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AHP Connect Member Profile - Keith Curtis

Allana Schwaab
Published:  03/13/2019

Keith CurtisKeith Curtis
Executive Director
Grande Prairie Regional Hospital Foundation
Grande Prairie, AB

AHP member since 2017

How did you get started in health care philanthropy?

I have only been involved professionally for going on two years, but I worked in the restaurant industry for my entire career and, as a franchisee for a variety of restaurants, I was a supporter of the hospital foundation in this capacity for many years. My businesses were also involved with many of the hospital foundation's events and we ran fundraisers through our restaurants. That's really where my commitment to this really began.

The real beginning of philanthropy for me was working with Easter Seals on an event through my work. Since then I have served on various boards over the years. I worked with other foundations, including the Community Foundation here in Grande Prairie, where I was the chair for three years. I have always been involved in the community in some philanthropic way.

Eventually my business partner and I reached the point where all of our franchise agreements were up, and it was time to decide what was next. I felt I had gone as far as I could in the restaurant industry and really desired a chance to do something more meaningful. Getting into philanthropy as a career was a natural fit for me. I looked at a number of different organizations and applied with a number of other foundations. Things seemed to align for me when the director of our foundation here in Grande Prairie, with whom I had worked closely for years, decided to take a position with another organization. I was very keen to be involved with the hospital foundation in a professional capacity. I was asked to apply, which I did, and I was chosen as the successor to the very successful executive director.

What specifically drew you to the health care fundraising industry?

The one thing about health care is that it affects everybody, no matter what. The idea that health care is critical at the beginning of a person's life, or the end of their life, and everywhere in between really resonated with me. I've had children who were born here in Grande Prairie, and I've had family members who have faced medical challenges and the health care system has done an incredible job of taking care of them. I saw the many successes, but also saw areas where we could do better, and thought this would be a great way to give back and get involved.

Are you surprised by anything? What didn’t you expect?

I'm surprised by how little people know about how foundations operate and what it requires to run a foundation. I was surprised that so many people think philanthropy is different from running a business and that lack of awareness really intrigued me. I had enough experience with philanthropy that I realized it is much like a business in many ways, such as having definite operating costs. I know that you have to pay to have great staff and to look after your staff. On the other hand, I had never really drilled down into what it takes financially to run a philanthropic organization, so that was something that caught me off guard.

I was surprised by how hard events are! How absolutely overwhelming they can be. I come from the restaurant industry, so I have done a lot of catering and have fed very large groups of people, which I pretty much took in stride. In my new role, I realized that I have only seen one aspect of the many events I have been involved with, and I found the multiple aspects of putting on these events to be truly overwhelming.

I was surprised by how hard it is to actually fundraise and how hard it is for fundraisers to talk to donors and build relationships – to make the connection between relationship building and fundraising. Learning the intricacies of what motivates each individual to give has been an extremely large learning curve, and I was unprepared for how emotionally draining that process can be.

Coming from private industry, specifically the hospitality industry, one gets used to instant gratification. You open the door to the restaurant, you have guests coming in, you serve them a great meal and a great bottle of wine, and everybody's happy. In the event anybody isn't happy, for whatever reason, you can deal with that on the spot. In this industry, there is no instant gratification, rather, there is time and there are relationships. The gratifying moments come sporadically. The most gratifying moments for me are when kids come through the door with teddy bears that have been donated at their birthday parties for the kids in the NICU and Pediatric Units. I love the look on those kids' faces when they're giving out a donation.

The other side is the legacy side, when a family has gone through a terrible time, whether that's cancer or another long-term illness, or a sudden death. For them to come forward and make a donation to our foundation, the thought that goes into making those donations, especially in those trying times, it's really heart-wrenching. It's humbling and overwhelming to know that people, who are in the process of dying, are thinking about their legacy and what they are going to leave behind for the benefit of others.

Is there a specific gift or one of those moments that sticks out to you?

Oh, my goodness! There are a lot.

It's amazing to see the support we get from people both inside and outside our community. For example, I've had the opportunity to work with a lot of really wonderful people through the Stollery Children's Foundation – we have a joint event partnership with them. They've been mentors and just all-round amazing people and have helped us raise money for our capital campaign. It's great to know there are people outside your community who are willing to help you meet your goals and want to see you succeed.

We have a local Tim Horton's that sells cookies every year, and the money from the cookies goes to our capital campaign. They sold almost 54,000 cookies this past year, which is unbelievable. That shows support from a local business but also from the residents in our region.

I hate to single out one person, but we've had some amazing gifts toward our capital campaigns, and those companies and organizations that have given us those $1 million, $1.5 million, $750,000 gifts and the big $2 million – those are significant amounts of money for organizations, especially in a down economy. Albertans have been struggling, and these organizations have come through because they see the work we are doing, believe that health care is important to their employees and to the regions they do business in and want to ensure that health care is more than just sustainable. They want to bring that innovation in equipment, programming and education to the regions that may not qualify for it under normal health care operations. It is very much a validation of what we are doing when people and organizations have so much confidence in what we are doing.

Even though those big gifts are so very important to the success we have as a foundation and the impact we can have on health care in our region, it is very important to me that we remember that all gifts make a difference. The combining of those smaller gifts can make the difference between a program continuing or not. My grandparents taught me that we all give according to what our lot in life dictates. No matter what we give, each gift is important. The story I can think of most recently is that our senior development officer was speaking with someone at our event booth and noticed a young girl standing nearby listening. After the SDO had finished speaking with this individual, the young girl came over and gave her a dollar and said she wanted to help the babies in our hospital. That dollar for that girl was a fortune, and she gave it to help others. Now, how can that not bring a tear to your eye and reaffirm your hope and faith in humanity?

Some of the smaller gifts are very heartwarming. For example, we have a number of people who knits tiny little hats for the babies in our NICU, and now they’ve expanded into doing larger hats for our cancer patients. We also run a therapeutic clown program and just recently one of the local volleyball teams collected hundreds of toys and craft kits to give out to kids who are in the hospital. That really makes me stop and think – these are young people and they are making a difference already.

What campaigns or projects are you currently focused on?

We are just past the halfway point in our capital campaign. Grande Prairie is lucky enough to be getting a new hospital after 30-some years. Our population has definitely grown since they built our Queen Elizabeth II Regional Hospital, so we are building a new one to continue to meet the health care needs of the region. We have a major capital campaign that we have been working on, which is the largest rural health care fundraising campaign in Alberta's history. It has been a huge undertaking, but we have an amazing regional community that has gotten behind it. We have also partnered with a number of large provincial foundations, which truly demonstrates that our neighbours are more than just the people next door – they are from all over this amazing province. People talk about donor fatigue, but we have these amazing people who continue to donate, anything from the $20 donations to the $2 million donations.

Are you doing anything to counteract donor fatigue?

We are concentrating on major gifts to reach our capital campaign target. We have revamped our donor engagement program to make sure we are not going after the same donor every time. We really want to highlight the great things we are doing and to make sure people know the gifts we have been receiving are going to make a significant difference in our new hospital.

People in every walk of life know there is no bottomless pocketbook available to provide the services we need and want. From the government's position, there is only so much money to go around when we have multiple hospitals, in a large health care system, and a growing population. In Alberta, this is a particular concern as we have a large population at both ends of the spectrum. We have a large younger demographic as well as a large aging population, and there are only so many health care dollars to go around.

We have spent a lot of time working on our internal controls, systems and database. Most people probably don't care about that, but we have done a lot of work cleaning up our database and trying to make it usable so that we aren’t burning out our donors. Again, these are the types of things that often get overlooked when you don't have sufficient staff over a period of time. Slowly, but surely, we are getting there.

What benefit did you find from AHP's Convene Canada conference last year?

For a new kid on the block, it was incredible, with so much information coming at you. Getting to network and meet the people in the philanthropic community... I don't know if it's the same outside of health care, but they have been wonderful about helping me along the way. The people I have met have been fantastic.

I did get involved with helping with the Hospital Development Education Fund of Canada (HDEF) fundraising. I did the healthcare primer course for fundraisers, which was basically a crash course on "What the heck am I doing?" Getting into it was kind of like a kick in the seat of the pants. I learned a lot so I signed up for the advanced course this year, and hopefully it'll give me more insight into what I'm supposed to be doing and where I'm supposed to be going.

It amazes me how many philanthropic health care professionals are not AHP members. I realize that there are numerous other worthwhile fundraising and philanthropic organizations professionals can be a part of, but AHP is hospital and health care specific. AHP offers so much that is distinctly unique to our field and highly specialized. It’s a shame more professionals are not taking advantage of what AHP has to offer. I belong to four other fundraising/philanthropic industry-related organizations and they all offer worthwhile benefits. However, being directly involved in health care, AHP offers an edge for improving what we do every day that the others just can’t.  

I also sit on the Canadian Council for AHP, as the Alberta representative. I'm afraid I must admit that I am probably not much help at this point, but I hope to be as soon as I learn from my colleagues on the council. I hope I can help get people to understand that, as health care professionals in the philanthropy world, we can really help each other out. For every fundraiser or health care philanthropy person who joins AHP, our ranks are strengthened and our network grows, providing more mentors and greater sources of information.

One of my big goals is to work with bigger foundations and form partnerships, like with the Stollery Children's Foundation. That came partly out of Convene Canada, as well as from working with another large foundation, which we haven't announced yet. This second opportunity originated at Convene Canada, while having lunch with a woman from a large foundation in Alberta. It has been a year in the making and we are almost ready to make an announcement, which is really fantastic. Ottawa is one of my top 10 favourite cities in the world, so that didn't hurt either.

If you are just starting out, go to Convene Canada. Bug your executive director - whatever it takes. Apply for one of the numerous scholarships available. Just get there. If you've been in this world for years - still go. We need to hear from these mentors who know the ins and outs. Those are the people who know how to make things work and how to fix things. I gained an incredible network of people that allows me to pick up the phone and ask questions and get policies and share information. If health care philanthropy is old hat for you there are still so many reasons to attend Convene Canada. An opportunity to reconnect with old colleagues and to meet new members and build stronger relationships with them. New ideas, new technologies, new challenges to be overcome all of this is explored or can be explored at Convene. There is something for everyone at Convene and together we are stronger.

The conference provides so much information. I took so much away, there was no way I was going to be able to implement it all. You leave with your mind so full of possibilities, then you come home and say, "All right, I can do a little bit of this, and a little bit of that." I still have a job to do. I still have money I have to raise. I have donors I have to speak with and I have governmental bodies and entities that I have to answer to. Like RFK’s “ripples” speech. Every little ripple I make can make a difference and when the sum of all of those ripples comes together the tidal wave of difference one can make becomes a reality.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

When I first got involved in philanthropy in my adopted community I was told, “Why bother, you can’t change the world.”

What I learned from this was:

Ask for help. We’re not in this alone. There are people out there who are willing to help you make a difference. We don't live in a bubble. Break down those silos.

Create a professional development plan for yourself and stick to it. Don’t let others say you can’t do it, that you can’t change the world. Shake off those crabs in the bucket and don’t let them bring you down. Learn something new every day but also remember to teach something new to someone every day.

You CAN change the world. Maybe not all of us will in a monumental way. But, small independent acts of change can make the difference in one person’s life and that’s changing the world.

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Meet The Author

AHP logo
Allana Schwaab
Communications Manager
Association for Healthcare Philanthropy

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