Susan Doliner About Susan Doliner. Sue is one of the nation’s leading health care philanthropy professionals. Sue has led philanthropic programs that have generated nearly half a billion dollars throughout her career.  

Sue joined Maine Medical Center in 1990, building a distinguished career in philanthropy over more than three decades, including shaping one of Maine’s most comprehensive development programs at Northern New England’s largest health care provider Maine Medical Center and The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center.  

Conversation with Susan Doliner

Eddie:  Thank you again for joining us for Conversations with Industry Icons. We appreciate the feedback; we’re getting your comments, your requests and suggestions – we appreciate all of those. 

Today, we have a special treat. I have been excited about this!  In our industry, we get a chance to meet a lot of people.  I travel to almost every state, every year to different conferences and things. And, every now and then you meet someone that immediately becomes a friend, someone that is incredibly impressive to you.  There are a lot of smart people in this world.  I would say wisdom is more rare.  When you find someone who has dedication, wisdom, intelligence, and experience, and then you like them… I mean that’s more than the trifecta! That’s something really special. Today, we have such a person. 

I am a huge fan of Sue Doliner. One of the smartest, most successful people, in my opinion, in the industry. And, I know a lot of people in our industry!  I’d put her right up there at the top.

Sue is in Maine, and I’ll let her tell you a little bit about herself in a second. But one of the most intriguing things about Sue, in addition to being a great host when you travel to that part of Maine, is that she has her own boat.  I love hearing her get out in the ocean and with her nieces and nephews.  So, let me introduce the great Sue Doliner. Sue, thanks for doing this.

Sue:  Oh, Eddie, thank you. It’s an honor to be here with you. And thank you for the kind words.

Eddie:  They’re true. If you know anything about me, you know I speak the truth.

So, this is Sue and we’re going to ask Sue a couple of questions.  Sue is at Maine Medical Center as Vice President of Philanthropy.  She has been there for a long time and has built an amazing team, and even more impressive, their results have been impressive.

So, Sue, thank you for doing this. I have a couple of questions, as you know; we’re not going to shock you. What’s the biggest lesson you have learned in your, what, 10 years of experience? (laugh) 

Sue: We’ll say 10, but you have to multiply it times 4.  It’s been a long time.  This has really been a career of love, you know. To get to do the work that we do is a real privilege and an honor.  We’re trusted with the feelings and the deepest secrets of donors and their complex family dynamics and everything else, including their dreams.  Oftentimes, we extend to donors the opportunity to give, but unless we have built a relationship with them, then it’s more transactional. And when we build a relationship and somebody is talking to us both about their wishes might be a time where there’s some complex health issues going on in the family, our role is to strategically match up those trusted relationships with the needs of our organization’s. When you love to do that, and you love your organization, that comes together nicely. So, the lessons that I learned is that our time in the living room with those donors is really priceless.

So, if you are going to do this right and it’s going to be for the long haul (when I say the long haul, that means today’s gift is just today; there’ll be more gifts and there’ll be more gifts) then, to the expression in the field that (like your expertise is in, Eddie) planned giving, we want their largest gift at the end of their life, or we want to be a part of their life plan.  And, unless we have a trusted relationship, that won’t work. So, I learned long ago that when you cross those trusted relationships of their caring and our strategic priorities – that crossroads, that’s where the spirit of philanthropy shows up. We’re just lucky to be that interface.

As you know, it’s an art and a science. Some people need more art, some people need more science, some people need more time, and all of those things come together. But nothing is more important than the relationships. We can spend a lot of time doing many other things – I’ve heard you talk about this on other podcasts – that just takes away from our focus.  My lesson learned is focus on the donor and give them, if you’ve got 10 hours in the day, give them 9.5.  That’s where it has to be.

Eddie:  Incredibly, incredibly well said, and great wisdom on your part that we’re in a time in our history, I think it’s true throughout philanthropy, where we’re not spending time on what produces, which is developing those relationships.

So, let me ask you another question.  This is kind of the naughty question, but I love asking it because I’ve just wrote a blog that’s going to be coming out in a couple of weeks – the 10 biggest mistakes of my career.  And, honestly, they’re embarrassing.  But, I try to tie that what lessons I learned from those mistakes. So, okay Sue, here it comes.  What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made professionally and what did you learn from it?

Sue:  Oh, my gosh, there are many.  Just call my staff!  There are many.  But, I need to go all the way back to the time I started in this profession before there was the Internet and before there were cell phones.

When those things came along, I hit reply all a few too many times. So, that would be my first and a real transactional mistake. But, you learn from that and you don’t do that anymore!

But to be honest, I think I worried too much about making mistakes. I worried too much about doing everything right, crossing every T, dotting every I, and I worried about trying to do it all myself.  I learned about halfway through my career that, you know what, I’ve got to hire a great team and mentor them and then watch them soar, whether they stay here or they go on to something else.  That’s our job: to move folks through their career as smoothly as possible.  Give them the resources, but I can’t do it all.

I have a button that I picked up at a conference one time.  It says worrying is not a fundraising strategy – and, that’s so true! It’s not a life strategy either. It just delays the action.  All of us can procrastinate from time to time and say, “well, I can’t ask him yet,” or, I can’t do this yet or whatever.  But you can, again, build those relationships. Even if it’s with your colleagues in the hospital; you’ve got to build team and relationship. This is not a spectator sport.

Eddie:  I know I’m going to take you a little bit longer than I promised you. I hope that’s okay. But if it’s not okay, I’m going to do it anyway, because I want to ask you… Your comments raise another question for me.  I think early in my career, especially having finished 11 years at universities for two masters degrees and a doctorate, I was just broke.  I remember going and calling on a very wealthy donor, and I felt like an imposter. Or at least I didn’t belong in that room with that gentleman and his wife who were incredibly successful.  What would you suggest to someone who’s maybe not necessarily new in their career, but they have experiences where they feel like they don’t belong, that they’re less than, or that they’re an imposter?  What would you say to them? 

Sue:  Oh, gosh, I guess I would tell them that they’re just people too.  They like blueberry pie. They like to hug their grandchildren. They get sick. They want to give back to their communities. They can do that in a much bigger sense than most people, and they have a magnitude about their giving that is sometimes surreal to us, but at the same time, they want to make a difference. I don’t ever feel intimidated by people.  If I feel intimidated, it’s more because there are philanthropists out there that are a little more self-centered or narcissistic or Prima donna, and those folks, we know who they are, they’re not going to be our favorite donors.

Our favorite donors are the ones who let us in.  You’ll know that in five minutes.  You’ll know that when their dog jumps up on your lap, or when you call them back and say, “did your granddaughter win that soccer game?” Those are the things that you’ll know that they want to talk to you.  They’re going to pick up the phone when you call because you listen to them and what’s important in their lives.  Getting those first appointments are hard because they are gatekeepers. There are gatekeepers who are there for a reason. Everyone wants to speak to whether it’s Bill Gates or now Taylor Swift, she’s the icon.  But I think the key here is find a reason that what you do matters to them. And if you can just open that door, then you build your relationship.  Be yourself!

Eddie: I’m glad I asked the question. When you were making comments, it brought back a lot of memories for me that kind of rushed in.  I thought of names and individuals that were so gracious and the lessons I learned from kind of tiptoeing around and trying to build really, because I didn’t feel worthy to be with that person. And, the many times they just let me in. And, they want you to be successful. The people that are going to give are generous people by nature, and they want to help you.

Well, Sue, I promised you I wouldn’t take too long. I’ve taken a little longer than I promised, but I want you to know how much I appreciate this personally, for you taking time to do this. I know the audience will glean some real insight and wisdom from what I perceive as one of the very best in the industry.  And we wish you much success. So, Sue, thank you. Thank you for your time today!

Sue:  Well, thank you, and thank you for all you do for our profession.  If you use the two words “give back,” you are the king of giving back.  So, thank you so much. And, thanks for recognizing my team as well, because nobody does this alone.

Eddie:  Absolutely. Well, I think you have appreciated the time with Sue. We wish you all the very best. Thank you for your interest in the Conversations with Industry Icons. Today we had a great example of Sue Doliner. We wish you the best. We look forward to talking to you again in the near future.

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!

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