1:1 with Gary Durbeniuk
Over the course of 2019, Nicole Nakoneshny, KCI’s Lead, Knowledge + Insights, is going one-on-one with the members of our Philanthropic Trends Advisory Board to talk about the future of fundraising and philanthropy and explore What’s Next for Canada’s charitable sector.
KCI’S “WHAT’S NEXT?” INTERVIEW SERIES – GARY DURBENIUK
Gary Durbeniuk recently retired from his position as Vice President, Development at the Calgary Zoo. Before his time at the Zoo, he spent 12 years as the Vice-President, Development at the University of Calgary. From 2002 to 2009, fundraising grew from $16 Million per annum to a record $104 Million under his leadership. As Vice President, Development Gary was also the Executive Director of a joint campaign between the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services, which raised $312 Million.
His volunteer history spans some 30 years of service to various organizations and boards, including: The Rotary Club of Calgary, The University of Calgary Alumni Association, Camp Cadacasu, Calgary Booster Club, Calgary Zoo, Dinosaur Fifth Quarter Association, Easter Seal Superthon, Knights of Columbus, Westwood Hockey Association, the University of Calgary’s United Way Campaign and the City of Calgary United Way Cabinet, and the American Friends of the University of Calgary.
Nicole: What is the key to fundraising success today?
Gary: I think it’s a combination of patience, focus, and persistence. An organization’s ability to differentiate itself and effectively articulate its mission and impact is critical these days, given the saturated market we’re in.
Another key to success is an organization’s ability to recruit external champions. By that, I mean those who are community leaders, those who will really help validate your cause. I think in the past, those people would have been in your campaign cabinet, but campaigns are different now. Having these kinds of people around all the time is critical.
Nicole: You are set to retire at the end of June… curious to hear how fundraising today is different than it was early on in your career? The same?
Gary: There are a number of things that are quite different from when I started back in 1986. Donors’ expectations of charities have certainly increased. They are holding charities to a much higher degree of accountability. Donors are also becoming much more selective about whom they support, and I think some of that is just a shift in demographic culture from the silent generation to the boomers.
Another thing that’s much different is the way we’re using data analytics to get to know our donors. We have data that helps inform key investment decisions, and I think this has improved the way we do business. What’s currently happening at a macro level in terms of the economy, social issues, and the general dissatisfaction with government and institutions is also much different from when I started.
What’s the same, fortunately, is that it’s still a people business. Building relationships is just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. There’s still heart to our business, as much as there now is a science. There’s passion involved in the work that we do, and I think that will always be the case. The charities that stay true to these fundamental roots tend to do well, I think.
Nicole: What are the top two or three trends related to philanthropy and/or fundraising that you and your team at the Calgary Zoo keeping an eye on?
Gary: I would say the two biggest things we’re keeping a close eye on are how digital is changing the way we do things, and how the demographic shift from the silent generation to the baby boomers is impacting us. Digital is becoming an increasingly important tool and is something I think we should all be paying close attention to. I’ve already mentioned the demographic piece, but that’s another thing we’re really paying attention to. The way the silent generation gave is completely different than the way the boomers are giving.
Building relationships is just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. There’s still heart to our business, as much as there now is a science.
Nicole: In addition to a changing landscape related to fundraising, it’s been a challenging time economically in Alberta for the last few years. What has that meant for charities in the province? How have you and your team at the Zoo adapted your fundraising program to respond?
Gary: So we’re five years into this downturn with no immediate horizon. The economic challenges that Alberta is facing are definitely changing the fundraising landscape, and I don’t see it going back to the way it was anytime soon. In downtown Calgary, the vacancy rate for commercial real estate is about 27%. We’ve seen our donors demonstrate that they feel a sense uncertainty about what’s going to happen next, which has impacted individual giving. We aren’t seeing nearly as many transformational gifts as we did before 2014.
There has also been a significant change in corporate giving. Charities here that have historically relied heavily on corporate sponsorship are probably feeling that more than charities that rely more on individual giving. This was initially a challenge for us at the Zoo a couple years ago, as we did have a considerable amount of corporate support at the time. We quickly shifted our focus more toward individual giving, being patient, and putting the time in to developing relationships with our prospects. Fortunately, we’ve had success with this and have actually maintained our fundraising revenue, but I would guess that many charities haven’t had such luck. I know of some organizations that have seen their revenue decrease up to 25% from their historical numbers pre-2014. The need for charitable programs in Alberta is increasing, but at the same time it’s becoming harder to fundraise for them, so it creates an interesting dynamic.
Nicole: Tell me more about the adjustments you’ve made to your corporate program given the changing landscape in corporate giving.
Gary: Prior to the start of this economic downturn, we at the Zoo already had room for improvement in the management of our corporate sponsorship portfolio. So we took a deep dive into these programs, and decided to start rebuilding them from the ground up. Specifically, the main difference now with corporations is that they are making shorter term and less substantial commitments than they were prior to 2014. We have shifted towards a more long-term approach in how we engage this sector, and it will reflect what corporations are willing/able to do given the current climate.
Nicole: The role of volunteers in fundraising has evolved significantly over the years. How are you involving volunteers in your fundraising at the Zoo?
Gary: From a fundraising perspective, we are putting the time in to ensure our volunteers understand their role and how they can engage with their networks in a way that helps us. A lot of it is also making sure we have a variety of tools for them to use that will help them in their conversations with their peers, for example, one-pagers with key messaging.
We’re also trying to create unique experiences for our volunteers and their networks. We host a dinner series once a year where we have a volunteer invite five or six couples for a nice meal in this beautiful conservatory we have. The volunteer covers the cost as their contribution. The President and the Head of Conservation attend as well and together they chat about what we do and the importance of conservation. This particular dinner series has actually generated about $1.4 million in gifts since it’s started, without us even having to ask. So these unique experiences create positive memories, and are a great opportunity to talk in detail about the importance of our work and the impact it has.
Nicole: What are the biggest opportunities open to charities / the sector today?
Gary: I think that given our unique position as charities, we have an opportunity to be catalysts in solving major societal issues. Often this requires partnership between the government, the private sector, and our sector, but we do play a significant role in bringing everyone together and facilitating. This takes patience and work, because these three sectors operate differently and have different priorities.
Let me give an example. One thing we do here at the Zoo is release rehabilitated animals back into the wild. Sometimes the government freezes the ability of land owners to make changes to the land or ecosystem. This affects our activities, but also the activity of industries and farmers who may be on the same land, so this creates tension. What we’ve done before is hold a two day workshop where we bring people in from farms, the industrial sector, and the government sector, and talk through the challenge together. It’s evident in these conversations that everyone wants the same thing; to find a solution, and to save the animal(s) in question. Sometimes, people just have different ideas about what that solution should be. But talking it through with stakeholders helps uncover commonalities and identify agreeable solutions.
Another opportunity we have in front of us is this wonderful millennial generation. My wife, Karen, and I have 3 sons who are millennials, and I learn so much from them. This generation is hard working, they genuinely care, and they’ll tackle issues in ways that previous generations would have never thought of. Of course we can’t engage them the same way we’ve engaged prior generations, but I think there are huge opportunities in front of us if we figure out how to properly involve them in the work we do.
Many of the challenges we tackle as a sector simply can’t be solved overnight and require a long-term approach. In the context of wildlife conservation, for example, results aren’t seen until 20-30 years after an initiative starts. We don’t have to accept impatience.
Nicole: On the flip side, what are the biggest challenges facing us today?
Gary: We’ve grown into a society that expects immediate results. We’re losing our patience for long-term strategy and commitment. Charities are feeling the pressure from volunteers and donors who want to see results sooner than ever before. It’s a challenge for us, but we need to keep our head above that and do our best to manage it from both ends. Many of the challenges we tackle as a sector simply can’t be solved overnight and require a long-term approach. In the context of wildlife conservation, for example, results aren’t seen until 20-30 years after an initiative starts. We don’t have to accept impatience.
Nicole: What’s an issue facing the sector when it comes to fundraising that that isn’t getting enough attention in your opinion?
Gary: I alluded to this a bit before, but strategic partnerships. We know that our donors want us to partner with similar organizations because they see many charities doing similar work. It does require work, time, and resources, and can be tough to find that sweet spot where both organizations are happy. I feel like our sector talks a lot about partnerships, but the effort that’s going into actually executing these partnerships could definitely be improved.
Nicole: What does the “fundraising playbook” for organizations look like 10 years from now? What do organizations need to be doing today to be prepared?
Gary: I think being a strong, mission based organization will still be the most important thing 10 years from now, and the playbook will be based off that. I think we’re going to continue to see a push for impact articulation, so organizations should really get a hold on how they will communicate this in a way that stands out. The community is going to want us to be problem solvers. It’s not about our need as a charity, but what the community needs, and how can we help solve these problems. I think the charities that are able to demonstrate this going forward will be successful. Digital 10 years from now will be more advanced and fully integrated into everything we do as well, so making the case for investments in this area is something charities need to do if they want to stick around.
Quick Answer (Fun!) Questions
Where do you look for inspiration?
My family is a great inspiration. Our conservation team at the zoo also comes to mind. They are an incredible group of passionate people who are actually saving species, and that’s very inspiring. As I look back, having been in this business for so long, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many community leaders and builders who do what they do for the benefit of the community, and they are always inspirational.
Where / how did you learn about charity and philanthropy?
When I first joined the U of C Alumni Association Board after I graduated University, I became the volunteer chair for the alumni campaign. We were raising money for scholarships. At this point, I knew nothing about it. I learned a lot over the two years that I was doing it, so that’s probably where I first got a feel for philanthropy and its value in charity.
What was your first experience with “charity” – either giving or receiving?
When I was in University, I received a $250 athletic bursary from the Calgary Booster Club. This had a huge impact on me in two ways. First, it was helpful because I was putting myself through school and back then this amount covered almost a whole semester’s tuition. But perhaps even more importantly, it meant that there were people out there that cared to support students in need, and this was very meaningful to me.
How did you become a fundraiser? What was your first fundraising job?
The President of University of Calgary at the time, Norman Wagner, and I would often run into each other at events. We ran into each other one day and he asked me to come see him in his office, so I went. He asked me if I wanted a job in fundraising. I told him I knew nothing about fundraising, I’d never done it before, and I wasn’t so sure. He told me that he knew me from my involvement with the University over the years, he liked the way I carried myself, and told me he knew I would be good at it. So I took the job.
Why did you stay?
The people you meet in this line of work are so passionate about what they do, and it’s so uplifting. Also, at the end of the day I feel like I’ve done something to make a positive difference. Whether that difference is raising money for a scholarship, or to help support the survival of a species, it gives me a sense of meaning.
What has fundraising taught you?
There is really no replacement for passion and hard work.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Be authentic. Be who you are. People really are looking for that, they gravitate towards individuals and organizations who they can tell are genuine. Also, listen before you speak.