Monthly career interview with professionals in the not-for-profit sector
1. What is your current role and how long have you been working in it?
I am CEO at the Mercy University Hospital Foundation in Cork. We were established in 2007 on the 150th Anniversary of the founding of the hospital to identify and secure new sources for funding through fundraising and philanthropy for the hospital. The role has evolved over the past number of years.
In the early days I was the only member of staff at the Foundation and now we are an organisation with a team of 8 people, a mix of full and part time staff. Most of the team are focussed on fundraising and Donor Care and I am responsible for the day to day running of the organisation as well as acting as the link between our donors and the Hospital when we fund projects using donors funds.
I was previously Director of Fundraising with ISPCC/Childline having spent a number of years working in various roles within the Fundraising team at both local; regional and then a national level and I also spent some time working with Special Olympics Ireland as Fundraising Manager.
2. How did you get to where you are today and what influenced this decision?
In 1996 I completed by BA in NUI Maynooth and that year I was elected Welfare Officer and VP of the Student’s Union. It was a really interesting, exciting time and it taught me a lot about event management, advocacy, building working relationships and financial management.
I was also heavily involved in an event that is still running successfully today, the Maynooth Students Cycle to Galway. When the time came for me to decide on my future career path a job was advertised looking for a Community Fundraiser. I decided at the time that this job was perfect for me with my experience in fundraising and the experience I gained in the SU. It was also a role that would enable me to work in an organisation that fought for the vulnerable and those at risk.
3. What do you love/enjoy most about your job?
Where do I start? I know people say this all the time but the great thing is that no two days are the same, so every day something exciting happens at the Foundation.
We have a great team at the Foundation, many of whom have worked here for a number of years so there is a strong trust and great working relationship between the members of the team. That makes it very easy to come to work every day. Working with a great team in a great organisation is a brilliant way to work.
We also have a very supportive Board of Trustees. They are always available to give us advice and counsel when we need another perspective on a problem or an opportunity. They provide oversight and work with me to make strategic decisions on direction or funding.
I love the fact that our work has such a tangible and immediate effect on someone’s life. We fund lots of great projects in the Hospital from equipment that advances the diagnosis and treatment of disease and illnesses that in some cases cost hundreds of thousands of euro to someone’s taxi fare to the bus station if they can’t afford it themselves or if they have no family or friends in their lives. As we fundraise and support projects at an acute hospital we get the opportunity to engage with projects that affect so many patients from the very young to the very old, from those battling cancer and heart disease to those affected by stroke, dementia and vascular disease.
4. And what are the most challenging parts of your job?
Having to say no can be tough. We have so many projects within the hospital that are deserving of our support but because we cannot fund every one of them sometimes we need to say no and that can be hard.
In recent years I do feel that the stories of ‘Charity Scandals’ has challenged many of us. We were made to feel that we were doing something wrong by working for great organisations that are having such a positive impact on society but getting paid.
One of the toughest parts of the job for me and for the team is when a supporter of our work passes away or when a child or young person that we come to know through the Children’s Leukaemia Ward passes away. In the past year we have seen a number of patients that we were working with on fundraising projects pass away due to cancer and that can be tough to deal with.
5. How do you relax?
My office is based in the heart of Cork City at the Mercy but I live in a small town in Southeast Limerick called Hospital. Yes, I spend my days and nights in Hospital!
So that means I have a long drive to and from work every day. I use this time to relax on the way to work and on my way home by listening to the radio or listening to music. I have a really broad interest in music but I will admit that my guilty pleasure is 80’s and 90’s rock music.
My wife Claire and I have four sons aged 12, 11, 7 and 2 and we both work full time so as you can imagine it can be hard to find the time to relax. At the end of a busy day when the kids have (finally) gone to bed it’s nice to sit with a cuppa and watch a good movie or a cookery programme. I also enjoy going for a run in the gym or getting out for a cycle but because of the nature of the job, sometimes that doesn’t happen as often as I would like.
6. What skills and personality traits do you think are essential for a job like yours?
When I started working in the sector as a community fundraiser I found very quickly that you needed to have strong people skills, to be able to develop and nurture strong interpersonal relationships with supporters and also to be outgoing and engaging. In terms of the skillset that was important in that role I would say that you need to possess good negotiation and influencing skills and be an excellent written and oral communicator with an ability to communicate effectively with individuals and groups across all sectors of society and business. Has this changed much when I compare it to my role as CEO at MUH Foundation? I would say that most of the skills and personality traits that were necessary then, are equally as important now as I need to be able to build and maintain relationships with a variety of key stakeholders. As CEO, it is my responsibility to understand the key components required to run the organisation on a day to day basis, finance, HR, PR, stakeholder management and so on. It is also vitally important that you are resilient and committed to your cause and to your staff and volunteers.
7. What’s your advice to anyone who wants to pursue a career in the same field?
I’d say go for it! I have worked in the not-for-profit sector for 21 years and I have loved every minute of it. Of course you face challenging times but knowing that the work you do plays a vital role in improving society for those that are marginalised, ill, alone, depressed or without a home really does make it a worthy career.
I have a sign in my office that says “We are business like, but not big business”. I like it because it reminds me that we need to apply professional business practices to the work that we do. Regardless of the level we are employed at within our organisations we need to be confident that we are working in a professional way and in doing so improving outcomes for our beneficiaries.
8. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I’ve had lots of great advice from managers, colleagues and trustees over the last 21 years. One relates to how you get the most from meetings:
In a meeting where there are both senior and junior staff and you need ideas or an opinion ask the junior members of the team for their input first. Allowing senior members of the team to speak first can result in a situation where the newer or more junior members of the team don’t contribute for fear their idea might seem silly.
The other great lesson I have learned it to use your ears and mouth in a ratio of 2:1. Listening to others and hearing their views and or concerns or fears is vitally important and can provide you with information that will help you reduce the impact of your own bias and make better decisions for your organisation.
9. What has been the best moment of your career so far?
There have been so many it’s hard to pick one single memory. When I worked with ISPCC I remember playing soccer in the Phoenix Park with former street children from Asia and Africa who were on their way to meet the President. I remember the hysteria of the Childline concerts and having dinner with Princess Anne! More recently I remember the emotion that surrounded the announcement of the total raised from the very first ‘96fm Giving for Living Radiothon’ and 10 years later that has raised over €3 million.
Looking to the future, the day that we finally get to open the doors of the Foundations new €2 million Cancer CARE Centre in the heart of Cork City will be without doubt the highpoint of my career. This project has been a dream of ours for a number of years and will have such a monumental impact on the lives of those diagnosed with cancer and those who have survived cancer as well as their families.
10. What are your career aspirations?
In the medium term I would like to complete my MSc in Business at the Smurfit Business School. The Programme is built around the completion of three Diplomas over a 5 year period and I start my second Diploma in Organisational Change and Transformation in January 2018. I hope to have all three diplomas completed by October 2019.
As a Foundation we are only 10 years old so our work is constantly evolving and that makes it a very exciting place to work. Our healthcare world is changing dramatically and as a result, we are becoming more proactive about identifying ways to contribute to the health and wellbeing of the community. So looking forward I want to continue to lead the Foundation as we look to the future. I believe we are only at the beginning and can achieve so much through the development of better structures to encourage growth in Healthcare Philanthropy and to develop a Culture of Gratitude within the hospital to enable Grateful Patients to support the amazing work that their doctors and care givers are carrying out today and into the future.