Periodically we sit down with a fundraiser and pull back the curtain on their organization. Today we had the pleasure of speaking with Steven Rubloff, Vice President for Development at Virginia Hospital Center Health System and President, VHC Foundation. Steven has spent the last nine years building a foundation from the ground up and has done an incredible job of raising dollars that make a lasting impact in the Northern Virginia community. His approach to leadership and the board of directors at VHC Foundation has been particularly effective, so we thought we would explore Steven’s work with Virginia Hospital Center in today’s nonprofit leader spotlight. Enjoy!
HS: Tell us about how you came to Virginia Hospital Center.
SR: The decision to come to the Virginia Hospital Center was an easy one. The people that work at the hospital are wonderful people and to work with who care about something larger than each of us individually—caring for people, people who are sick. Hospitals are inhabited by wonderful people who work there, who do great work and are really making a difference. It allows you to be much more on the ground and more in touch with where the money you’re raising is going. When I worked for my previous organization I sat in the 19th floor of a beautiful office building. I was disconnected from what I was raising money for. The appeal of Virginia Hospital Center was not just that it was a hospital but I was so impressed by the people that worked here, in particular the executive team and their vision for the hospital. It was also a change of pace for me. In my previous job, I traveled every week for almost eight years. So I loved the idea that I wouldn’t have to do that any more. What really attracted me to Virginia Hospital Center was who they were, where they wanted to go, the people that worked here, and also the opportunity. They wanted to restart their foundation. It was an opportunity for me to build a lasting legacy. That’s what brought me here over nine years ago now.
HS: What would you say have been your career milestones at VHC?
SR: One of them is really getting this foundation restarted, up and running, getting in staff, building a long range plan, accomplishing that plan, building for the future and really making a difference at the hospital through our fundraising. Getting it up and running and getting that basic plan in place would be one milestone. A second milestone would be when we started more routinely getting seven figure gifts. That was a sign that fundraising could work at the organization. It could make a big impact and it showed that our messaging was working. The third milestone is seeing the real impact of what we do. For example, we helped fund, through a seven figure gift, a major expansion and upgrade of our neonatal intensive care unit. To see that grow from 16 beds to 28 beds, to see the ability for them to care for micro premature babies, to see all that they are now able to do and the number of babies they’re able to handle and to be a part of that was really impactful to me. Also, we raised about 50% of the cost to expand the radiation oncology program. We raised about $3.5 million to double the size of that program. That really was bringing in a new state of the art linear accelerator and a new treatment suite. To see that come to life and all the people whose lives are impacted because they are now able to handle more people and more complex cancers was a real milestone. People are now able to get treatment right here in their community and stay close to home. To see those gifts come to life and make a difference is incredible.
HS: Can you unpack the dramatic evolution that has occurred at Virginia Hospital Center over the past nine years that you’ve been there?
The backdrop of this is the vision of the whole institution: to bring world class medical care right here into our community but to do it in a way that maintains our core culture as an independent community hospital. It makes us very unique because it’s very unusual for an independent community hospital to be cutting edge and state of the art and doing things that other hospitals, even some of the most well known hospitals in the country aren’t doing. We are a leader in breast cancer treatment not only in this region but on the east coast. That’s true as well in radiation oncology and several other key areas, like pulmonary medicine, where they’re doing things that nobody else in the country is doing. When I got here I think it is fair to say that the hospital was apprehensive about fundraising. They were hesitant. They were concerned about how fundraising was going to be done. Would it reflect well on the institution? Would it even work? The result of that were that their expectations were tempered. So we had to set about not only building our plan but building a program that reflected the personality and comfort level of the institution. We built that plan and it was more successful than anybody than they thought it could be. The hospital over the first seven, eight years grew comfortable with not only raining money but how we were raising money and that it was making a difference in the organization. It was very impactful. That allowed us to look to build to the next level. And that’s where Pursuant came into the conversation. We’re now at the point where we’ve built the next level plan, beyond “startup.” This is helping us to double the amount we’ve raised in the next two to three years and plan for a major capital campaign as well. It was a process of us building a plan that they were comfortable with and reflected the culture of the organization that allowed us to go to the next level where we are now in terms of doubling the amount we think we can raise and doing a major capital campaign in the next couple of years.
HS: In what way has Pursuant been valuable in the years of change and evolution?
SR: Pursuant has been critical. We picked Pursuant because of their experience and capacity to do the things we needed to do but more importantly we felt like we clicked with the people at Pursuant. We felt like they understood us. We also felt like the Pursuant style would work well within our organization. We needed Pursuant not only to work with the foundation team but also to work with other parts of our organization whether it was the foundation board, CEO of health system, etc. The differentiator was the people at Pursuant. Pursuant was key because when they started working with us we had seven years of experience as a foundation. We had a substantial amount of data but we did not have the capability of analyzing that data to see patterns, to understand who was giving, the frequency of giving, etc. Pursuant had the data analytics capacity to dig into that data, to analyze it, and to draw conclusions that would help us adjust and point our program moving forward. They also were key in coming in and looking at what we were doing programmatically and from a staffing point of view, what we were doing right and wrong, and what we could do better. Pursuant was able to collapse the data with the programmatic and structural review. They worked with us to build a long-range plan that made sense and was pragmatic yet ambitious and consistent with who we were. They helped us to sell that vision internally. Pursuant gave us a level of credibility and analysis that we needed as well. We had data, hard recommendations, vision, plan and Pursuant was our partner in doing that. Now we’re in the midst of implementing that long-range plan. Pursuant is our partner in implementing that.
HS: We’re impressed by what you’ve done with your board. It takes a lot of courage and vision. You have a very intentional on boarding process—almost like a new staff member. How do you approach your board differently than what is sort of “status quo” in the nonprofit space?
SR: We really felt like in order to move to the next level we needed a different kind of board. It was not necessarily that we needed a board that would out and make fundraising calls, although we want them to be involved, but actually was a much more strategic board to help us build for the long term. We’re fortunate that our incoming board chair last year was the kind of person that could take on that challenge to redefine and change the board. We wanted to pick a board that was diverse in terms of who they were, their perspectives and view points that they could bring to the group. We wanted people who would be engaged with what we were doing but we were also very aware that although all of them have familiarity with the organization they weren’t familiar with the inner workings of the foundation. We had to define what we wanted the board to do. We have taken the approach that you can’t just throw them in a room, give them an agenda, and hope that everything works out. We wanted to spend the first part of this year in an on boarding process that would not only educate them on what we do and how we do it as well as have them be part of a process that actually will result in a long-term strategic plan for the foundation and plan for the capital campaign down the road. We’ve made them our partners in this. We want them to be knowledgeable and educated and strategic. We also want them be ambassadors in the community. We don’t want them to be a board that comes in every six weeks, gets an update from staff, says some nice things and then goes home. We want them to be an engaged, strategic board that will help us figure out who our target audience is that we can best go after, determine what are the messages and programs that are best. We want them to bring their own perspectives to the process. The staff will go back and carry it out. We need them to be a voice and a partner in this. We also decided to take a much more integrative approach with the health system. During the first orientation, the CEO of the health system walked through the health system’s long range vision, what the current environment looks like, what we anticipate it looking like in five years, the challenges we face and how we expect to get there. We want them to be educated and knowledgeable. We have a much more engaged approach with the health system, not only the CEO but the board chair of the health system. They are active participants. We don’t want the foundation operating in isolation but rather as a part of everything the health system does.
HS: What is your advice to nonprofit leaders who don’t feel like their board is where they’d like them to be?
SR: First we manage our own expectations about what a board can and should do and the role they can play. Every development person would love to have a board that does nothing but go out and ask people to give millions of dollars. It would make all of our lives really, really easy. But the reality is that it’s hard to build a board like that unless it’s built into a culture that has been around for decades. Most organizations don’t have that culture in place. We needed a board that was strategic and were our ambassadors to the community. Understand for your organization what you need your board to do whether it be ambassadors, strategic or asking for gifts. Pick people you have built a relationship with, people that are really engaged. Get to know your board members in other capacities before you recruit them onto your foundation board. Build a group that can work well with each other. Be up front with their roles and responsibilities and expectations are. And have a board chair that is on board with you that will help lead as well. If your board chair is not on board and your chair is not supportive, it won’t work. You have to be on the same page.
Our thanks to Steven Rubloff for taking the time to share his insights with us. If you’d like to learn more about how Pursuant could support your organization’s goals, reach out to us here.