About Susan Dolbert. Susan has a wealth of experience in the health care field at some of the leading medical and academic institutions in the country. She joined City of Hope in the Office of Philanthropy as their Senior Vice President, Individual Giving, in May, 2020. Prior to City of Hope, Susan served as the Regional Chief Philanthropy Officer and President of Providence Foundations, Southern California Region from August, 2016 to May, 2020. Her team set fundraising records and built a data-driven patient and family program.
Previously she was the inaugural vice president for development, Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS), Rutgers University Foundation. In that role she supervised fundraising efforts for all 15 RBHS schools, centers and institutes. During her time there, Susan created a team of major and principal gift officers while initiating and building a patient and family donor base.
Prior to her position at Rutgers, Susan served as Vice President for Development at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center where she managed a staff of 60+ professionals and oversaw all aspects of fundraising.
Susan also served as Chief Development Officer for Mayo Clinic in Arizona, and Executive Director and President, Alumni Association as well as the Director of Undergraduate Admissions for Arizona State University.
She holds a Doctor of Philosophy, Public Administration, a Master of Arts, Communications, and a Bachelor of Arts, Political Science, Latin American Studies (Phi Beta Kappa) from Arizona State University.
Conversation with Susan Dolbert
Eddie Thompson: Thank you for joining us today for our Conversation with Industry Icons. We appreciate you taking time to listen. Today we have a real treat, Susan Dolbert, who is a Senior Vice President at City of Hope.
Susan, thanks for joining us today!
Susan Dolbert: Absolutely Eddie! I am happy to be with you.
Eddie: We have tried, Susan, in these podcasts to share really good, practical information. We hear great comments from our listeners. We want to ask you two questions, and then hear what your thoughts are.
One is, what have you learned? What is the single most important ingredient found in being successful in fundraising?
Susan: Your word is your bond.
Eddie: It is, isn’t it?
Susan: It is! We are held to a very high standard, which we should be held to, because we are talking with people, and corporations, and foundations, about providing resources for us to do our work from their own wealth, or company, et cetera, and that’s a huge responsibility. If we don’t approach that with the highest level of integrity and respect – then we shouldn’t be in this business. If we say we are going to do something, by gosh, we’d better get it done!
Eddie: What would you do if you ran into a situation where what a donor wanted to do, the organization could not or should not do it? What would be your approach there?
Susan: Well, been there, done that. I think all of us that have been in the business for a while have had those situations and it can go a number of ways, and it can happen for a number of reasons.
But in general, our job is to marry the passion of the benefactor with the strategic priorities and needs of the organization, and when that doesn’t happen it is up to us to figure it out.
I’ve had to say no to gifts before. I’ve done some pretty good negotiations with the organizations I’ve worked with to get them to move a little bit. I first try, if there’s nothing ethical or other issues with the gift, I do try first to come to a middle ground with the benefactor and with the organization.
But at the end of the day, I work for City of Hope, and am very proud to be a part of City of Hope, and I have got to have their interests at the center of what we’re doing. If I have to actually tell a benefactor that the gift would not fit with our direction, and I can’t get them to look at something else, then I would just thank them very much and hope that we can continue the relationship. But I would not accept that gift.
Eddie: The last part of your statement needs to be reiterated – that you want to continue that relationship, if possible. Because they may not do something now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t do something in the future. It’s not just interest at the time, but there may be other reasons why it’s not practical at the time.
Susan: Exactly! I’ve probably got 150 sayings in my life, but one of them is, it’s all about timing – the benefactors’ timing. It’s my job to keep that relationship healthy and positive, between the benefactor and the organization.
I had a benefactor twenty years ago I tried to see every time I visited the area where he lived. For two years, he put me off. “No, no, no. I don’t need to see you. No, no, no. I don’t need to see you.” And finally, I was coming back and called and said, “Hey, I’d love to get together” and he said, “OK.” I about fell out of my chair, but it was great. I went over and I met with him, and at the end, I said, “I really just need to ask, why did you finally decide to meet with me?” And he said, “well, you know, someone from your organization has been calling me for years, and I never felt like I needed to meet with anyone because I know what I want to give and no one’s going to change that.” He said, “But, you’re just so pleasantly persistent that I felt like I really did want to meet you and have a conversation.”
I think that is another thing that is important. Even if you don’t have a perfect fit and a gift at this time, just keep that relationship going and be pleasant and positive about it.
I have always asked people, if you see a fundraiser’s name come up on your phone, what is it about that relationship that makes you want to pick up the phone? And on the flip side, what would make you want to let it go to voicemail? I’ve learned so much from asking that question of prospects and benefactors and I’ve used that a lot in my mentoring and training with gift officers too.
Eddie: That’s great advice! Well, let me ask you a naughty question. What professional mistake have you made in your career? What did you learn from it?
Susan: How much time do we have? Gosh, just one? I would say not trusting my gut and trying to force something even though I know there are red flags and there are things going on. It might be in a relationship with a benefactor. It might be a relationship with faculty or clinicians. It might be in hiring. But across the board, we know who we are, we know what our values are, we know what the organizational needs are, and you can’t put a square peg in a round hole. I don’t care how hard you try. So, for me, it’s just learning to trust my gut and learning that my gut is based on experience. It’s based on instinct and it doesn’t fail me. Every time I’ve not trusted my gut, I haven’t had the optimal result.
Eddie: We have that internal guidance, don’t we?
Susan: We do! Again, as I’ve said, I’ve learned probably more from my mistakes than I have from my successes. All those accumulate in your head, so trust it!
Eddie: I have a file on the left side of my drawer that I’ve had for 40 years of mistakes. Every November or December I pull it out. Some of them are mistakes I have made, some are mistakes that others have made. But I think you’re exactly right, you learn more from your mistakes than you do your successes.
Susan: Absolutely! I read something once that I thought was really a good statement, that who we are as people is really an accumulation of everyone who has touched our lives, the good and the bad. I think decision making is the same way. Every decision we’ve made, good or bad, has influence on the decision I am going to make today and the decision I’m going make tomorrow.
Eddie: Susan, you have been a delight today, and we thank you for taking time and sharing your experience, a successful career, teaching us valuable lessons.
Susan is a skilled professional, with a great deal of experience, but is also a really good person with a good heart and a tremendous amount of knowledge.
Susan, we thank you for taking time for our podcast.
Susan: Oh, thank you Eddie! I am a “pay it forward” person so I feel it’s really important for us to share what we have learned and the mistakes we have made with others in the profession.
Eddie: You’ve heard from Susan Dolbert, who is the Senior Vice President for City of Hope, a great professional, one of the icons of our industry.
We look forward to you joining us again on our next podcast. Have a great day!