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Jennifer Bernard, Women’s College Hospital Foundation

Conversations is a new series created by Offord Group to profile leaders in the charitable sector. We work with clients that impress us with their compassion, innovation and commitment to make the world a better place and we want to share their stories with you.

Jennifer Bernard, President & CEO, Women’s College Hospital Foundation

Women’s College Hospital Foundation is committed to building life-long relationships with their communities and funding health for women, innovation, research and education, and relationship-centred care at Women’s College Hospital.


Health care is at the top of everyone’s minds right now. How is this changing your work during the pandemic?

Health care is highly valued by Canadians and is intricately woven into the fabric of our society. Hospitals have always been at the top of the list of areas to support. This pandemic has really galvanized Canadians further in their support of health care. The pandemic has uncovered so many cracks in the healthcare system and people are now looking for more leadership in how we can close these healthcare gaps and cracks that have been exposed. So now, more than ever, it’s up to us to demonstrate how Women’s College Hospital is ideally positioned to solve healthcare problems for Canadians, and how we can lead the way to being able to serve everyone better, not just today, but beyond.

For us at Women’s College Hospital, we know virtual care is the way of the future, for so many reasons. In fact, since 2018 with donor support, Women’s College Hospital has been building the model to be Canada’s first virtual hospital.

Now, because of the pandemic, the Hospital has been able to further adapt and accelerate these plans and has already launched important virtual care programs that not only keep essential primary care accessible for our patients, but we’ve also been able to play an integral role in helping to alleviate pressure for the whole system.


Tell us about virtual health care.

This is a sweet spot for Women’s College Hospital. As I mentioned, we were committed to delivering virtual health care as part of our long-strategic plan and we had a plan to roll out many new services over the next two to three years. For example, the Hospital already performs outpatient hip and knee replacements, and the patient is supported through their recovery using an app on their device. When COVID-19 raised its ugly head, it really accelerated our plans. We instituted everything we were going to do in three years in six weeks.

So today, we have a COVID-19 physical assessment centre and a virtual assessment centre. People can complete an online screening tool and, if they are screened positive, someone from our virtual assessment centre will contact you to do further screening, answer questions and, if appropriate, make the arrangements to have you fast tracked for swabbing. We just instituted COVIDCare@Home to connect with people who suspect or know they have the virus with primary care physicians so they don’t have to come to our Hospital unless absolutely necessary. We are now also virtually supporting residents in all 36 long-term care homes in Toronto through our LTC+ Program. This program helps support the most frail, vulnerable seniors.

I would say COVID-19 accelerated something the Hospital was already doing. It made us all become more creative and scale up quickly.


What are you hearing from the donor community about your COVID-19 response?

Donors have been wonderful. They are interested in further supporting virtual health care options – it used to be thought of as a nice-to-have but now donors realize it’s an absolute necessity.

We have been communicating regularly with our donor community and within days of our first outreach, people wrote to ask how they could help. And when the needs for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) came up, people leapt to their feet to support us. The front-line workers have been the biggest inspiration for the donor community because of the sacrifices they are making – putting themselves between the virus and the community.

Donors are asking what we can do to prevent this from happening again. They want to know that what we are doing will benefit the healthcare system in the long-term. Because we are so far from a vaccine, donors want to know what lessons we can learn and act on now, so the healthcare system is not overwhelmed by a second wave or in the future.


How are you working with donors who were in solicitation for other projects? Are you pivoting those conversations? Are people still committed to the project they had in mind before this pandemic?

Some people paused because their specific area of interest is something outside of the immediate urgency brought on by the pandemic, but the conversations will continue once this is upheaval is more settled. Many people have asked if there is another way they can help. Some donors are pivoting their interests and want to support the greatest needs of the Hospital because we are on the front-line or have solutions that they know can help the system overall.


How are you navigating conversations with donors who have a pledge coming due?

We are respectful and realize this is a new normal for everyone. No one could have anticipated this. First, we reached out and connected with our donors. We were pleased to see how many people paid their pledges, even those that were due at the end of March. A few donors made additional smaller gifts to the COVID-19 efforts. We are looking for new opportunities to offset the pledge payments that are currently being deferred. Some of our charity partners have had major decreases in revenue which will make it impossible to fulfill their pledges. These pledge payments will likely be deferred into the future.

We are of the mind that we are in a long-term relationship with our donors. They’re our partners and we are treating them that way.


What are you doing to keep your team moving forward?

We put some new Key Performance Indicator (KPI)’s into effect.  Donor contact and prospect contact is still incredibly important. Every team member is calling at least five people every day. In addition to our current donors, we are using this as an opportunity to reach out to people who don’t know us well because what we are doing is important to so many Canadians.

We have never been busier, but in a different way. Because we have had to adapt so many things quickly, there is much to do. We have moved mailings and changed the content of many of our communications. We have moved away from only focusing on digital communication to also focus on sending handwritten notes and making personalized phone calls. The phone has come back into vogue in a very big way because everyone is feeling the fatigue of going through emails and screen time. Having a human voice on the end of the line is welcomed these days.

We are conducting a gratitude tour over the phone spearheaded by our Board and our committee volunteers. For example, our Women for Women’s Gala Committee members are conducting thank you calls to guests who came and giving updates on what we are doing and where to find information.

For me as CEO, I reach out personally to five donors every day, sometimes many more. Since many of our donors live in downtown Toronto, I remind them that we are an Assessment Centre and that I am available to help them navigate reliable sources for questions they may have. I am having great conversations about what is happening. I am also sending regular updates with not just information about Women’s College Hospital’s COVID response, but also how to stay mentally and physically well during this unusual time.

There have been a lot of gratitude and in-honour gifts to the Foundation. We open our staff meetings by reading messages from donors, so that our staff is reminded of the value of our work. We are working remotely but because we are making so many calls, we are so close to donors and are hearing so many stories.


How are you collecting stories inside the Hospital?

We are using our network. We have friends of the Foundation all over the Hospital and we touch base with them a couple of times a week to see if there is anything that they want to share. What seems normal to people inside the Hospital can be quite extraordinary outside the Hospital. We also get permission to publish stories.

We have also been finding creative ways to thank the people inside the Hospital who are working so hard. We have a giant screen in our lobby, and we use it to share messages that donors send to us. We are going to start posting signs outside the Hospital as well to show our appreciation to those inside.

A great story of a donor celebrating front-line workers is from Elle AyoubZadeh. She is giving away a pair of shoes through her company, Zvelle, to front-line workers who are nominated and celebrated on social media. She gives them a pair of “Stowes” – shoes named after Emily Stowe, our founder. She started with the environmental staff because they are often overlooked. This is helping us collect stories of and celebrate front-line workers in a unique way.

The most gratifying part of our work right now is thanking the front-line staff. We are grateful so many people have dug deep in a time of uncertainty and found creative ways to support us.


How are you thinking about a return to the market and what fundraising looks like post-pandemic?

The need for support right across the charitable sector will be even greater after we come out from hiding. That’s when we are going to see who truly was vulnerable. That’s when charities will really be called upon to help those who have fallen through the cracks. And that’s when we can think about how we can better prepare ourselves for the next crisis.

All charities need undesignated funds to respond to this situation and respond quickly as needs arise. I think everyone will double down on raising undesignated funds so that we can be nimble. Research and evaluation will also be a huge area of growth because we will all have to be better prepared for the future in terms of how to manage these healthcare pandemics, provide better care for the most vulnerable and keep our healthcare system operating.