Conversation with Bill Littlejohn

Jerry Linzy

Eddie Thompson:  Thank you for joining us today for our podcast with conversations with icons in our industry. We have with us today Bill Littlejohn.  Bill is someone I look up to.   If you’ve worked in this industry a long time, you get to know people and their level of integrity as well as their experience and knowledge.  I would put Bill obviously at the top of that list.  So, Bill, first of all before I get too far in to introductions, thank you for joining us today! 

Bill Littlejohn: Happy to be here, Eddie.  I always enjoy my conversations with you, I know that for certain.

Eddie:  Well, Bill, I’m not going to read his bio because it would take longer than we really want to take for a conversation, but let’s just say this, he’s a Si Seymour recipient (who, Si Seymour had a huge influence on my career like he did a lot of people.  If you’ve not read his book, you ought to find it.  It’s one of the best books on fundraising in the industry, real practical.).  But, it says what the industry feels about Bill and I join our industry in respecting him and his work.  There’s a lot of things you could say about Bill.  He’s a talented professional.  But to me, what has attracted me to Bill for a long time is he’s a man of integrity.  My theory is that if I light my candle and I light someone else’s candle, my candle is not diminished – and Bill is that same type of person.  He’s quick with advice.  He wants to help, he wants to see people succeed, and he has a heart that’s just pure gold.  So, Bill again, thank you for joining us.

Bill:  Thank you, Eddie.

Eddie: So, I’ve given Bill two questions I wanted him to cover.  One is what has he learned in his illustrious career that’s really made a difference?  Then, I’ll address the second question after he answers this first one.  So, Bill, what have you learned that’s really made a difference?

Bill:  There’s a couple of perspectives to provide.  We talked about we’re in the fundraising profession and fundraising is a tactic, it’s a strategy, it’s a function that we practice and do.  Then we talk about being engaged in philanthropy.  I am the senior officer of philanthropy for this wonderful community asset in San Diego, Sharp HealthCare.  The aspect of philanthropy being the love of mankind and this aspect of doing good for others and making a difference.  What I really learned is, sure, I may be the tactical fundraising professional but if I’m an officer of philanthropy my job is much more institutional-based of driving the institution to fundraising success and being much more of a facilitator of this power of philanthropy than just being the fundraising professional.  That’s taught me so much in the fact that my success is only from the standpoint of the institution that I’m working with or on behalf of, whether it’s as a professional or as a volunteer.  I do a lot of work in the volunteer space, too.  So, the idea that fundraising tactics work from influencing others to have the same sort of culture of philanthropy and dynamics of doing good for others and mirroring that together has been a great lesson for me and an aspect of defining my work and my profession more so than just technical skills or how many years I may have done something.

Eddie:  Do you feel that what we do is noble, then?  That’s what it sounds like you’re saying.

Bill:  Absolutely noble because I think what we do, more so than just about raising money in a dollar or a goal, is we teach, guide, lead, coach, counsel, mentor others to engage in the doing of good through philanthropy through primarily giving – giving money but also giving time and expertise.  So, in the end of the day the influence that we can have on larger groups of people will only raise more money than it would doing it ourselves.  So, the aspect that, I’ve always said this, I might be good at what I do, but I’m much better when I do it with others.  I have more success with a CEO or a physician or a board director. Therefore, the job of influencing and engaging and building relationships is much more valuable than me making ten solicitations because that’s just my job.

Eddie:  Mmm hmm.  So, it begins with the heart, then.

Bill:  Right.  The nobleness is that in the end of the day some of this is sort of a scripture – you teach a man to fish and they can live for a long time.  The aspect that we as professionals can influence others through teaching and coaching, whether it’s other professionals or it’s boards or CEOs or wherever it might be, is that that becomes the really noblest of work.  That you can then leave where you are knowing that a community organization can be strong because you’ve helped build a culture, created a dynamic in which others can then be successful.

Eddie:  This call may go a little bit longer, and I apologize for that, because I thought of a second question that you just provoked.  Since what you have said is true, and you have led with excellence – anybody that knows you knows that you’ve excelled at everything.  I don’t know exactly where the standard of excellence came from, if it came from your parents or it’s just innate in you, but what is your path in pursuing excellence?  How did you get there?

Bill:  One is to be appreciative of true legacy and not just legacy from a gift someone leaves as a legacy.  But, the legacy of people and communities and culture and dynamic of which created many of the things that we value in our lives today, whether it be an education or religion or in museums or art or culture or in health care.  I think remembering that past but building on that.  I have become somewhat of a Sharp historian because our story is so filled with wonderful philanthropy of time, talent and treasure that if by respecting and appreciating that we can then teach the future generation that they have to have the same sort of feeling about their community of which they will be willing to engage.  My path has always been so inquisitive about how did this hospital come to be that I’m going to work at or I’m going to help with as the consultant or help with as a kind of project, this hospital had to come about some way or the other.  More than often than not it was people in their community who had a drive that I hope I can emulate with others.  I think that’s a wonderful dynamic that all of us in the profession should never lose sight of is that we have wonderful histories and true legacies that if we share and teach those they will inspire people often times more than just the current need, they will then create that.  That’s this wonderful dynamic of even how we got our name which is a great powerful story that we ought to make sure that we teach others.  That’s really led me – the aspect that we do things in fundraising and philanthropy to help people we’ll never know or meet for the future, but we’re only here because people came before.  You mentioned Si Seymour’s book.  Well, Si’s been gone a long time, but his message still resonates for those of us who are going to practice in the future.  In the end of the day, you’re not just reading a fundraising book, you’re reading a history book.  That can lead us to saying he was doing great things with communities, not just himself, many years ago.  There’s a lesson in that.  So, my path has been I’ve been a history buff and that aspect of philanthropic history has guided me quite a bit.

Eddie:  I feel bad about taking more time than I asked you to give, but all of us have had mistakes.  In fact, I’ve said repeatedly that Cayce says we’ve built a great company on all of Eddie’s mistakes.  There’s an awful lot of truth to that.  But, what mistake have you made and what did you learn from it?

Bill:  Maybe it’s a combination mistake, I can certainly take blame for that.  There’s this aspect, like where we started with, that the fundraising people are the people you hire to raise the money.  It’s a tough project, a tough initiative, and I’ll just go ahead and go, okay, I’ll be the hero or whatever and try to raise the money, me, because that’s my job.”  The mistake was thinking that ultimately it never really is that successful and that was a great learning experience.   I’ve done a lot of campaigns over the years both in my profession and as a volunteer and not every single one was successful.  One of the failures was not giving up on what the fundamentals of philanthropic success are which require community engagement and relationships and that old punting and let’s just see if we can go get the money one way or the other.  In the end it’s not even about the money that you didn’t raise, it’s about the relationships you didn’t develop.  We can all get caught up in chasing the goal.  Sure, we have performance expectations and things we do in the metrics we look at.  In the end of the day, I’ve always said, there are two reasons that a campaign is successful, and the same in the inverse is why they fail, is that they are successful because you engaged enough people or organizations or foundations who are capable of making contributions.  And, you do it in the most effective way, it’s in-person, education, great stewardship of the relationship.   When it works well, it works incredibly well, but when you don’t do that – if you don’t do enough and you don’t do it well – you get the opposite results.   My failure is not honoring the process, sort of trying to shortcut.  When in the end we might have raised money, but we look back and say that really didn’t have the desired effect we wanted.

Eddie:  Oh man, Bill, you’re just full of wisdom, my friend.

Bill:   We’re in the business of money generation and generating funds and resources, but sometimes we do get trapped in that.  We’ve learned a lot to say when we do a big initiative at Sharp, it’s not about what we need to raise or what the goal is.  It’s about the vision Sharp has for the transformation of healthcare and the investment of which Sharp is making on behalf of the San Diego community.  We want the community to partner with us in this vision not because we don’t have the money but we want the people to make not a gift out of need but out of vision.  They make it as an investment not just giving because we ask, they see the value of that.  The goal is not so much the dollar goal for philanthropy, it’s the amount of resources that Sharp is willing to invest on behalf of the community and the partnership in which we have.  So, that number ends up being more valuable than the thermometer with the amount we have to raise on it.

Eddie:  I hope this podcast is circulated wide and listened to often, because I believe, Bill, you just summarized what excellence in philanthropy looks like.  Excellent!

Bill:  I appreciate that.

Eddie:  Bill, thank you for your time.  I feel bad about going over what I asked you to do.  It was valuable!

Bill:  We’ll do it again!

Eddie:  If you ever want to learn how to do things, Bill Littlejohn is an excellent mentor. Bill, thank you for your time and everybody thank you for joining us on this podcast.  We look forward to visiting with you again in the future.

Bill:  Thank you, Eddie!

About Bill Littlejohn.  Bill is one of the nation’s leading health care philanthropy professionals. With more than three decades of experience, Littlejohn has led and directed philanthropic programs that have generated nearly a billion dollars. Littlejohn joined Sharp HealthCare in 2002 as senior vice president and chief executive officer of Sharp HealthCare Foundation. He oversees the entire philanthropic program for Sharp, and under his leadership, Sharp has generated more than $300 million in philanthropy and recently completed INSPIRE: The Sharp HealthCare Campaign for Excellence, which raised more than $100 million across nearly two dozen initiatives.

Littlejohn has consulted with and facilitated board retreats, conferences, site visits and presentations for hundreds of hospitals and health systems across the U.S., Canada, France and Germany. During 10 years of providing fundraising counsel, Littlejohn directed more than 40 projects, including capital campaigns, planning and feasibility studies, development audits and major gift programs.

Littlejohn is a 1980 graduate of the University of Virginia with a bachelor of arts degree in economics. He is a past chair of the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP); received the 2017 Si Seymour Award, AHP’s highest recognition for professional development; received the 2015 Outstanding Leadership Award from the Southern California Association for Healthcare Development; is a charter advisor to The Advisory Board Company’s Philanthropy Leadership Council; is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP); and received the 2018 AFP San Diego Outstanding Development Professional award.

Conversations with Industry Icons Podcast Series

With this podcast series, Eddie Thompson, Founder and CEO of Thompson & Associates, brings incredible insight and inspiring stories interviewing leaders from different perspectives of the fundraising community: higher education, healthcare, consultants, academia and more!  Hear these professionals tell stories of lessons they’ve learned during their distinguished careers.  We hope these conversations inspire you to continue to strive for excellence in this noble occupation of fundraising!