1:1 with Wendy McDowall
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 – WENDY MCDOWALL
Wendy McDowall joined the YMCA of Greater Toronto as Chief Development Officer in 2014 with over 28 years of experience as a fundraising professional in Canada and the U.S. Prior to joining the Y-GTA Wendy served in fundraising leadership positions in a number of sectors including arts and culture, health care, and universities. She has been responsible for and contributed to a variety of campaigns including capital, endowment, and comprehensive.
Throughout her career she has learned three guiding principles: the first gift is not the last gift, nor the largest gift, persistence and perseverance pays off, have the number cross your lips. Wendy continues to be astounded by what people’s generosity can accomplish.
Nicole: What is the key to fundraising success today?
Wendy: I would say that having strong organizational leadership that’s committed to delivering on the promises made to donors is critical. And while this is part of our responsibilities as fundraisers, it also needs to involve others in the organization, including in our case our leaders in program delivery
Another key, which may be stating the obvious, is to really spend the time on nurturing genuine human relationships with donors and prospects. Donor behaviour varies greatly depending on a number of things – including where they live, what sector you’re working in, and what generation they’re a part of. Not all donors approach giving in the same way or are looking for the same things, so to understand each one and treat them accordingly is crucial.
And finally, “What problem are you solving, and are you getting closer to solving that problem?” is something that many donors are asking today. I’d say that being able to answer this in detail is also critically important.
Nicole: Can you elaborate on your generational comment a bit more? What are the differences in giving between generations that you are observing?
Wendy: When I think back to the donors I interacted with during my days raising money for capital campaigns in the arts sector, those donors, who were mostly civics, were comfortable to write the cheque simply because it felt like the right thing to do and they believed in the work of the organization. They seemed to be much less interested in knowing about construction milestones and exactly what would happen in the building once it was completed.
Donors today, who are largely from the boomer generation, tend to have a lot of questions before they agree to make a commitment. They want to know about the organization, its stability, and the specific things their money is funding. They want to be heavily involved in the process. In the case of a construction project, they often want status updates on what’s being built. This means that stewardship of these donors is much different; it’s much more targeted and detailed.
Not all donors approach giving in the same way or are looking for the same things, so to understand each one and treat them accordingly is crucial.
Nicole: In what other ways is fundraising today different than 10 years ago? And how is it the same?
Wendy: As I mentioned before, people used to give because there was a cultural attitude that it was just the right thing to do. Fundraisers would demonstrate a need for support, and donors would give. Now, demonstrating a need isn’t quite enough. People already know what needs and problems exist. And today, donors want to know how we’re going to solve a problem before they agree to give. Rather than demonstrating the need, we now have to be able to demonstrate our solution to it.
Another thing that’s changed dramatically is the presence of social media in our sector. I don’t think we’ve really figured out how to harness it fully yet. It’s tricky to learn, in part because of the rapidly changing channels. Facebook was yesterday’s news… and today it’s Twitter? Instagram? Tomorrow it may be something else. Learning how to leverage these channels before their “best before” date is tough for anyone, but seemingly especially our sector, which seems to be slower at adapting to change, especially when it requires an investment.
Cyber security is another new and important topic, which is something I never would have thought about 10 years ago. We just have so much information about our donors. One way we mitigate any potential problems here is to never include information in a donor’s profile that we wouldn’t want to be seen on the front page of the Globe and Mail. But there still is information about our relationship that while perhaps isn’t inflammatory, is still sensitive. Our donors may be comfortable sharing personal information with us, but they may not want it visible to people who could potentially leverage it against them. So it’s really important that all this information is secure, because I believe that trust is one of the biggest assets we can have in this sector.
As for what’s the same, I think that creating a human/emotional connection and an organization’s commitment to deliver on a promise both remain critical to success for charities. Studies show that feeling isolated has detrimental effects on both physical and mental health, which means that having a sense of belonging is important for everyone. Whether it’s through Facebook, e-mail, or in-person meetings, we as charities have the power to cultivate relationships that offer a sense of belonging and purpose. I think this is a basic human need, and will continue to be important.
Nicole: One of the things we’ve been exploring in this interview series is that fewer Canadians are making tax receipted gifts. Does that concern you? Surprise you? What does this mean for how we raise money?
Wendy: It does concern me. One of the things I’ve been reflecting on lately are the articles and news stories that announce these million dollar gifts all the time now…and I wonder if that makes people who are only able to donate smaller amounts ($100 – $1000) less likely to give because they feel irrelevant, or like their donation doesn’t matter in comparison to the mega gifts. I’m not sure that we as a sector, us here at YMCA GTA included, do a good enough job at celebrating those smaller gifts in a meaningful way.
I also think there has been a shift in culture, in that people aren’t thinking about giving to charities as much as they used to. It’s not part of their routine like it was. So, I do think it’s a multifactorial thing.
Nicole: Why do you think people give to charity?
Wendy: I think that once people give, they realize it makes them feel good. It’s the endorphin release that happens when know you’ve done something to help someone. I think sometimes, people also give because they never thought they would be fortunate enough to give or have an impact in a big way, so they feel a sense of responsibility (in a good way) to give.
For some of those who are more fortunate, I think giving grounds them, and is a more satisfying/meaningful way for them to spend money than on a new boat or a nice car. I’m not sure how important legacy is to people now-a-days… we’ve had a few multi-million dollar gifts over the last couple years that were anonymous.
Nicole: Let’s shift our focus now to campaign fundraising. You are in the midst of your $100 million Strong Start, Great Future campaign that is raising money for 10 new YMCA Centres of Community across the GTA. Tell us a bit about it… what have been the keys to success so far? What have been your learnings?
Wendy: It’s been humbling, exciting, and exhilarating. This is the biggest campaign in YMCA GTA history. And while we are still in the relatively early stages, I’m pleased to say that so far we are well on track for success…something that is particularly humbling because when we started, we did not have a very strong pipeline at all. So that was our first order of business and required a lot of team work, just as much internally as externally in the beginning.
Building our pipeline has been a “ground game” as we call it. It required a lot of dinners, networking, and introductions through our volunteers. I also don’t think it would have been possible to have the success we’ve had without the amazing leadership and support from Medhat Madhy, our CEO, who have made this campaign and fundraising for it a top personal and institutional priority. Plus our dedicated volunteers who are committed to telling the Y story and sharing the breadth, depth, and scope of our programs and their impact in the community.
I’ve also learned that raising money in the GTA is dramatically different from community to community. The messaging, therefore, completely changes between them. However in all instances, a major key to success across the board for us was informing people of the huge scope of our work. Many people aren’t exactly aware that our programming expands far beyond health and fitness, and includes child care services, at-risk youth programs, youth leadership programs, employment services, and immigrant services. When people understood all the different things we do that help communities prosper, that’s when the pennies started dropping.
Nicole: Capital is the major priority in your campaign. What has been your experience raising money for capital projects? What is the key to attracting donors to this type of priority?
Wendy: When making the case for our buildings, we focus on the impact that we will have in the community instead of the “bricks and mortar”. In many cases our donors are initially interested in our programs and what problems we are solving, what complex challenges we’re tackling. As we spend time with them we provide a context for the importance of a “place” in the community where people can gather and access a wide range of programs and supports. And happily, we now have strong evidence of our impact that we can point to via our research report called “Life in the GTA: A Window of Wellbeing”.
Launched last fall, its goal was to explore how the presence of a YMCA location impacts neighbourhoods. We surveyed thousands of people around the GTA, measured 30 plus indicators of wellbeing, and found that the presence of a YMCA results in increased wellbeing for people who both use the centre, and for those who simply live nearby.
Building our pipeline has been a “ground game” as we call it. It required a lot of dinners, networking, and introductions through our volunteers.
Nicole: How are you engaging volunteers in this campaign? What role are they playing for you and how are you structuring their involvement?
Wendy: We are making it very low-barrier by not requiring them to ask for any gifts if they are not comfortable in that role because we are fully comfortable doing the “ask”. And so, we are primarily asking them to open up their networks and they have been huge players in getting us introductions and meetings with prospects.
A big barrier in the past was that volunteers weren’t completely aware of our story, the scope of our work, and the impact we have. Once we make sure they are aware of all this, it makes it much easier for them to identify people in their network that would make sense to introduce us to.
From a more structural point of view, we have created a Toronto cabinet, a Vaughan cabinet, and have a group of five volunteers who are working with us on securing transformational gifts.
Nicole: Overall, what would you say are the biggest opportunities open to charities/the sector today? What are the biggest challenges?
Wendy: We are facing a number of complex social challenges today (poverty, newcomers, homelessness, social isolation, etc.). Government agencies, individuals, corporations, and the charitable sector all have a role to play in addressing these challenges and we need to work together in partnership to be successful.
And in that partnership model, I think charities are in a unique position in terms of how we can help. Charities typically have been in communities for a long time, and have a long term commitment to their mission and vision. We don’t report to shareholders like the private sector, and we’re not on an election cycle like the government. We can adapt to change unlike other sectors in that as new challenges arise, we can rejig our activities and funding accordingly. If we harness all this, we could really effect positive change.
As for challenges, I think technology and artificial intelligence are some things that we haven’t quite figured out yet. Another is crowd-funding, and what that means for charities. I also wonder how we can integrate social entrepreneurship into what we do. These are the things that when I take a step back from my day-to-day work, I wonder what it all means for us and how we can respond.
Nicole: What are the things that you believe should be on every charity’s agenda right now as it relates to their fundraising?
Wendy: I may sound like a broken record, but I think impact should really be top of mind. By that, I don’t mean inputs, outcomes, etc. I’m talking about how you’re going to share the stories of what you do, how your participants feel about what you do, and the lives that have improved because of your work. People understand stories and although I like a good infographic with stats, and charts, and I think we should consider talking less about ourselves and more about the people who benefit from what we do. I also think we will need to be open to co-create with our donors, and willing to explore collaborations with other organizations.
Where do you look for inspiration?
When I was working in the arts, it was the performers and the actual art form.. Now, at the Y it’s the people delivering services. It’s the people that do the work I’m trying to fundraise for. It’s too powerful to ignore.
Who (e.g. company, sector) outside of the NFP sector do you think has done a great job of dealing with the disruption they have faced?
I’m mindful of giving a Canadian example and I actually think Blackberry has done a great job at this. They realized that what they were doing was no longer relevant. They quickly responded by noting what they do best and keeping true to that, but adapting to provide what the market was demanding…I hope I haven’t jinxed them!
How did you become a fundraiser? What was your first fundraising job?
I started in sales and marketing. I liked that because I loved the feeling of closing a sale and meeting targets, and I was good at it. I had a strong interest in the visual arts and heard about a corporate sponsorship position opening at an arts organization where I could do what I loved (selling, in a way), but for a cause that I really cared about.
Why did you stay?
I would never have access to the people I know now if I had continued in the private sector – the donors and volunteers I have had the privilege of working with have been a huge part of my professional development. Also, there’s a huge sense of accomplishment in watching a project come to fruition that you raised money for. Just seeing what happens when something comes together is an amazing thing.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I had the great fortune of working with well-known Toronto volunteer and philanthropist Jim Pitblado, on a campaign some years ago. And he made a comment that has always stuck with me: “Don’t ever forget, this is OPM (Other People’s Money).” I interpreted it as meaning that we can’t forget that when people give, it’s a gift that they did not owe us. It means they trust us, and because of that, we need to respect them and honour their trust.
Is there a piece of advice that you wished you received?
I’m not sure how many people can relate to this, but when I was younger, I could get so wrapped up in things sometimes it felt like the world was going to end because of a small mistake or setback. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that taking a step back and getting some perspective helped me remember that in the grand scheme of things, everything will be okay, even if things get difficult. So my answer to this question would be: No one is perfect, there will always be setbacks, and the world isn’t going to end because of a mistake you made. Manage it, minimize it if you can…but most importantly, move on!