The first in a series from The Goldie Company
Twenty-five years ago, nobody entered this profession saying ‘I’m going to be a fundraiser.’
— George Stanois
Like many people, George Stanois had the usual exposure to charity in his youth. As a young Cub Scout growing up in the heart of Toronto’s Greek community, he sold apples on the Danforth to raise money for the group. He fondly recalls selling chocolate bars as part of a grade seven class project to sponsor the kookaburra exhibit for the Toronto Zoo’s capital campaign. And in high school, like many others, he participated in the popular Miles for Millions walkathon benefiting the United Way.
But a close community and family life was what truly influenced George, a future professional fundraiser, during his formative years. “In post-Civil War Greece, there wasn’t much opportunity for new families,” he says. Many people, including George’s father, made the choice to move to Canada with the hope for a better life, but their connection to their home country remained strong.
“When my mother, brother and I moved to Canada in 1961, my father had already been in Toronto working at an uncle’s restaurant for a year or two,” George explains. “He always stayed connected to Greece, and participated on the board of the Pan-Macedonian Society, a local association for people from our town back home. They’d have dances and picnics—events to bring people together and celebrate our culture.”
Through school, George met his long-time friend, Chris Papas, who remembers George as being a compassionate, caring kid. “It’s natural for George to be part of non-profits and community causes,” Chris says. “That’s how we grew up.”
George brought the spirit of volunteerism to his university career, too. He dreamed of being an urban planner, and began studying geography at University of Toronto, soon starting a club for like-minded students.
In 1983, he graduated with a degree in geography and a minor in economics. After a few contracts with municipal governments, he decided urban planning wasn’t what he’d hoped. “I wanted to make a lasting imprint,” George says. “I wanted to do more to change the world.”
Having tried to work in his chosen field without finding satisfaction, George needed work that challenged him. But, more importantly, he needed work. It was August 1984 when he saw a posting for a program director. It didn’t fully describe the position, but it did require the applicant to travel—this requirement piqued George’s interest. He sent a résumé to Kevin Allen, president of a company called Community Counselling Service (CCS), who promptly called him for an interview. They met for an hour, and Kevin told George he’d start the day after Labour Day.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” George says. “Kevin was a pioneer. He was a fantastic fundraiser, and a lot of people owe their careers to him. I don’t know why I was chosen that day—it could have been anyone—but thirty years later, here I am.”
Keith Wright picked up George at his parents’ house in Toronto on the first day of his first big assignment for CCS. “George was hired to work as my associate director on the St. Joseph’s Hospital campaign in London, Ontario,” says Keith. “My job was to act as his mentor and show him the ropes.” George and Keith became fast friends and, to his initial surprise, Keith began to learn a great deal from his mentee.
He explains: “Before you could earn fundraising certificates—back when there was only one computer in an office—you had to meet and talk to people. Before you can be a great fundraiser, you need to be able to form relationships. It was a sink or swim situation. As it turns out, George is a very good swimmer.”
London was a great place to start a fundraising career, Keith adds. At the time, many national companies had their headquarters in town. Compared with doing business in Toronto or Montreal, the smaller community made it easier for people early in their careers to rub shoulders with senior executives. Gaining the trust of the hospital board, its volunteers, and its donors also gave Keith and George a chance to try some creative ideas, such as a “London to Paris” car rally fundraiser in southwestern Ontario.
Confidence, freedom and success gave the pair a sense of fearlessness, Keith says. “We’d get these newsletters from the head office of CCS in New York City describing fun company activities. In a split decision, we decided to attend a company picnic without making an RSVP. When we arrived on Long Island, we saw about 20 company picnics and had no way of knowing which one was ours. We only knew what two people from the company looked like! Eventually we found them, and the next day the president of the company took us to lunch and gave us a tour of the Empire State Building. That’s a George thing—he gets something in his head, and it’s ‘Okay! Let’s go!’”
In 1988, Kevin Allen left CCS and began a new firm called Navion. He needed experienced fundraisers, so he approached George to join his team. George agreed, and joined his mentor to begin a new phase of his career.
With the London hospital campaign, George had proved he was a natural. It made sense that one of his first big assignments at Navion was leading the first-ever capital campaign for Edmonton’s Misericordia Hospital in 1988. That’s where he met Tom Shand, the hospital’s director of development and public relations.
“I had never run a capital campaign,” Tom says. “Having evolved into fundraising from journalism and not-for-profit public relations, major gifts and capital campaigns represented a steep learning curve. George was younger than me, but I could not have had a better teacher.”
George and Tom spent about a year on the project. “I don’t recall a lot about specific asks or tactics, but what has stayed with me is the pride George took in his profession. He has respect for the process.”
Working together, the two developed a long-standing friendship and they often compare notes from opposite ends of the country. Tom stayed in health care sector, most recently working as the executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association (Alberta Division). The lessons he learned from George, he says, have stayed with him. “They’ve also been passed along to many who have worked with me since those early days of our careers.”
After a few years of working in sales for Pitney Bowes, Bill Leacy was looking for a career change. In May 1988, he had an interview with Kevin Allen, who had George at his side. “Once Kevin discovered that I played golf, I got the job,” he says. “George would always joke that I was only hired for that reason.”
While he was new to fundraising, Bill began working on a $1-million campaign for a small community hospital serving about 4,000 people in Shelburne, Ontario. In a search for reference materials, Bill asked George for some assistance on the roles of volunteers in campaigns. “He sent me a binder full of documents to assist volunteers and help them be successful. It was meticulously put together,” Bill remembers. “That’s when I knew he would be a good mentor.”
Bill and George worked together at Navion for four years, but they kept in regular contact and have continued to collaborate on projects over the last 25 years. Bill considers George a good friend, and says he’s well-suited for fundraising and helping people succeed.
“George is knowledgeable, forthright, honest, and gets to the point in a hurry. People love his direct approach—even if they don’t know it right away,” Bill says. “From George I learned the importance of clear communication and listening. He’s also great at executing a plan. Many people can develop plans, but it takes a leader to execute. George is a leader.”
Another Navion colleague, Jim Watson, got to know George when the company sent him to Western Canada to help Jim with a fundraising feasibility study. During that time, Jim started to notice George’s dedication to the profession.
“George is genuinely concerned. He’s not a big shot; he never lets success go to his head,” Jim says. “He’s constantly looking at ways to grow his company, but not at the expense of quality of service. He also makes a great mentor for younger professionals.”
Jim points to the scholarship in Kevin Allen’s memory that benefits students of Humber College’s fundraising program. When George’s career mentor and friend passed away, George saw fit to honour Kevin’s memory by doing his part to support the profession. “He wants people to do well and be successful,” Jim says.
Lasting friendships, as evidenced, are George’s forte. “Everyone has friends on Facebook that aren’t really our friends, but George has friends that go back 25 years and he still speaks with them on a weekly basis,” Keith Wright says. “That’s rare these days. In fundraising, it’s all about forging relationships. There’s a power in George’s personality that does that.”
Speaking with George’s long-time friends and colleagues, it’s easy to see how those early days in a neighbourhood that celebrated culture, values, and community influenced a life and career centred on helping people succeed. Stumbling upon fundraising allowed George Stanois to make his mark on the world, just as he’d once dreamed he would.