AHP Connect Member Profile - Sarah Fawcett-Lee
Sarah Fawcett-Lee, CFRE
Senior Vice President and Chief Philanthropy Officer
AHP member since 2002
What got you into health care philanthropy?
After finishing grad school, I was working in a small history museum in Baltimore. That was back in 1990. It was a small staff and I ended up doing a little bit of everything as an administrative assistant. This included running the corporate giving program and helping with a few small grant applications and the museum’s membership program.
I was passionate about the museum and the work it did. I believed in it so deeply, that when I saw people or corporations making philanthropic investments, it excited me. I thought it was amazing there were people out there who wanted to join us and help make what we do possible.
I realized my skillset was well-suited to working in fundraising. That’s when I decided I wanted to work in fundraising specifically.
What skillset did you have at the time that lent itself to fundraising?
I always joke and say the reason I ended up doing the work I was doing at the museum was that I knew how to type. But it was also because I was articulate — verbally and in writing — so I could write persuasively about what we were doing in a knowledgeable way. I always enjoyed writing and making a case, so that was perfect for me. I then pursued my first real full-time fundraising job, which started me out on my career.
When anyone comes to me for career advice, saying they want to get into fundraising, I usually say to them, “Look: you should try to find a smaller organization that you’re passionate about, because you will be exposed to all facets of how a nonprofit organization works and that’s how you can strive toward your goals.”
What drew you to health care specifically?
Around 2001, I was ready to take on a more senior role with greater responsibility and work for a larger organization. I didn’t know much about health care philanthropy when I first entered the field. I had been in education, the arts, and also in some social service organizations. Being in health care philanthropy was a whole new world for me. I didn’t specifically set out to be in health care, but it was a great opportunity.
There I was, not knowing much about health care philanthropy, so one of the first things I did was to attend an AHP regional conference. It gave me access to valuable information and within months of joining the field, I became involved with AHP as a volunteer.
You’ve recently moved – what’s that like to transfer to a completely different organization?
It was invigorating. It’s not only moving to a new organization, it was moving to a new state as well. I left Baltimore after living there for 29 years, and now my husband and I are living in South Jersey, which is new and different for us. We love being outside of Philadelphia, so that’s a great opportunity. Virtua is at an interesting point in its history. It’s growing, and on a journey to be a highly reliable organization. I’ve joined a remarkable leadership team, and I get to work with dedicated and inspired colleagues, clinicians and volunteers. They care about what we’re doing at Virtua and how we’re serving the community.
The volunteers I work with are ready and willing and excited about rolling up their sleeves and looking to the future. It’s a wonderful situation. I have a great team of staff as well. I’ve been at MedStar for the past six years – I went from a team of 50 people to a team of nine, so it’s a shift in thinking. At Virtua, we’ve got a tremendous amount of work in front of us, and sometimes I’ll think: “How are we going to get everything done?” We’re building on a solid foundation and taking what’s been done before to the next level, which is very exciting.
What are some other challenges you think you’ll address?
With any organization, you have to be highly strategic in what you’re doing. At Virtua, I’m thrilled that everyone wants to partner with the philanthropy team. Everyone wants to be involved, which is a wonderful problem to have. But now we have to think about how we’re going to have the biggest impact and do the best we can.
We want to raise more money and we have to be efficient about it, especially when you have a small staff. We’ll get there. It’s going to be an interesting few years and an uplifting journey for everyone. I hope Virtua can demonstrate how we can implement best practices in health care philanthropy.
You’ve mentioned your board – what kind of work do you do with them?
A health care foundation board is not the same as a regular nonprofit board. Right as you called me, I was revising the questionnaire that we give to new board members. These questions help them understand their role right from the start.
My leadership role at Virtua offers me the opportunity to focus our organization on the prime reason why patients and their families give back: to express gratitude. I’m ready for the challenge of building this important part of our organization’s culture and am confident that we can do great things.
I’ve always picked my jobs within my career path carefully. I choose to work for organizations that have a strong sense of their history and their future, and where I can benefit from a mentoring relationship with my boss.
What are some other valuable mentor relationships you’ve had in your career?
I’ve been very fortunate to have had wonderful mentors. Each person I’ve reported to has been special to me and it’s been a wonderful experience.
Ever since I entered health care philanthropy in 2001, I was mentored. By being introduced to AHP, from working with my bosses – Julie Cox, Bruce Bartoo – it was just expected that I would be involved. And I started with AHP so early in my career. One of my earliest mentors said to me that I’m going to get to the point where I want to pay it forward. I believe in that wholeheartedly.
That’s one of the reasons why I love serving on the faculty at the Madison Institute. It’s my way to give back to the organization and help coach and mentor the people who are entering our profession.
Didn’t you bring a board member with you to Leading Forward this year?
I did, and he was one of the few who were there! He got a tremendous amount out of it, and I also think AHP got a tremendous amount out of him being there. He’s our vice chair, so in a couple of years, he’s going to be chairing our foundation. He’s young, he’s dynamic, he’s all about board engagement and letting our board know what their role is. He allows them to be very comfortable and very active in the right ways.
I’d love to see more of my peers bring their leaders to things like that because I think they could get a lot out of it. In fact, I’d love for AHP to do more with board members specifically, such as more board training and education.
How has being an associate dean at the Madison Institute been for you, and how do you hope it goes this year?
It’s an honor. Sometimes I pinch myself to make sure it’s actually true. I’ve been involved now for five years. My first year, I was new to it and didn’t know what hit me. Over the years, I’ve grown in many ways as a teacher.
I teach in Elements of Major Gifts, and that’s where my passion is because you’re providing major gifts officers with a solid understanding and foundation for how they can go about their work. If they follow the path correctly and stick to what they learn and remember the things they’ve learned, they can be successful.
Fundraising is an art and a science, and I talk about that a lot at Madison. There’s a lot you can learn in how to be a good fundraiser but there’s also that innate part of you, what you uniquely bring to the table, so it’s a magical mix. I love to see the students in the room because they’re all so different from each other. They all bring different approaches, and they’re sharing it all with one another.
I leave as educated as they are. I get as much out of Madison as they do. I always feel uplifted and inspired, and I come back with a renewed sense of purpose and mission. I’ll miss Madison when my tenure on the faculty is over.
After that, I’ll have to figure out what else I can do to serve AHP.
What are some other pieces of advice you would give to someone early in their career?
Rely on your gut. Find someone who you can trust, someone who is a neutral individual. Talk with that person about where you want to be and how to get there. Having a five-year plan and being able to aspire to that is important. AHP has a great mentoring program. Take advantage of that. Get involved in things. Don’t be on your own. That’s what AHP has offered me.