Member Insights: A conversation with international fundraising professional Johann Fox
Interview by Nicole Carrea Director of Development, National Kidney Foundation
Johann Fox is an award-winning fundraiser who has been making a name for himself in the industry for over a decade. Johann currently serves as Director of U.S. Development at CMRF Crumlin. Headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, CMRF is the principal fundraising body for Our Lady's Children's Hospital as well as The National Children's Research Centre. We conducted this interview over breakfast at the Intercontinental Hotel in Midtown during one of his recent visits to New York City.
My favorite question to ask my peers is how did you get into this career? I’ve yet to meet anyone who replied by saying they grew up wanting to be a fundraiser but I won’t stop until I find that person. Is it you?
I’m a qualified software engineer. I loved computers, I thought it could change the world! Seriously. I worked with one of Irelands largest insurance companies in their IT department and was unhappy so I ended up going back to school for a post-graduate degree in journalism and public relations. The insurance company chose CMRF to be their beneficiary of the year and as a part of my graduate project, I interviewed the organization’s leadership.
So you fell into it like the rest of us.
I guess so. Some friends and I fundraised for them but we weren’t interested in doing something small so we decided to put on three events. The first was a Gala. The second was the world’s largest duck race. The world record at the time was 100,000 ducks going down a river in Asia so we wanted to do 120,000. We created our own mini organization, registered it and everything. We ordered all these ducks having no idea how we were going to do this, we were just volunteers with an idea, not professional fundraisers. The week before the event the ducks hadn’t arrived as planned, they ended up coming three days before the event. That day the weather was unusually beautiful with no wind so the ducks didn’t move. News crews were there doing a live broadcast of the ducks floating in place. I learned a lot that day. The ducks ended up moving over night and it was a huge story in the news and online with people putting ducks in random bodies of water and posting pictures about it.
For the third fundraising event we road motorcycles from LA to NY. I had just quit my job and the head of fundraising at that time was Eamonn Coghlan who I had recently met through the duck event. He ended up coming along on the ride and eventually offered me a contract position with the organization. I joined officially in the Fall of 2006.
So does CMRF still host a duck race?
We’ve carried on some elements but no, no more ducks!
Well I’m glad you found fundraising or rather it found you. You seem to be making quite a name for yourself. In 2014 you won Irish Professional Fundraiser of the Year. Congratulations!
It’s funny because we had a whole reorg of the company the year before and while it presented some challenges I eventually found a way to make it my own. Then at the end of the year the original position I wanted on the Corporate Partnerships team became available and we ended up having our best year in corporate. My CEO nominated me for the award. I was not confident in winning but I was confident in what I had done. I then went up against two other people for Global Fundraiser of the Year at the International Fundraising Conference and took 2nd place.
Impressive! What about winning that award are you most proud of?
That year on the corporate growth, I had a great team and it was the year I was most myself. I was willing to take calculated risk and I did things my way. I didn’t know any better then. I’m more cautions now, but I learned to be authentic and yourself.
Do you have any plans for your career trajectory?
No. I did 3 years ago but now I feel like it’s good not to know. Ultimately, I’m more content. I want to do something I enjoy getting out of bed for. The first year in this position was full of dread in regards to finding my feet. We’ve now got the organization in a place I wouldn’t have thought was possible two years ago. Now in my third year of a U.S. cycle, it feels like this is going to be a great year for the organization. The stage is set based on the work we’ve done, now I’m just looking for that big gift like everyone else!
Lets talk about where those gifts come from. How did the organization go about building a donor network here in the U.S.?
Eamonn Coghlan was the catalyst in 2012 to open doors here so many of our contacts came from him. He was known as ‘Chairman of the Boards’ in running circles and very well-known in the Irish-American community on the east and west coast. Also, PGA and Ryder Cup golfer Graeme McDowell from Northern Ireland was quoted in a news article saying he wanted to align with a charity so CMRF sought him out, he got on board and we continued to expand our reach through his supporters.
So many organizations struggle with diversifying their donor base beyond that initial circle of influence. Have you faced that?
Our donor pool has changed only over the last few years or at least our knowledge of the pool has changed. The Gala seven years ago was strictly Irish guests that only Irish people would know, and now it’s so diverse. This year’s Gala features Conor McGregor (MMA fighter), Henrik Lundqvist (Hockey player) and Bret Baier (politics) they are shifting the dial significantly not only in what is actually happening at the event but in terms of the people who are interested in our work. I try to harness the Irish people in that core group so that they then become the ambassadors for this wider cause. I’m also getting more personally involved to create more impactful relationships. For example I would now be carefully monitoring a donor’s giving history to look for opportunities to get them involved.
Ok so you get people in the room but how do you sell them on a mission that’s taking place in Ireland?
We have some amazing projects we are working on and our work has evolved. We’re unique that the entire pediatric population of Ireland attends our hospital and so we’ve collected amazing data, much of which is now internationally used. We’re currently collaborating on projects in 11 U.S. states. The fact is that 1 in 100 kids worldwide are born with a heart defect, it doesn’t matter what your nationality is, you are affected by this and will benefit from our research. My role is to articulate those funding opportunities to an Irish American audience but also a purely American audience now with those partnerships.
Storytelling is big in the industry right now. I imagine it plays an especially important role in how you communicate to your growing audience.
I find that the challenge of storytelling is making something from 25 years ago relevant now and something people care about today. CMRF is getting ready to celebrate our 40th anniversary and we’ve put together a book highlighting the leadership, history, and accomplishments over those years. If a donor wants to focus on a specific topic, we can now pull from the stories captured in this report. We’ve never really demonstrated what has been accomplished in this way before. For example, there was an Irish attending physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and his work was jointly funded by that institution and ours. He is a superstar but we’ve never used that story for donor impact until now when we’re finally building a cultivation event surrounding him and his work.
What are your tips for managing donor relationships?
Focus on the top 10% of your donors because we know they give 90% of the dollars. Start with the gifts you’re already getting, look to retain what you have and then move them towards something bigger. When it comes to donor acquisition, don’t go too far away. We don’t have time for that. Be focused on having personal relationships and listen to your donors!
You’ve been a professional fundraiser for 10 years, have you noticed any trends during that time?
People don’t prioritize spending time with people. It takes time. Relationships take time. Impact reports take time but are necessary and worth it. Know the donor, record what you can. But you can’t do everything! Focus your energy. It has to come back to relationships. Until people know and trust you, you are never going to move a $500 gift to $5,000. Also, its all relative. A major gift is major to your organization. If you’re going to move them to give more the principles are all the same.
When did you join AFP and what has the experience been like for you?
When I kind of divorced myself from Ireland and came here I had heard about AFP from The Resource Alliance. It was new and exciting. I think I joined in 2015 and I got involved in the Young Professionals group. I’ve been to some of the events but scheduling is hard with my travel back and forth to Ireland. I went to Fundraising Day and met some good contacts, I actually found our fundraising agency there. I also went to the AFP National conference in San Francisco in 2017 and am hoping to go to New Orleans this spring. I try when possible to read the communications, and yes I’ll be reading and sharing this one!
It’s January so I have to ask, any 2018 goals?
To play golf at Winged Foot…finally! Learn Spanish. My personal and professional goals often blend. I tend to overcommit. I’ve done the NYC Marathon twice and intended for this year to be the third but was honest with myself that it won’t work with scheduling. From a purely professional perspective, the goal is to crack what we are doing. I learned a lot in year one, changed things in year two, and year three is the jumping off point. Oh and to attend more AFP events!