Whether health care or social service- it's about connecting people to what they’re already part of

An interview with Kimberly Harmsen, Manager, Annual & Special Giving, Union Gospel Mission, Vancouver, BC

Kim Harmsen’s first fundraising job was as Annual Giving Coordinator, focused on events, at the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation. Then for two years, as Donor Stewardship Officer, she developed major donor stewardship and accountability programs. The Foundation supports two major hospitals that operate very strong research programs, and provide leading edge healthcare.

In 2009 she began at Union Gospel Mission (UGM) on Vancouver’s downtown eastside. She served for two years as Special Giving Officer and for the past three as Manager, Annual and Special Giving.

Union Gospel Mission is one of the best-known faith-based social service agencies in North America and has enormous presence in the Lower Mainland. Kim oversees an annual program with 44,000 active donors, and more than 4,000 monthly donors. As well, UGM engages almost 6,000 volunteers annually.

LM- Kimberly, what differences do you see in fundraising between the hospital sector and social service?

Kimberly- I think we all agree fundamentally that in any kind of fundraising it’s about relationships. Helping to facilitate those relationships is really the art and the science.

What surprises many people about health care is how important donors are. Most people would be shocked if they paid attention to donor plaques, donor walls, plaques on equipment. If you’re getting an MRI you might not notice whomever the corporate donor is, but when you do start to appreciate the magnitude of support that our universal healthcare system requires its mind boggling -- it gives you a profound appreciation for the role that each person can play.

I think really the primary difference between healthcare fundraising and fundraising in social service sector would be the composition of your donor body. In the hospitals, and universities, the vast majority - 90 plus percent of your revenue -- is coming from less than 10 percent of your donors.

UGM has traditionally been funded by “Mom and Pop” donors - people giving out of family or personal resources -- very much classic annual fund donors. We have many faithful donors . . . many have been supporting us for 10 or 20 years.

LM - Are donors’ motivations different in the two sectors?

Kimberly- I don’t think there’s one conclusive answer. I was responsible to a certain degree for our annual donor walls or donor plaques in my previous position and we all know that people are giving to five or more charities and at very different financial levels. The biggest difference is not motive but difference in size of gifts – hospitals tend to attract larger gifts from the same people.

LM – Why is that?

Kimberly- In our society people recognize the value of universal healthcare. Most of us come into the world in the hospital and many of us will leave in the hospital. You don’t have to convince most people of the necessity of the healthcare system. The case speaks for itself. You can nitpick about where you give funds within the hospital system -- for research or equipment or all these other things – but generally no one would fight the importance of health care. We like to think it’s part of the fabric of who we are as Canadians.

For donors, there’s also a certain degree of simplicity of issues in healthcare. Some things may be in dispute -- what causes certain diseases or the significance of a certain factor in treatment and so on. Your outcomes are measured by relapse rates, and length of stay and whether or not people completed a course of medications. It’s less disputable.

LM – And that’s not the case for a social service organization?

Kimberly- I think that within the social service sectors the struggle is often that the issues are much more complex and complicated. There are a lot of different options and opinions, and outcomes are less clear cut. It’s not that people don’t think social service is important; I think it’s often that it’s easier to give where the issues are less complicated.

LM – So why do people support UGM?

Kimberly- We have active, faithful donors so asking ‘Why do you give” is important. But the answers are as varied as grains of sand.

Some answers we hear frequently, such as ‘Because you do great work.” There’s brand recognition for UGM and the idea that ‘You’re doing good in the community.’

Fairly frequently people say they give because of their own life experience, or someone in their life who struggles with addiction or other issues. 

I think fundamentally people want to give back. You see it in our seasonal fundraising. So much of our revenue comes in between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. During that season they think of others who are less fortunate. People, with everything they have, also have this heightened awareness and sensitivity around giving back.

Healthcare is more continuous: people think about that all the time.

LM – What’s the challenge then, for you at UGM to educate your donors?

Kimberly – One major challenge is for people to understand that we need to be here, all the time, and for years at a time.

We advertise that it costs $3.29 to provide a meal and we get many gifts that are multiples of $3.29. Meals resonate with people, with that tangible capacity to do something very real and something very relatable. Part of our job at UGM is helping people understand that the meals are a gateway, a means to come alongside and journey with people. The meal is not the end. We want to journey with people to the most positive place possible.

There are many forms of success. Many of our people have a very harsh life. We’re trying to help people overcome any number of obstacles and there’s no cookie cutter model for success. Life is complicated and can be messy. That makes progress in this environment more challenging to quantify than healthcare.

We take a long view.  It’s really about helping people move forward incrementally.

LM - How do your donors feel about the investment in an individual over time? Is that something that people resonate to and want to help fund?

Kimberly - Our donors are very diverse. There is a large group whose philosophy of care and philanthropy is to journey for the long haul. They know the stories of individuals who have come for 10 years for meals before they decide they are ready to take the next step, whatever that may be -- finding stable housing or entering an alcohol and drug recovery program.

Other donors are astounded that people wouldn’t automatically take that step.  For some people it’s really hard to understand, because in their world, if they want to make a lifestyle change, such as diet or exercise, they exercise the willpower to do it. Most of us have support whether it’s loved ones, or the ability to buy a gym membership, or hire a personal trainer, or accessing support online.

So opinions can become very simplistic. It creates a kind of disconnect. Our job is to explain the issues and tell the stories, and introduce real people who make the issues real for our donors.

LM – Do the issues real people wrestle with raise ever questions with your donors?

Kimberly - Yes, one challenge compared to healthcare is that there’s no stigma if you relapse from leukemia: that’s the disease at work. But if you relapse from drugs and alcohol rehabilitation, there’s the potential for people to be a lot more critical.

We try to help donors identify with Matt or John or Karen or whomever, like the real people they are. What’s great is if we can provide them a glimpse into that, whether it’s through a video or an interview with someone or if they read someone’s story. Their experience is indisputable.

We provide statistics on our programming; there’s a level of basic accountability, but there’s also part of what is accomplished that is that unquantifiable.  Like I said, there’s no cookie cutter for success: it’s not going to look a certain way.

LM – What is it about your job that makes it good for you?

Kimberly - What really resonates with me is asking ‘How do we provide appropriate stewardship and accountability to these people who are giving?’ That’s fundamental in connecting in any relationship. You have to develop trust and rapport. And there has to be some sort of a personal component even when you’re dealing with thousands of donors who have given to X. I enjoy that interaction -- connecting people to what they’re already part of.