw somebody yesterday and you had a wonderful conversation, then you see them now. They may not have gotten news that it has been very good. Something might have changed overnight.
It’s almost the dance that you do in that safety zone of, “How are you?” It’s that connection and it keeps you grounded because unless you’re going through it, you’re not going through it. Even when you’re close to it, you don’t have that same emotion. Knowing that the organization, not just the facility but also the staff, the volunteers, the other parents, or the culture that support the families, I think that helps. It’s not just me, but also the staff itself stay grounded and connected to the mission.
One of the things that’s always fascinating to me is how people who work in the space are somewhat set back from the patient experience. I recall this from my time at the BC Cancer Foundation. How do leaders like you who have been in this for a while protect themselves from that compassion fatigue? The idea of getting jaded to the experience of the individual families because you need to protect yourself because you see this hurt and need every day. How do you manage to avoid that and how do you encourage your team to avoid that?
That’s on an individual mechanism that we would all have. I don’t know what mine is to how I continue to deal. There’s an unnecessary outlet that has to happen. You have to have that outlet. For me, it’s blowing off steam, playing the guitar, and doing walks in the forest. Those types of things are things that helped me get through them. Also, recognize that it’s their journey and it’s not my journey. I can support people in their journey but I can’t take on their journey.
It’s a mix of being thankful for the health of myself and my family, and doing what I can to support those. With the rest of the staff, they’ll have their mechanisms too. Also, in meetings and when we get together, we talk about grief and how to manage ourselves. Trying to open the conversation up so that people are aware that shoveling it down might have it surfaced at another time. I think that helps.
[bctt tweet=”Unless you’re going through a problem, you’re not really going through it.” via=”no”]
It is a unique mechanism for all but certainly, leaders in the social profit sector need to be aware of the need for one. You don’t need to dig deep and figure out exactly how it all works. Just know that it’s there.
There are days that it gets you. With that many people and the course of time, I’ve been hanging out here and doing this for many years. I see families that have been at the original house that will have relapsed a number of times. It’s an odd thing to walk past the front door and see somebody that you haven’t seen for a long time and say, “How are you? Why are you here?” If It’s just a checkup, then it’s okay. When things aren’t going well and you realize that they’re back again, that takes a heavy toll sometimes. You have to breathe through it and keep on keeping on.
I want to take a little step back. Your reputation as a leader is someone who is truly of the organization. You’re identified as a compassionate leader of this organization but you haven’t always worked at Ronald McDonald House. Take us back and walk us through your journey to becoming the CEO.
I was in university in Brandon, Manitoba. I got a Psych degree and I started to work for the Manitoba Child and Family Services. It was a group home experience that was a lockup. I had started doing that as a graduate of the university. I got a call from the CEO of the YMCA where I had grown up, worked, and been in the leadership program as a youth and teen. He knew of me and he said, “The YMCA of Moose Jaw is looking for a program director. I don’t think you’ll like the job, but it’ll be a good job for you and you’ll learn a lot.”
I ended up going to Moose Jaw, accepting that position and working for the Y. It’s a complete switch from where I thought I was headed. I was in Moose Jaw at the Y for four years, and then moved out to BC and looked for work again. The Y found me again. From ’90 to 2000, I worked for the YMCA of Greater Vancouver. At first, I was involved with the camping division. I was the General Manager of the Downtown Y on Burrard. I was doing philanthropy for the annual campaign for the Y. I was involved in the development plan to rebuild the current Y.
At that moment, I had posted a job on CharityVillage. I went to look at CharityVillage to see how the posting went out to make sure it looked the way I wanted it to look. I saw the Ronald McDonald House CEO position. It was a life moment where I wasn’t looking for work, but I thought, “I think that’s me.” It’s been a not-for-profit experience with the Y and here with Ronald McDonald House.
One of the things that are always fascinating to me when we ask CEOs to describe their journey to becoming a CEO is it’s very uncommon, in fact, it hasn’t happened yet in 126 episodes or something, where someone says, “I went to university wanting to be a CEO of a social profit organization and I chose my program.” It is often a career path that you find yourself on and then an opportunity presents itself. You said, “That’s me,” when you saw it on CharityVillage. What were you thinking about when you were in your career going, “I’m ready to make this step,” or “I’m ready to try to make this step?”
One of the things in my annual performance review when I was with the Y with the CEO is the follow-up question at the end of the performance was always, “Richard, what can I do for you?” I’d always asked the question, “I want to be a CEO at some point. Is there a book? Is there something you can recommend?” At one point, the answer was, “You got to apply for the job and then you are.” That was maybe in my head.
My daughter was a premature child. She was 2 pounds, 12 ounces when she was born. I had some experience being in the hospital and trying to look after a child in that way. Those things all gelled together. It was a moment of opportunity for growth. Once I got to the interview process, I recognized that there was an opportunity for fun.
For me, there was a challenge because the House at the time served thirteen families. We’re turning away hundreds of people because it was such a small house. There was an opportunity to grow. I thought that there was a great opportunity for me, professionally, to lead and give my skillset to an organization that I thought did good work. That made me jump.
That mission connection or that organizational purpose connection means a lot for people taking those CEO roles. Can you take us back to that first day? What was it like walking up to the old house as the CEO? Are there big plans to change everything?
When I walked up, there was two and a half staff. I was the next one. The budget was about $400,000. When I got in the door, it had been a small mom-and-pop organization up until that point. There weren’t policy documents and committees. There were only 4 or 5 people on the board. It was like, “Where do I start?” I’m trying to create those pieces from my experience at the Y that I knew were missing. There was freedom there to sculpt the organization and to grow it right from the start in many ways from the organizational strategic dimension to how to serve the families in a more unique and supportive way.
You increase the sophistication, you build up the organization, and budgets are increasing I’m sure. Talk a little bit about the crescendo to, “We need to build a new house.” That undertaking is incredibly significant. We’ve seen that in a number of other organizations. It is a fundamental reset of the organization or a leveling up of the organization. What was it like in those years leading up to that, “We need to move now?”
It started small, but turning away many people was evident right away that we needed to do more. I started thinking with the chair of the board about what we could do. We started looking at land thinking we could maybe buy another big lot in Shaughnessy close to the original house, and maybe build a twenty-family facility and grow the numbers. As we were looking at the land, we said, “That’s a lot of money.”
[bctt tweet=”The urgency to grow and serve can act as a positive force in your fundraising.” via=”no”]
One plot that we found in the first three years sold in two days. It was a cash sale for $7 million. Even if we had been in the game at that moment, there were many trees to knock down. We would have needed arborists. It wasn’t possible. As we were looking at options, the Children’s Hospital Foundation’s CEO and I were chatting about that story exactly. She looked over both shoulders and said, “The hospital is going to announce growth. Maybe there’s an opportunity there.” That was the original open door.
We did a feasibility study with the hospital to try and understand the numbers and the scope of what the need was and ran those numbers. We were able to negotiate with the Province of BC the land on hospital property. We had the land lease and then it was a matter of the simplicity of raising the capital. We raised the $32 million and we’re able to create this beautiful facility here.
You were talking about your career path up to being the CEO that there was some fundraising in there. It is certainly one thing and good work to do. It can be challenging in its own right. Taking on a $32 million capital campaign is something altogether very different. You needed volunteers and donors, and that’s very essential. I’m curious what your mindset was. Was it like standing on the high dive and jumping for the first time or did it feel more familiar?
It was. The scope of that level of a campaign was certainly more than an annual campaign and a different style. We were able to recruit a campaign chair from a very philanthropic family. Gary Segal was the Chair that we were able to recruit and join the board. Just for the culture of who we were but also part of my style, instead of going with the consultant or with any of those things, we chose to do it internally. We struck a campaign cabinet. We got the right people, as it turns out. We went and had face-to-face asks.
Selecting, getting and recruiting the right Chair accounts for a lot. Raising money in a time when the economy is good is another good feature. It is a tremendous amount of work and building a lot of new relationships. How did the fundraising continue after the capital campaign when you go back to the normal steady state of raising millions of dollars a year to operate?
That was one of the many worries that we had at that time. Can we raise the capital? Once the capital is raised, how do you sustain the organization and grow it? If you’re starting at $400,000 and you’re going to go up to at about $2.8 million to $3.2 million annual operating which at that time, that’s what we thought the budget would be, how do you do that?
We went with it. We talked to our donors as we were doing the capital and built the relationships that we were able to continue afterwards. A lot of the capital campaign donors continued to support our galas and golf tournaments. We can reach out to and their annual givers as well. The opportunity through the capital campaign helped us tell our story more around the province. In that fundraising pyramid, we were able to build the base for it and have more of our smaller gifts. Annual donors hear the story and reach out in that fashion.
When we opened, it was at $3.2 million. We’ve grown since then to under $5 million in operating because of the programs. Things get more expensive each year as well. We’ve been able to continue to grow that. As we look to growth again, not just the Family Rooms but a potential second house, it’s the same thought process, “We’re here now but we can still serve more.” We’re almost back in that same position again where we’re looking at growth. It’s all about sustainability. Not that the capital is ever easy but getting it built is getting it built. If you can’t sustain it, then don’t build it.
We’ve seen a number of organizations across the country that had that initial capital campaign success. They then struggled, particularly in the first couple of years after the campaign, to raise the dollars to operate the grand programming that they had said they were going to do when they were raising money for the capital. It’s a difficult place for organizations to be.
I want to shift a little bit. All of your examples are about being focused on the purpose of the organization. In every question I asked, you bring it back to the people that you serve. As a leader, how do you step back sometimes or do you step back sometimes and look at the horizon, and see what’s changing in the world around you when you’re clearly focused on doing an excellent job for the people that are in the house?
I lived the role, which a critic could say isn’t the most healthy thing from a life-work balance perspective. I read and benchmark regularly with other Ronald McDonald Houses around the world, and other organizations too. If there’s something to read that I can look at scaling or topics that I know nothing about that another not-for-profit or even a for-profit is doing, I can pull and draw from those experiences and try on a different hat for within our own organization.
I was very lucky some years ago to go down to an executive leadership program for not-for-profits at Stanford University. I knew of the program and was very keen to try to get to it. When I did that, the cohort that I was a part of I’ve met from all over the world, and I’m still in touch with a lot of them. They’ve morphed from what they were doing at the time to different sectors as well.
It was that mix of sectors that showed me you could learn from pretty much anyone in any situation if you listen, and if you’re open to trying to tie what they’re talking about or what their learnings are into what you’re doing. There’s that openness that I have to sponge from others. Honestly, I stand on the shoulders of everyone else to try to be better.
It’s always good advice to try and hang out with the smartest kids in class.
[bctt tweet=”Getting something built is getting something built. If you can’t sustain it, then don’t build it.” via=”no”]
It is indeed.
If they let you into the circle, you can learn a lot. What advice would you have for new leaders or people who are contemplating taking the step into a senior leadership role or how to get ready? You mentioned that you asked what books can you read when you were doing your performance review. What advice would you have if one of your team came to you and asked you that question?
Whether it’s the main advice or not, the first thing that comes to mind is to be open. We all come to life with our own baggage, history, and perspectives, and that’s one focus. It’s allowing others to come in, deeply listen to what’s going on, and wonder why it’s done that way, “Why is that person taking that on in that fashion? I think that’s stupid. I wouldn’t do that.” That’s the fallback position. Think about, “They’re doing it that way. That’s interesting.” What would make that work for them and is that part of their style?” Back to the sponge analogy, being open, reading, listening, trying something, making a new mistake the next time, and keeping on doing different things.
Particularly in our sector, it’s often the case that we learn from negative examples. There are lots of very positive examples as well. There’s no sure opportunity to learn from, “I don’t want to do what that person did. I don’t want to step on that particular rake and get hit in the face.” We can learn what to avoid. Thinking about your team, how can members of your team earn an extra special gold star from Richard? What is it that you would say, “That person really got it?”
I do say to my staff that I want to be pushed. I’m not leading this organization, they are. I want them to come with new ideas and say, “Richard, I think we should be doing this.” Whether it’s a program, a person, fundraising or whatever we do. “This system might be better. We could try that.” That’s great because it gives that ownership to everybody that they are responsible for the organization. I’m not the one saying, “This is where we’re going.” It’s with their support. It’s that buy-in and if the staff have bought in and have passion for what we do here, and they can have ownership in their own way, then that is something that makes it exciting for them.
Is there an example you can think of when your team pushed you and you’re like, “I don’t want to be pushed in this direction?” You had to stop and think about where that was coming from.
From a program perspective, I still call it the Urban Agriculture Program. Nobody else does. We’ve got a program that the master gardeners from VanDuzen come over. We’ve got a number of large planters around the facility. They plant organic food and they come on a schedule. The kids participate in big potatoes and all that food comes in the house, and those kinds of things.
At first, I thought, “We’re going to grow flowers.” I didn’t grab that concept of what it could be. At the time, it was somebody that was passionate about the program, “This will be good. It’ll be fun.” I was like, “Go ahead. That would be fine,” then to watch that program grow into what it is now. We have little market gardens that when the food comes in, families can come and pick up kale and tomatoes and all the different things. It is something that’s has grown into even a bigger program that has a value that I didn’t see at first. That’s back to my concept of listening to others and allowing those choices to be tried. That’s a simple example of something that’s great.
It’s wonderful when they work out that way. As we come to the end of our conversation, you’ve shared a lot about both the organization and your own professional journey. You’ve left some breadcrumbs for us to follow about what might be coming for Ronald McDonald House of BC. As a leader, what are you looking forward to? What is it that you see on the horizon that gets you excited?
I’m still excited about the mission of what we do here at Ronald McDonald House. When we built this house that was the fifth largest in the world out of the 368 Ronald McDonald Houses, all independently owned and operated, somehow we’ve built this house is still in the design way. It’s benchmark around the world as things that other houses could and should do. Every house has its own individual air intake and filtration system, giving to the families the safest air that they can have, the style of our pods and kitchen. It’s the design things.
With that said, continuing to be a world leader in the organization and how we operate both from a functional perspective and a mission perspective still motivates me. Also, more service to British Columbia and Yukon families. I did dangle out that we’re looking at growth again. That is exciting to me. My goal always, as I’ve gotten into my long years here, has been to leave the organization so much stronger than when I started. I want to leave it stronger than it was yesterday.
My goal is to make sure that when I hand the reins over, we’ve got reserves that keep us strong. We’re serving as many families as possible in as many areas as possible. The staff and volunteers are continuing that passion. In my language, it’s the best place to work, not just because of the mission but because of the culture of being here and feeling a part of something that is doing some social good.
For our readers, who are wondering about what it looks like to be a successful CEO to lead an impactful social profit organization, you’ve got both the recipe and the inspiration in that answer that Richard shared. Richard, I thank you much for being a part of the show, sharing your journey, and your commitment to your organizational purpose.
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity.
About Richard Pass
As CEO of Ronald McDonald House BC & Yukon, Richard Pass has dedicated his career to serving families throughout BC and Yukon who are facing the serious illness of a child.
Raised in Manitoba, he is a graduate of Brandon University. In 1990, Richard moved west to Vancouver and joined the YMCA where he held various roles, including General Manager, overseeing facilities, programs and fundraising. He spent more than 15 years refining his portfolios and supporting the strategic imperatives of the growing organization. A highlight of his tenure was his key role in the rezoning and redeveloping the Downtown YMCA, a community hub that helps Vancouver residents thrive and reach their full potential.
Since joining Ronald McDonald House BC in 2006 as CEO, Richard has redefined the organization and led it through significant growth and expansion. In 2012, he led the capital campaign to build a new Ronald McDonald House, the second largest in Canada and fifth largest in the world. The campaign raised more than $32 Million dollars and the new House, which offers accommodation and support to more than 2000 families annually opened in July of 2014. In addition, he opened the organization’s first Family Room in Surrey Memorial Hospital, a 2000 square foot facility serving families of children from the lower mainland who are being treated in hospital.
As a leader, Richard is driven by excellence and compassion and plans to continue to grow the organization to better serve families in BC and Yukon. Recognized for his deep expertise in the non – profit sector, Richard has provided leadership and counsel to several organizations in Asia and the USA.