A Prescription for Philanthropy
As one of Canada’s very first health care fundraisers, Gord Durnan followed his passion for philanthropy and quickened the pulse of a country’s worth of professionals.
From an early age, Gord Durnan had a predisposition for philanthropy, but going into university, he hadn’t considered it a career option.
Born in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario to a mother who volunteered with the Canadian Red Cross during World War II and a father who travelled weekly to Ottawa as a “dollar a year man,” Gord grew up in a family with a passion for community service. “My parents set great examples,” he says. “They were always involved in the community as volunteers and donors.”
After a stint studying computer science at the University of Waterloo, it was no surprise to his parents when Gord announced that he wanted to switch streams and join a program in community recreation leadership at Toronto’s Centennial College. “I wanted to work with people, not computers,” he says. “My parents thought it was a fabulous idea and were very supportive of my choice.”
After graduation, Gord secured a job with the Canadian Red Cross and worked in water safety in the organization’s Ontario division before moving to the British Columbia-Yukon division for a few years. After taking some time to travel the world, Gord returned to Canada in 1972 and became Director of Blood Donor Services for the Ontario Red Cross. In this role, he enjoyed a few years of visiting communities and volunteers across the province, from Elliot Lake to Windsor to Ottawa. Within a few years, Gord became the first-ever Director of Development for the Ontario Red Cross.
After he married his wife, Dale, in 1975, Gord decided it was time to settle in one spot. He answered an ad in the Globe and Mail, and in 1977 became the Managing Director of the York Central Hospital Foundation in Richmond Hill, a city just north of Toronto.
At the time, the only other professional fundraiser in a hospital in Canada was the newly hired president of the Hospital for Sick Children Foundation, Gord recalls. “At the time hospitals raised money once every 15 or 20 years, whenever they needed to do a large project, such as building a new wing. There was no notion of health care fundraising that happened on an ongoing basis.”
When Gord joined York Central, something had changed. The Board of Directors said it never again wanted to start a campaign from scratch. “They’d built up expertise and a knowledge base, and they didn’t want to waste it,” he explains. “They said, ‘Let’s keep in touch with these donors. Let’s create a foundation and hire staff so we can continue to have great relations with the community.’”
While it was exciting to be at the forefront of this new approach, it was also kind of lonely, Gord says. Not only were there few charities (when Gord began fundraising, Canada had around 3,500 charities—now it has upwards of 90,000), health care was not a major philanthropic focus in Canada.
To expand his knowledge and network, Gord attended conferences in the United States and joined the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP). For a few years, he served as the only Canadian director on each organization’s Board. He also became one of the first Canadians to receive the Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) designation from AFP, and the first to receive the Fellow (FAHP) designation from AHP.
He wasn’t alone for long. As charity activity expanded in Canada and more people began to join the ranks, a professional community began to develop. Gord and a handful of his colleagues—such as Gordon Goldie, Dan King and Ross McGregor—set to work creating the first AFP chapter for Toronto.
“We needed to create our own professional group,” Gord says. “It’s so powerful to see new young fundraisers learning at excellent AFP conferences. To me, it means that philanthropy in Canada will continue to grow and get better, and have a greater impact on society.”
After 10 years with York Central, Gord and his family moved to Muskoka, where he began a new position as the Managing Director of the South Muskoka Hospital Foundation in Bracebridge. By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, hospital foundations begun to blossom across the country.
“People were beginning to realize that though governments provided adequate health care under our social system, if they wanted excellent health care, they’d have to do it themselves,” he says.
Largely due to Gord’s and his colleagues’ efforts, a network was born. Today, most fundraisers are willing to share knowledge and give advice, he says. “Over my career, I presented to more than 75 hospital foundations across the country. My board understood that I had to play that role.”
Gord believes the fundraising profession has grown in Canada because people are passionate about making better communities. “In philanthropy, you can make a difference and live your values. That’s empowering, and it’s important work.”
Throughout his full and rich professional career, Gord has been honoured with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal and the AHP’s Si Seymour Award. In 1996, he was named Fundraising Executive of the Year by AFP.
In 2005, Gord retired from South Muskoka Hospital Foundation to launch his “volunteer” career. These days, he serves his community in several roles, including Vice Chair of the Muskoka Community Foundation, Vice Chair Pro Tem of the Nipissing University Board of Governors, and Director of the Cottage Country Family Health Team Board. He also participates in his local Rotary Club.
Many organizations still seek Gord’s advice and ask him share his expertise. He gladly obliges. “It’s so rewarding to visit groups, share some knowledge, and see what they accomplish,” he says. “People won’t let me stop, but I’m having a blast. Philanthropy is what gets me up in the morning.”
Gord Durnan: Three Things Every Fundraiser Should Know
We asked fundraiser Gord Durnan to share some wisdom he learned during his career. Here’s what he told us:
- Listen to your community and donors, and help them achieve those goals through philanthropy. “It’s all about listening.”
- It’s not the organization that needs the funds, it’s the community. “We tend to think too much about organizations having needs, but the truth is that organizations have solutions. If nobody was suffering, we wouldn’t need the host of valuable and important charities meeting community needs throughout Canada.”
- Say thank you. “And thank you, and thank you. And show the community and your donors what they’ve accomplished, so they want to do more.”
“If we could only do these three things,” Gord says, “Canada could be one of the world’s smartest and most caring countries.”