1:1 with Jeff O’Hagan
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 – Jeff O’Hagan
Since 2011, Jeff O’Hagan has served as Vice-President Advancement for York University, one of Canada’s largest research-intensive universities with 55,000 students on four campuses and more than 325,000 alumni in more than 170 countries.
Under Jeff’s leadership, York University launched Impact – The Campaign for York University in 2016, with a $500 million goal. More than $450 million has now been raised from more than 50,000 alumni and other donors toward this goal. With themes of Preparing Engaged Global Citizens, Mobilizing New Ways of Thinking and Building Stronger Communities, Impact is securing a broad range of funding to support thousands of students, drive ground-breaking research, construct new facilities, support faculty, and engage alumni to enable York’s mission to make a positive change in the world.
Jeff is a member of the National Council of Foundation Executives, an Imagine Canada Sector Champion, and has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Western University. Jeff is the former Chief Executive Officer of the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre Foundation, where he led the organization’s $470 million Campaign for Sunnybrook. Prior to Sunnybrook, Jeff held senior advancement roles at Western University, including Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, as part of Western’s $270 million campaign. Prior to Western, Jeff worked at the St. Mary’s General Hospital Foundation in Waterloo. He also spent six years in the wealth management and estate services sector and held several positions with leading financial institutions, including the Royal Bank of Canada.
Nicole: What are the top two or three issues facing higher education fundraising in Canada today? What are the things that keep you and your colleagues ‘up at night’?
Jeff: This isn’t anything new, but I think there is a consistent challenge of capacity building and staffing, and balancing this against what’s expected of us in terms of activities and results. Do you have the capacity to do what you need to do with the budget you have? For instance, let’s take our alumni relations function. By capacity, I mean having the ability to engage people in a deep and meaningful way. We have a great alumni office, but not enough capacity to engage 100% of alumni to the highest degree possible. So we have to scale our efforts and prioritize our activity to match our capacity.
The other challenge spot is that the fundraising sector in general is growing, and there is a tremendous demand for talent because of it. And as we know, finding and keeping great talent is critically important because the cycle we operate on is not transactional, but a long game of relationship building.
Nicole: How are you managing in light of these challenges?
Jeff: I think it really comes down to being as effective as possible. Efficiency too, although the concept of efficiency in fundraising is something that’s always bothered me, because there are some people who measure it by the cost-per-dollar raised. It’s not totally about that though. What’s more important is the impact you’re having, what good you are contributing to the public, and how you are moving forward towards your ultimate goals. This is dependent on the strength of the organizations priorities and principles, too. To have a very clear set of priorities, goals, and a vision makes a huge difference when it comes to measuring your success.
In terms of talent, there isn’t really a silver bullet here. We try to remain an attractive place to work and stay current with pay packages, titles, etc. Toronto is a particularly competitive marketplace. I also really challenge our senior leaders and staff to always be recruiting and be on the lookout for great people who could work with us, even if we don’t have specific positions available at the time.
Nicole: On the flip side, where are the opportunities? And how are you capitalizing on them?
Jeff: One of the main opportunities for Universities is our ever growing network of alumni, much of which is still untapped. We have 10,000 or more new alumni graduating every year, which represents a perpetual supply of new people to engage. We’re not going to run out of potential people to work with.
I’d also say that the higher education sector is changing. The expectations from society, from our students, and the way that people engage with higher education institutions are changing. We’re seeing that the majority of our students are working 15 hours or more per week to help pay for school. We have a lot of first generation students too. And there isn’t always a direct correlation from an academic program to a job. It’s not linear. So people are looking for things that will help them succeed in life. It’s an interesting time; we’re trying to grapple with how exactly the sector needs to change to meet the needs of today’s world. We will continue to see this shift in higher education. I think the organizations that will succeed will be ones that lead this shift, and not just react.
Nicole: What else would you say is shifting in the world of fundraising for higher education?
Jeff: Partnerships are increasingly important. No matter how big an organization you are, you can’t solve societal problems like homelessness, environmental sustainability, poverty, health, mental health, etc. on your own. Donors know this, and sometimes they challenge us to partner with other organizations that focus on issues we are focussed on.
For example, a transformational donation we recently received was to launch the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research. We hired the former head of Doctors without Borders to be the inaugural Director of this Institute. He’s done an incredible job of facilitating partnerships with organizations around the world to look at the most important global health challenges. So here we have a $20 Million donation that’s being magnified many times by all the different organizations we’re working with, and donors are looking for this more and more.
Another shift is in how we are structuring our corporate partnerships. One example is an initiative we undertook between our School of Engineering and Shopify, which now takes 10 first year Computer Engineering students every year, pays for their tuition, and gives them a paid job while they’re in school. It’s called DevDegree, and it’s revolutionizing work integrated learning. Shopify tells us that this program produces highly competent computer engineers quickly, which there is a high demand for. And of course, the substantial financial support that the student participants receive is so helpful for them. We’re now looking to expand this model to other areas of study at York as well.
No matter how big an organization you are, you can’t solve societal problems like homelessness, environmental sustainability, poverty, health, mental health, etc. on your own. Donors know this, and sometimes they challenge us to partner with other organizations that focus on issues we are focussed on.
Nicole: How well would you say that advancement is understood within Universities today relative to, let’s say, 10 years ago? Do you find you still have a lot of education that you have to do?
Jeff: I think education will always be required. Currently here at York, the majority of our senior institutional leadership team is relatively new, and we have a lot of new deans as well. There are some deans that come in with fundraising/alumni engagement experience, and some who don’t. However, advancement is becoming more and more important in these jobs, and I think hiring practices are reflecting that. So education/training on advancement is ongoing, and generally well received. Typically when we have a professional development initiative related to advancement among University leadership, they demonstrate a desire for more. I’d say we’re also going even deeper by including not only deans, but assistant deans, heads of departments, and front-line faculty in these initiatives as well.
Another important piece here is simply nurturing strong relationships with all the other departments within the University, to be sure we’re positioned properly to be able to do the things we need to do.
Nicole: Let’s shift to your campaign at York. How important are campaigns to university fundraising?
Jeff: This is a perennial debate among me and my colleagues; “Do we really need to be in a campaign”? It’s more of a construct than anything, something that everyone can rally behind and get excited about. I think that’s probably the most important part of it. I don’t see that campaigns will disappear, but I think people will treat them differently (for example, not taking a traditional approach to a campaign cabinet, using volunteers differently, etc.). From my own experience, hospitals tend to have more on-the-ground volunteer activity than universities do, and fundraising for universities tends to be more of a staff driven effort with help from volunteers. Often it’s the Dean, the President, or the Chancellor that donors want to hear from, so these people are a key part of the campaign team.
In our case, our former President saw value in launching a campaign, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to finish it before his term ended. We all agreed that it was a good way to bring everyone together and establish a common set of goals for everyone to go after.
Nicole: Let’s talk about that… as you had to deal with the dreaded ‘presidential transition’ during your campaign. Tell us about that transition and how you managed it.
Jeff: It takes a great degree of planning. We had a large internal working group here with colleagues across the University to deal with the transition. We had a wonderful President who was retiring after 10 years with great accomplishments under his belt, and we wanted to make sure that was celebrated appropriately. We also had an equally wonderful President succeeding him who we wanted to welcome warmly and celebrate her onboarding.
A lot of it counts on the two individuals seeing eye-to-eye as you go through the process, which we certainly had here. Introducing the incoming President to many of our major donors, key alumni, volunteers, and board members is also critical and requires a coordinated plan. The fact that our incoming President has been with us in various senior roles since 2002 was an incredible advantage as well. It was a challenging process, but it worked well and we have been able to continue building momentum.
Sometimes donors challenge me, and ask “What is the big idea? If money was no object, what would you do to fix this? Knowing that money is an object, what would you need to make it happen?”, so you need to have an answer to that.
Nicole: Campaign goals in higher education are becoming increasingly astronomical. How do you manage the pressure and expectation for ‘more and bigger’ to find the right spot for your institution when it comes to goals?
Jeff: I think you need to have a good understanding of where you’re at as an organization. You need a bit of a reality check to understand the maturity of your organization, and which part of the cycle you’re in. Are you prepared to expend the resources necessary to run a campaign twice as large as your previous one? Do you feel that you have the prospects that could make this happen? You need to ask yourself these questions, feel comfortable in your own skin, and not succumb to campaign envy that can lead to unrealistic goals.
That said, I think there’s huge value in thinking big. To ask yourself, what’s something extraordinary we could do that only a $100 Million donation would bring to fruition? If you have those ideas, and a realistic way of finding people to engage with who could fulfill this need, you’re off to a good start. Sometimes donors challenge me, and ask “What is the big idea? If money was no object, what would you do to fix this? Knowing that money is an object, what would you need to make it happen?”, so you need to have an answer to that. On the one hand, you don’t want to get caught up in the campaign arms race, but on the other hand you really do want to think big.
Nicole: Raising principal gifts for an immediate return is an expensive undertaking, as is developing a pipeline for more long term returns. Some argue that you can’t have both, and you need to focus on one at a time. What are your thoughts on this?
Jeff: From my experience with large hospitals and universities, this is always a major point of discussion. You need to develop a strong pipeline that allows you to cultivate principal gifts. Because of the way our campaigns work, if you take the top 100 gifts of the 50,000 gifts we’ve received in the last number of years, this represents an enormous proportion of the total funds raised. Gifts at all levels are very important, but you must spend time on this group, or you won’t be successful.
Nicole: Tell us about your alumni engagement program. What do alumni want from relationships with their alma maters? How are you engaging young alumni?
Jeff: We actually just did a survey among our alumni this year about how they prefer to be engaged. There were respondents that gave traditional answers, but there were also many people who want to be engaged differently. Increasingly, social media is a major vehicle that people expect us to use to communicate with them. And we do. But our alumni – including younger alumni – also still want in-person events.
In terms of in-person events, the wine and cheese soirées are fine; but what people really want is useful content and learning outcomes that will help them professionally. They also want to be engaged with current students more, so we do that as well. More students than ever are interested in entrepreneurship, many of whom actually start their own business while attending York. So we have a speaker series where alumni who are entrepreneurs come in and talk, and that’s always packed.
We have many ways to engage alumni and these activities are always evolving to meet the needs that our alumni express to us.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Outside! People will tell you I really dislike sitting in my office and sitting in meetings all day. I always like being on the move and being outdoors. I spend as much time as I can hiking, at the lake, skating, and enjoying nature with my family and friends.
What was your first experience with “charity” – either giving or receiving?
I have an interesting memory of the UNICEF boxes that some of us wore as kids at Halloween when we were trick or treating. At the time I saw it as a fun addition to trick or treating, but now when I reflect back on it, I think that’s when I really learned that it’s not all about you. Sure I’m going out and having fun, but even so, there are always others to consider.
What is the most difficult part about fundraising, and how do you overcome it?
I think it’s the classic answer; the fear of asking for money. I think it comes from a fear of rejection. You’re always trying to make sure you’ll find your way to a yes. Sometimes fundraisers are worried they’ll offend someone by asking them for money. Knowing that sometimes people might just say no, is hard sometimes. But to overcome this, I remember what those who have donated big sums of money have told me before; that the donor always wins. It feels really good to give your money away. Some of the happiest people I know are those who have given massive sums of money to charity, and some of their friends think they’re crazy for it. I’ve had donors say that in a way, they benefitted from giving more than the beneficiaries of the gift, simply because of how good it made them feel.
How did you wind up in fundraising?
Funnily enough, I’ve always been asking people for money. Before I was doing it for charity though, I was working in wealth management and was asking people to give me their money to manage it. Part of this involved insurance management. Through the insurance aspect, I found myself volunteering for the University of Waterloo on their planned giving campaign. I was helping them build the program and working on some technical aspects of it. This experience caught my attention and triggered my shift to the non-profit sector.
What is your favourite part about working in the sector?
The world is a scary place in a lot of ways right now with climate change, socioeconomically, politically, etc. We get bombarded with bad news every day. Philanthropy is one thing that is able to cut through that, and you get to see the wonderful side of humanity. You really get to see that there are good people who want to help others. Sometimes donors get to meet students who were able to go to University because of their scholarship, who wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. That’s just magic to watch. And I think it’s a great place to build a career, there’s a lot of meaningful work going on and it’s a place you can really make a difference. I do think it’s important that this is a professionalized sector in the economy, as it really does drive economic activity and benefits the community in many ways.
If you could give your younger self advice as he is just beginning his career, what advice would you give him?
Think big. I think we often underestimate what we can do, both individually and as a group. Also, stay determined. And finally, you don’t have to fight every single battle. Know the difference between the tyranny of the urgent, and a long term barrier to an important ultimate goal.