A suit, a tie, and a taste for adventure landed Keith Wright a crash course in fundraising with pro Kevin Allen in the early 1980s. Three decades later, teaching a course for new fundraisers brought his experience full circle.
Being part of the 48th Highlanders Military Band and later, a Captain in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, afforded Toronto-based Keith Wright several opportunities to see the country as a young adult. While also studying history at the University of Toronto, he spent summers on courses stationed in different provinces, including exercises in Germany, cultivating his love of travel.
These experiences were crucial for Keith’s career development. Learning self-discipline and gaining managerial skills in the army, he says, prepared him to take on his first job as a marketing representative for a small wine and spirits company in Toronto and, soon after, his first major gig in fundraising.
It all started when a good friend of Keith’s met Kevin Allen in a restaurant in 1983. At the time, Kevin was running the largest campaign in Canadian history: a $40-million campaign for the United Church of Canada. He was looking for staff to support the campaign and asked Keith’s friend if he knew anyone who liked to travel, could talk to two or 200 people, and owned a suit.
“I’ve got just the guy,” said Keith’s pal, who knew he was looking for his next career move. The following week, Keith had a new job and a new mentor.
Kevin Allen was a force of nature, Keith says. “To the average person, he was a little like Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street—he wore impeccable suits with suspenders and he came from New York City. But if you could be anyone’s understudy in the early days of fundraising in Canada, you were lucky to be his.”
He cites an example from a volunteer training meeting during the campaign. “The meeting happened in Vancouver at a United Church. Toward the end of the meeting, the daycare downstairs began letting out for the day. The children were making a lot of noise—so much so that it became impossible to hear Kevin over their voices. Anyone else would have been frustrated by the experience, but Kevin asked everyone in the room to be quiet and listen to the kids laughing and playing,” he explains. “At that moment, Kevin piped up and said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is what this campaign is all about. It’s about the future of the church.’ Only Kevin could say that and get everyone on board in one instant.”
After a few months of working on that campaign, Keith got his big chance: a $2-million-plus campaign for the Archdiocese of Vancouver to raise funds for schools, charitable programs, local parishes, and the upcoming Pope visit. “It was a complete honour, but also my first campaign as a director. I had no more than four months of experience,” Keith says.
Within weeks, Keith was out on his own. To prepare for his new role, he looked at similar campaigns, visited a campaign in the northwestern United States, and began to set meetings with priests in the 72 parishes within the Lower Mainland Region of British Columbia. “I made it my task to try to meet all of them,” he says. “That had never been done before. I would have to line up four churches per day to make it all happen.”
The campaign gave Keith the chance to see both urban and rural campaigns and meet all sorts of different people. “During one meeting, I planted a tree with a priest. During another, the priest took me to the local dump to watch bears. I had to take ferries to get to some of the parishes. And back then, I had to always wear a suit and tie to meetings,” he says. “I’m sure it looked very incongruous when I walked down a dirt trail or sandy beach with my briefcase to some of these places.”
Given Keith’s wanderlust, it was the perfect way to start a career. He relished adventure and connecting with people, and this type of assignment suited him well. From that point, he went on to lead and contribute to several high-profile, multi-million-dollar campaigns for hospitals, universities, and independent schools across Canada. He worked for Kevin Allen for a few more years in the 1980s before joining another major American consulting firm and eventually striking out on his own. Seeing the Ontario College of Art and Design University’s $42-million Sharp Centre for Design go from concept to construction was one of his favourite campaigns, he says.
Though his work took him from coast and coast, Keith managed to make time for further adventure between assignments. In 1987, for instance, he went on two treks in Nepal: the Everest Base Camp Trek in the Solu-Khumbu region—“home of the tireless Sherpa people,” he says—and another trek in the Annapurna region of Nepal, homeland of the famed Gurkhas. He even met Sir Edmund Hillary who, along with a team of volunteers from his foundation, was building one of his many “schoolhouses in the clouds” at the Tengboche Monastery.
Keith’s travels also took him off the beaten track to many parts of India. “In these places, scenic wonders were usually juxtaposed with stark poverty,” he says, “yet the spirit, warmth and curiosity of the people was apparent even in places like the docks of Bombay.”
In 1994, Keith was accepted into Ryerson University's Graduate Journalism Program. There he honed his skills as a researcher, writer, videographer, and photographer.
In 2001, Keith was invited to add a new title to his resume: teacher/professor. For the next 10 years, he led a fundraising course as part of Humber College’s Arts Administration Cultural Management Program and the University of Guelph-Humber’s Public Relations and Media Studies Program, sharing what he learned as a consultant with budding new fundraising professionals. “Teaching was a great experience,” he says. “It’s immensely rewarding to see former students becoming managers and executive directors. A surprising number of them have pursued a career in fundraising.”
Keith says he also learned a lot from his students. “Life gets very tiring if you spend it speaking at the front of a classroom in your toga and sandals,” he says. “I preferred to get new ideas from students, and I found energy in their enthusiasm.”
Keith continues to enjoy fundraising and volunteering. He shares enthusiasm for a recent project with the Royal Canadian Artillery Heritage Fund, which on May 3 unveiled a statue in Ottawa of John McCrae on the 100th anniversary of the writing of his poem “In Flanders Fields.” After reading about the St. John the Compassionate Mission and Bakery in Toronto in the newspaper, he and George Stanois of The Goldie Company helped with case writing and grant proposals for the project. “It’s a national treasure,” he says.
When asked to reflect upon his career choices, Keith doesn’t regret a thing—even though fundraising wasn’t on his radar before he met Kevin Allen.
“There are a lot of things you can do with your life—many of them will make you a lot of money,” he says. “Fundraising probably isn’t part of that path, but there’s a certain pride in it. When you can look up at a statue of John McCrae, or walk under the building at OCAD, and you know you were part of it—that’s something special. The travel, the wonderful people, and the shared stories and lessons have taught me things like patience, the value of humour, and endless curiosity. These are good skills for life and for fundraising.”
Keith Wright: Five Things Every Fundraiser Should Know
We asked Keith to share some wisdom he learned during his career. Here’s what he told us:
- Fundraising is about people. “We call it fundraising or advancement or development, but more than anything, this is a people business,” Keith says. “It’s about making connections and getting people excited about projects.”
- Volunteers are critical for success. “Everything we do should be dedicated to the volunteers; they are the essence of philanthropy.”
- Fundraising is like an election. “The goal isn’t just about winning or reaching your target; that’s just where things start.”
- Fundraising is a team sport. “I didn’t invent this idea, but as a campaign director, you have to know just the right time to be the coach, the quarterback, the cheerleader, or the water boy.”
- Thank everyone, always. “Show gratitude and recognition. Donors should get thank-you notes so fast that they don’t even think you’ve had time to receive the donation.”