AHP Connect Member Profile – Grant Stirling
Grant Stirling, Ph.D.
President and Chief Development Officer
Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago Foundation
AHP member since 2010
How did you get into the health care fundraising industry?
I graduated with a Ph.D. in contemporary American literature and loved every minute of my schooling, but I realized I did not want a career in literary research. I cast about to find how I could apply my skills and discovered postsecondary educational fundraising. I started as a proposal writer and learned the language of the trade, and over the next 11 years, I worked my way through the University of Western Ontario in Canada to become assistant vice president.
I then moved to Toronto and started working for SickKids, where I discovered the world of pediatric hospitals. I was stunned and amazed at the difference that a children’s hospital could make in the life of a family, one child at a time. If there is one insight that I developed my first year at SickKids, it was to really understand what I call the fundamental narrative of postsecondary education versus health care philanthropy. In my mind, postsecondary education is about transformation and health care philanthropy is about salvation — yet they are two sides of the same coin. Your time at school fundamentally transforms who you are as an individual and transforms your path. That’s a very important motivator for engagement when you’re an alumnus 10 or 20 years out.
It’s similar with health care institutions, but it is also different. Both are strong experiences that leave a lifetime impression, but health care is based on salvation. You come to a hospital because you’re in need or in peril. When you receive the care and attention of the caregivers or the care team, you’re saved. The notion of salvation is powerful, and it hits on a much deeper emotional register. For me personally, this notion of salvation and making such a difference in the lives of the children and the families that we serve is tremendously enriching.
You spent many years at SickKids and are now at Lurie Children’s. How was the transition from health care fundraising in Canada to health care fundraising in the United States?
That’s a great question and there are a number of ways to answer it. Obviously when you shift countries — even those as close as the U.S. and Canada — the differences are both small and quite grand in ways you might not anticipate. Clearly the funding, care delivery and structural models of health care in both countries are very different. Canada is a single-payer, socialized health care system and the United States is not. The conversation around the nature of U.S. health care is an important ongoing political discussion.
I’ve reveled in the opportunity to understand the complexities of the model in the U.S. — but I’ll say this, and I’ll say it with respect — while there is a lot of valorization of the Canadian health care system, it is one model amongst many. It has its benefits and it has its disadvantages in structure just as the U.S. system has its own advantages and disadvantages. I personally believe Canada could benefit from a healthy dose of American capitalism, while I also I think the U.S. could benefit from a healthy dose of Canadian socialism. A hybrid model could be very helpful on both sides of the border, in my opinion.
To answer your question about moving to the United States, I wanted to take the opportunity to develop a new chapter with my wife, now that we are empty-nesters, and I’ve always wanted to come to the states. It has been exhilarating, and there is no better city than Chicago in which to begin this next chapter in our lives.
What are some trends you’re seeing in the children’s health care fundraising landscape?
Let me answer that with the trends I’m seeing in our market of children’s health care service provision and what they may mean for children’s health care philanthropy. Hospitals struggle to make money on children’s health care. What we’re seeing across Chicagoland is a rapid closure of pediatric beds in institutions that service the general population. This is driven by economics — if you can’t make money on that bed, close it and provide a service that can. The result is that it is driving more pediatric care to fewer centers.
That has both upsides and downsides. A freestanding, specialized research hospital like Lurie Children’s can do things that no other hospitals can. Not just in the city of Chicago, but in the state of Illinois — we have services that no one else can provide. Those kids would be coming to us anyway, regardless if there were bed closures or not. For lower acuity conditions or procedures — like ear tubes for kids or allergy check-ups — that probably disadvantages children and families. If you close the places that might provide those kinds of services, whether it is inpatient or outpatient, it makes access to care more challenging, particularly in geographically distributed states.
So what does this mean? For health care fundraising, I think the market pressures and market changes on where and how health care is delivered — it has a little bit less to do with how philanthropy is expressed. I don’t want to sound naive here, but I think the U.S. in general has a firmly embedded value of philanthropy that defines part of the character of this nation. I don’t think that the vicissitudes in market performance or pediatric bed closures will ultimately or significantly affect a community’s commitment to its children’s hospitals. The question is if there is one children’s hospital or five children’s hospitals — that’s really the piece. The systemization that we always see probably has a greater effect on how philanthropy is expressed to an institution that was once “Hospital A” but is now part of “Network B.” Lurie Children’s is special because it is a freestanding children’s hospital, not part of a system. It is self-governing and holds a special position in the state of Illinois.
In respect to children’s hospital donors specifically, what do you think people working in fundraising need to understand about communicating and establishing relationships with these types of donors?
I don’t think it’s any different than when working in hospice, long-term care or a general hospital. Those relationships are largely based on grateful patient families, which are important. The challenge for us is to reach beyond grateful patient families who love us and to find people who don’t yet understand why they should love us and support us — whether those are corporations, private foundations or otherwise. The one tactic that we’ve been able to continue delivering on at Lurie Children’s is to position the hospital — which has been in the city of Chicago for 138 years — as a civic asset. You cannot have a great city unless you have great health care, and you cannot have great health care unless you have great children’s health care. That’s what we represent.
The children are the future — that’s the purity of the case we can make around a freestanding children’s hospital like Lurie Children’s. Communicating the significance of our institution and mission to the communities, children and families who we serve is the bedrock of our engagement — not just of the families and patients, but of the citizens who care about the future of this city.
That’s something that many people come back to — the message, story and mission are at the heart of every foundation.
One of the pieces I have seen again and again is that fundraisers sometimes don’t focus on the impact and the outcome, but rather what is going to be funded — “Your $75,000 will support this fellow for one year and that’s terrific because it will do this.” I think it is more powerful to say, “Your $75,000 will move the needle on cancer research over the next two years. The way in which you will move that needle is that we’re going to spend the money on this fellow who has this expertise and does this thing. They are a rising superstar who, with your support, will become the next cancer researcher who will get a grant from the NIH.” Focus on the change. Focus on the difference that you’re going to make, rather than what it is you’re going to fund. Some organizations do this very well and that is a corner that we’ve been able to turn relatively smoothly at Lurie Children’s, but we still need to keep honing that focus.
I saw you wrote an article for the Healthcare Philanthropy journal a few years ago about the importance of partnerships in fundraising. Can you talk about the collaboration in fundraising today, and detail what, if anything, has changed since the article was published?
As much as I would like to think that this article has sparked a wave of innovation in fundraising across North America, I’m much more realistic than that. An early version of the article stated that collaboration and partnerships in fundraising are nothing new and there are numerous examples of that. We can all understand the issue of silos inside our organizations that influence competition with peer institutions and with the sector. I think that will always be the case, but I never want silos to be an impediment to getting the work done. And I certainly don’t want competition between peers to be an impediment to ensuring that more philanthropic dollars get into the sector.
If there was a take-away from the article, that was it. If you see a partnership opportunity, make the call. If you receive an inquiry about a partnership, take the call. Have the conversation to see how you can better serve the sector by partnering with a peer institution to raise more money from a donor giving to both of you at the same time. The article focused on a spectacular example in Canadian philanthropy: the Rogers family gave $130 million to establish the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research at the University of Toronto, Toronto General Hospital and SickKids Hospital. It was a great example of how it works. I’ve also got my own examples of where it didn’t work so well. But the article was more about an invitation to think than it was about an opportunity for us to change.
What is the most important piece of advice you would give to someone starting out in the health care philanthropy industry?
Don’t be afraid to take a risk on your career choice. Be willing to do the work and do it exceptionally well. Put your hand up to volunteer to take on more. And when you’ve proven yourself, don’t be afraid to stand up and ask for more. If you do those five things — take the risk, work hard, distinguish yourself, volunteer to do more than you’re asked to do and ask for more – you can go anywhere you want.
Here’s the fact of the matter – our sector, the not-for-profit sector, the fundraising sector — is blessed and cursed. We are blessed with a surplus of opportunity and cursed with a shortage of talent. What this means is that anyone can go anywhere, anytime they want. The downside is that the mobility in the workforce allows people to advance too quickly through organizations to positions which they are sometimes unqualified for. You will see people rise and fail very quickly. It’s a disaster for the individual personally and for the organization that was relying on them to do whatever it is they needed to do to reach that goal. That’s why I think taking the risk, doing it well and standing up to ask for more will give you the experience, skills and perspective that will ensure a meteoric rise through the career.