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April 24, 2019

How can you make a lean team more effective?

Christine Hughes, Vice President of Institutional Advancement for Burke Neurological Institute, is a world-class fundraiser and scientist with extensive experience in the biomedical field.

Christine is in the process of building the Burke development and communications departments—and their pipeline of donors—from the ground up using precision communications. By applying this strategy, she’s built a lean and efficient in-house team with a passionate network of consultants to fill in the gaps. Tune in to hear how she did it and for tips on building a team from scratch.


Sarah Durham: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m Sarah Durham and I’m here today with Christine Hughes, the Vice President of Institutional Advancement for Burke Neurological Institute. Hi, Christine.

Christine Hughes: Hi, Sarah.

Sarah Durham: As the former director of institutional giving and science programs at Weill Cornell Medicine, Christine’s expertise in fundraising for academic medicine, multi-institutional initiatives, research and innovation, paired with her former career in scientific research, uniquely situates her to advance the Institute as a Vice President of Institutional Advancement at Burke Medical Research Institute.

She has 15 years of experience in basic and translational scientific research and has worked for institutions like Columbia University, Helen Hayes Hospital, and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. Being a researcher for a biotech company in its infancy and during its first big breakthrough was a career enhancing experience and it set her up to be really a world-class fundraiser and scientist. Christine, thanks for joining me.

Christine Hughes: Thank you so much Sarah. It’s a pleasure to be here today.

Sarah Durham: I invited Christine to join me because I think she is working on a number of things at Burke that are fascinating from both a communications and a fundraising point of view. What they really all stem around is the idea of precision, precision strategy.

Christine, tell us a little bit about what it was like to go from a big institution like Weill Cornell to a smaller institution like Burke?

Christine Hughes: I remember when I got the job offer at Burke thinking what do you do without the 99 other folks that were with you at Weill Cornell and how do you really make a difference and operationalize the vision without all of those hands and brains?

One of the things that made me start thinking about how we were going to do this prior to actually accepting the position at Burke Neurological Institute was to look back in my own Rolodex to kind of figure out who were the experts in different aspects of institutional advancement that I worked with, that I really enjoyed working with and who were just miles ahead of everyone else? I reached out to each one of those folks prior to accepting the position and I said, “I’m not taking this unless you come with me.”

Through that good relationship building and hopefully just being a good person, I was able to convince several people to come on board with me as consultants, so I wound up building a really super-charged team with experts in each one of the fields of marketing, communications, web design, graphic design, fundraising, just really by being a good colleague and a good sport and building these good relationships over the last 15 years.

Sarah Durham: Let’s dig into that a little bit more. I mean, at Weill Cornell Medicine, you were on a development team that had ballpark how many people on it?

Christine Hughes: External affairs had over a hundred people employed.

Sarah Durham: Also, Weill Cornell Medicine has a robust communications and marketing division within external affairs, so a lot of people. But then you also had this network of external partners and consultants that you’re talking about. At Burke, how big is your team?

Christine Hughes: When I accepted the position, I was it. They were hiring a Vice President of Institutional Advancement and the charge was to build an entire advancement culture at the Institute.

Sarah Durham: Today, how big is the advancement team?

Christine Hughes: Currently, it’s myself leading the efforts. I have a relationship management database expert. We have a web design expert. I have a graphic design expert and I just brought on a new assistant of advancement, which is hopefully going to be the next generation of fundraisers.

Sarah Durham: You went from being on a team where there were hundreds of people basically, roughly a hundred people, to being on a team where you’ve got about five or less in-house people. So you built this network of consultants who you said, “I’m not taking this job unless you’ll go with me.”

Take us a little bit on that journey. I mean what kind of people formed this sort of an advisory committee of consultants you’ve created, who’s on that committee or that team, and how did you formalize that working relationship?

Christine Hughes: I think just going back into your own working history and looking back and seeing who did I really enjoy working with, who did I learn from, who had the skills and the expertise that I do not have, but when you put them together really creates a super-energized team.

After going through my own personal Rolodex and working history, I was able to reach out to the folks, make those calls, do a little bit of begging, but I think ultimately, because the mission and the vision of the Institute—it’s based in four neurological diseases: stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury and Alzheimer’s Disease—these are things that people can relate to having their own family. When your work has such purpose and such meaning and especially if you believe in it truly with your whole heart, it’s easy to bring people on board.

I feel like when we have our weekly meetings where we bring all the consultants together using Zoom, we have a weekly meeting and we go over an agenda, which is all aspects of advancement, I feel like it is the table that you’re sitting at having dinner with your friends. It is smart conversation, it’s fast-moving, it’s very precise in what we’re covering and what we’re focusing in on, it’s part of a short-term and long-term strategy, but I feel like we pulled these experts together who love working together and who love the mission of the Institute and this is their fun work. The energy from that completely inspires me and I think inspires everybody else.

I think the other thing you were referring to was pulling a sort of volunteer ad hoc committee from all different constituents within the Institute—so your HR, your finance, your scientists, your clinical people, every sort of lens of the Institute—pulling those folks together, bringing them into a communications weekly meeting, and really vetting all of those entrepreneurial ideas.

We re-branded, as you know, because Big Duck did it for us and did an amazing job, but it’s really wonderful to constantly look at our communications, look at our marketing, look at our fundraising strategies through everyone’s lens. I find that we are more creative, we have less failures, and we’re able to move very quickly and I think because of all of that, we were able to make really good quality, efficient, effective headway really fast.

Sarah Durham: What we’re talking about here is precision communications. You built a very lean and efficient in-house team, you brought in a network of these consultants to work for you on an hourly basis, you facilitate these weekly meetings with them, and then you’ve got this advisory group who pressure tests all of these ideas and through that, you manage all the external affairs for the entire Institute.

Let’s build on that and talk about how that might impact fundraising because your roots are in science and in fundraising and ultimately, your primary mandate for Burke is to raise money. How are you applying this precision approach to development?

Christine Hughes: Similarly, after I spent the first couple of months at Burke and really understood and got in my bones the mission and the purpose of the Institute, I was able to then, again, reach out into my own personal network, professional network, and really identify two ambassadors who had incredible networks and what I needed to do was explain to them what the Institute does, explain its potential impact, the vision, and get them excited.

I knew once we were able to do that and do that successfully, those folks would then open up their networks to Burke Neurological Institute. We did not, upon my taking the job, have a database, we had no constituents, we had no donors. Building a pipeline of transformational donors, or donors that can give multi-million-dollar gifts, was almost absurd but it had to be done.

We did recruit two personal relationships of mine who became ambassadors and fell in love with the Institute as much as I did. They, then opened up their network and through the two of them, we now have probably 10 ambassadors that open the doors to meetings with billionaires and also with lead decision-makers at the top, most resourceful foundations, professionally managed foundations.

Sarah Durham: Can you share with us any of the results of that yet? Have you closed any big gifts you’re proud of?

Christine Hughes: Not yet, but I can tell you this. We went from having absolutely zero people in our database to having over 3,000 in our database, but more importantly, a pipeline of transformational donors. As far as securing a really big gift, I’m going to ask you just to stay tuned because hopefully that won’t be too far in our future.

One of the most exciting things is to really track your progress and look at the number zero. Then, you’ve got the number two for ambassadors. Now, your goal, my goal in 2019 is to get those 10 ambassadors that we’ve recruited into the Institute and again, make them hopefully fall in love with the mission and vision as much as the original ambassadors have and to really continue to build on those numbers.

Sarah Durham: Again, precision fundraising. Right? You’re using this very specific strategy of leaning in to ambassadors and trying to get transformational gifts. You’re not trying to build a development team that does everything and builds a mega list.

Christine Hughes: Again, when I took the position, I did a lot of research and I reached out to all of the institutes that would be considered in the landscape of what we do and asked them, especially the ones who have been very successful, what is your secret sauce? Everyone confided in me that it was this type of, what I coined “precision fundraising,” which is finding an ambassador or finding a champion of an institute who has the means to be able to make a multi-million-dollar gift and that person then inviting their network in to be able to continue that.

Sarah Durham: You’re going really deep into these transformational gifts and the progress that you’re talking about has happened in a very short time. You’ve been in this job, at the time of this recording, less than two years. As you go about these kind of precision projects, do you see this as a strategy that you will continue to stick with for a long time or do you imagine that this is a kind of a start-up strategy for development and communications and as the organization matures, perhaps you’ll build a bigger in-house team or you’ll expand your fundraising into different strategies?

Christine Hughes: I think that’s a great question and from what I have seen with other institutes that are at different levels in their growth and in their lifespan, it seems that that’s the trend, that you do build a more complex organization. I have to say that I’m a real big fan of how we’re handling things now and I think always looking at where we are and where we want to go and the strategy of how we’re going to get there, this type of fundraising, this type of team-building, is really exciting and it’s new and it’s different and it’s entrepreneurial. I think the only thing that would prevent an organization from trying this is maybe just fear because it’s a little outside of the box, but I have to tell you that if you don’t take these risks, you can’t make the big gains. I really feel like it is exciting news for people.

I do get asked a lot of times to represent at different organizations and talk about this work, but I think really the proof in the pudding is going to be to your point, how many transformational gifts we’re able to secure and really build those lifetime relationships with those champions for the Institute. I think that’s when our ultimate success will be more public and more exciting, but I do believe that we’re definitely on the right path.

Sarah Durham: Sounds like you’re right around the corner. Not everybody comes from a background like you have, a scientific background and has worked at large institutions, but many people do have the experience you had here of coming into an organization that has very limited capacity. Either no real communications capacity, perhaps no development capacity, no database, etc. What advice would you give for people who, like you, are trying to build something from scratch?

Christine Hughes: I think, first of all, you have to take your fear and put it completely off to the side and you have to be extremely courageous. I think you really have to think outside of the box. What is it? “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and I feel like this is the opportunity. I think there’s a lot of really good fundraisers out there, a lot of good communications and marketing people, but I think what really tests how good you are is when you have absolutely nothing and you have to build something from the ground up. I think that allows you to really go back to your lifetime of experience in every field and pull out the parts that work and try new things. I think that’s how the field is grown and I also feel like another important thing is to teach the next generation of fundraisers and communications and marketing professionals to think that way, to be that way, and to grow.

Sarah Durham: Awesome. Christine Hughes, thank you for joining me.

Christine Hughes: Thank you so much, Sarah.