1:1 with Susan McIsaac
Over the course of 2019, Nicole Nakoneshny, KCI’s Lead, Knowledge + Insights, will be 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.
INTERVIEW WITH SUSAN MCISAAC, MANAGING DIRECTOR, STRATEGIC PHILANTHROPY, RBC
Susan McIsaac joined RBC in May 2018 as managing director, Strategic Philanthropy. In this role, Susan provides strategic advice and guidance to RBC’s Enterprise Strategic Clients and ultra-high-net-worth clients in developing their family philanthropic and legacy plans. Prior to joining RBC, Susan was the president and CEO of United Way Toronto. A senior executive with United Way since 1998, she was previously the organization’s chief development officer. Under her leadership, the organization grew from $58 million in 1998 to $118 million in 2016.
Susan has spent a lifetime in service to the community and was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal in 2012 in recognition of her efforts. She is a member of the International Board of Right to Play and of the Advisory Board for Canada’s Top 40 Under 40. In 2014 she was named by WXN as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women and in 2017 she was the recipient of the Toronto Region Builder Award by the Toronto Region Board of Trade.
Nicole: When it comes to fundraising, what’s trending?
Susan: I’m hearing more and more about partnerships. People are looking for non-profit partnerships, both collaboration among organizations as well as partnerships between private and non-profit entities. While this isn’t brand new, I’m hearing more organizations talking about working in this way than I have in the past. And I think there is a growing appetite and willingness between both sectors to collaborate and do things differently where there can be mutual benefit.
I’m also hearing different thinking about revenue. Both donors and charities are looking for engagement opportunities beyond the traditional philanthropic approaches, exploring vehicles like social finance and social enterprise as well. Social impact investing is also being talked about more and more. It’s a tough environment in which to fundraise, so I think organizations are finding that they need to explore these types of innovations in order to thrive.
Nicole: You and I have both been in this business a long time. I feel like there is far greater exploration of different ways to support charity than ever before. Would you agree? And if so, why is that the case?
Susan: I do agree. There is a lot of money coming into organizations through non-traditional approaches, and that will only increase. I think one of the main reasons is that our world is constantly changing and evolving, and the non-profit sector needs to change with it. For instance, the move to digital is unstoppable. It’s a huge opportunity for organizations, but also a huge barrier for many that just don’t have the ability to invest in what’s needed to be digitally competent.
I also think when it comes to major donors, as we start to see the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next, they aren’t going to approach their philanthropy the way their parents did. The new generation of major donors has different ideas about what philanthropy can and should look like. So that’s also driving a shift in how we will have to do things.
Having said that, I do think there is still a lot of traditional philanthropy happening, and I think there are many organizations that are doing a great job tapping into that.
Nicole: With that in mind, how do we ensure that philanthropy continues to be viewed as an important and relevant means by which to support charity?
Susan: We need to keep the notion of our community engagement at the forefront of our agendas. For instance, when it comes to younger donors, I do wonder if we are doing enough to engage them. I think their engagement in particular needs to be a priority for every charity.
When it comes to greater capacity donors, it’s also about how we engage with them, with the need for much greater customization of their experiences. I recently spoke with a donor who made a significant gift to a hospital. He described for me what sounded like a completely customized, behind the scenes tour that the hospital had put together for him. He was blown away by it and it totally inspired him to do more, so the tour had a significant impact on the gift he made.
I think this also is a spot where digital can play a role. I’m on the board of an international development organization and when the CEO travels, he regularly creates videos with children wherever he is and tells their story. And so across two continents, he creates an opportunity for that charity’s community to touch and feel the mission in action.
Nicole: We know that giving via the traditional vehicle of the tax receipted gift has been on the decline with fewer Canadians claiming tax receipted donations every year. What does this mean for how we raise money?
Susan: I feel there is definitely a newly emerging type of donor who is now taking more of an investment approach to their giving. Not because they want their money back, but because they feel that this is a more optimal way to effect change. I have met with a number of people, mostly younger and mostly male, who prefer to give in this way.
I feel there is definitely a newly emerging type of donor who is now taking more of an investment approach to their giving. I have met with a number of people, mostly younger and mostly male, who prefer to give in this way.
As I noted earlier, I’m also seeing more interest in social enterprise and social finance alternatives, again driven by the belief that this might be a more effective way to support change. I think there are people who would formerly be thought of as philanthropists who are now more attracted to these types of opportunities. They are adopting different models and approaches, because they believe there is a more effective way of “doing good” than how previous generations have been doing it.
To be honest, I think that’s going to significantly reshape the future of this sector. To respond to this trend requires a real organizational shift, which I worry many of the more traditional charities may have trouble with. I believe we need to be doing more to be prepared to have those kinds of conversations, and we need to take more chances.
Nicole: Do you think charities are responding quickly enough to these changes?
Susan: I’m afraid I think my answer to that is no. Having said that, I recognize that most charities are incredibly resource deprived, and it’s hard to respond quickly when that’s the case. But I do think they are going to have to respond, or they run the risk of disappearing.
The work most charities need to do today is to get strategic, smart, and focused on the value proposition that resonates with prospective donors today. That strategy has always been effective, and I believe will continue to lead to success.
Nicole: So we’ve talked a lot about what’s trending. What do you feel is timeless?
Susan: It’s always about the case for giving. Organizations that can tell their story well, that can illustrate the importance of the work they are doing, and can engage people around having an impact in the space they work in are the ones that succeed. The ability to engage people around the importance of the cause results in meaningful gifts. I have to tell you that I don’t remember ever really having to ask for money at United Way…I only remember telling the story of those affected and people stepping up. If you have a very strong case and can engage donors around the importance of the work, you’re on the right path.
A significant challenge for many charities in this regard is to have people to tell their story to. Many organizations struggle with getting access to donors and prospective donors.
Nicole: What advice do you have on that challenge of accessing new donors?
Susan: Everything we did at United Way in this regard revolved around volunteers introducing us to their networks. We would tell volunteers that yes, we have a donor base that we reach out to and engage with, but we need your help to broaden our reach. Some charities do a lot through digital platforms, but those are typically smaller level gifts. You need networks of like-minded people to develop human-to-human relationships with to get larger gifts.
Nicole: In both your former roles with United Way as well as in your current role with RBC, you regularly speak to individuals with significant wealth about their charitable giving and philanthropy. Why do people give their money away?
Susan: There are lots of reasons. I think people get inspired by an issue or a cause, and if they feel like they can make a difference, they give. I recently had a conversation with a charity where a donor, unsolicited, wrote them a cheque for $50,000 after attending an event. The CEO called him to say thank you, and asked what had motivated him to give this gift. He responded that he had been so struck by the need, the charity’s response, and the difference he could make, he was moved to write a cheque.
Now when you get to the transformational gift level, I think the notion of moving the needle on an issue, of making a significant difference, really unlocks giving. These types of donors tend to be so invested in whatever cause they choose to support, for some almost seeing it like their new business or mission. They are incredibly intent on trying to make a difference. And they know they can, given the amount they can give. Whether it’s the person who wants to see a new theatre in Stratford or a cure for MS, if they really feel they can do that, that’s what moves them.
Nicole: So we’ve explored why they give once they have made the decision to give. I’m curious what makes them want to give in the first place? What gets them to the starting line?
Susan: Again, I don’t think there is one reason. But in my experience, I do think that one consistent motivation among those who do give their money away is a feeling of responsibility. They feel blessed, and feel a responsibility to share and give back. If you look at the Giving Pledge, there are 176 members or signors. While there is some similarity, there’s also a fair bit of diversity. But if you read the statements that accompany their pledge, which is something they have all written to explain why they are doing it, in almost every case you will see the sentiment “I’m so blessed”.
I think the greatest potential to raise money today is from individual wealth.
Nicole: Do women give differently than men?
Susan: Yes, they do. In my experience, they tend to want significant personal involvement with the cause or organization they support, and want to be connected to the human aspect of what they are supporting. I was recently at an event for Women Moving Millions. What was interesting is that over three days of the conference they had different donors get up and tell their story. And almost without exception, every speaker talked about being motivated by a personal interest. I find there is a need for much more tangibility with women donors and that they want a much closer connection to their investment.
The other thing I would say is different is that many have a strong desire to convene and connect with each other around their giving.
Nicole: What are the things that you believe should be on every charity’s agenda right now as it relates to their fundraising?
Susan: When I was at United Way, I felt our strength came from the people that we recruited around our various tables, including but not only our board. Our ability to grow, influence, and make change involved leveraging those smart minds. So I think having great people with you and leveraging the skills of those great people, both voluntary or staff, that’s the future.
Nicole: Where is the greatest potential to raise money today?
Susan: I think the greatest potential to raise money today is from individual wealth. I don’t think there will be more than incremental growth from corporations. Individuals, if they are really inspired and fired up, will give however much they want. They won’t have the rules around giving like corporations have.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I look to the organizations I’m doing volunteer work with right now, and I’m very inspired by them.
Where / how did you learn about charity and philanthropy?
I learned about this from my parents. It was in our home all the time growing up, they made a point to teach us these values. We put money into the collection plate every Sunday. They would often talk about giving, about how lucky we were, and how important it is to share.
What was your first experience with “charity” – either giving or receiving?
I think my first memory is probably the Unicef boxes that we took out at Halloween as kids.
How did you become a fundraiser?
My first job was not satisfying for me. So I went to an industrial psychologist that did a profile on me. They said I should think about fundraising, because my profile indicated that I have an ability to influence people.
Why did you stay?
I stay because I feel like the work is important, that it matters, and it makes me feel like I can make a positive difference.