Be so focused on your goal that you are unafraid to do what it takes to achieve it. I always hated public speaking, but when a boy I was working with was suddenly facing juvenile detention primarily because he was in a bad family situation, I stood up in a courtroom full of people and insisted the judge consider a foster home instead. I only realized later that my sense of righting an injustice had overcome any fear I had. Now when I speak in front of groups, I try to take the focus off my nerves and put it on the need for the audience to hear something important.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Becky Chapman Weaver, Chief Mission Officer for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. Of her 40 years in the nonprofit sector, Becky has devoted 22 years to the cause of childhood cancer research. She remembers the day some guys from New York called to say they planned to raise $17,000 by shaving heads at their St. Patrick’s Day party… and the day they called back to say, “We raised $104,000 — and we’re doing this again next year!”
Fast forward a few years: Becky became the second employee of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, where she now leads teams dedicated to taking care of families and making grants to researchers. Her mom, two aunts and an uncle are cancer survivors, and cancer took her younger brother at age 40. Finding a cure is not an option for Becky — it’s an obsession.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Fundraising was actually an “accidental profession” for me. At the University of Montana, I majored in Interpersonal Communications simply because I loved the classes. For my internship, I worked with troubled kids through the juvenile probation department in Missoula, and decided I wanted to be a family therapist.
While pursuing a masters and working for a program for pre-delinquent youth, I was tasked with raising money to keep the program from going under. I took classes at The Grantsmanship Center, a nonprofit training program, and discovered I had a knack for writing grant proposals, direct mail and other fundraising materials. This is how I started my fundraising career: mostly with organizations for troubled kids or cancer research.
After a couple of decades of fundraising work, I was ready to become a consultant — I even had the letterhead and business cards printed — but when I saw an ad for Director of Development at the National Childhood Cancer Foundation, I knew it was my calling.
A few years later, some crazy guys in New York started shaving heads for our Foundation, and that grew so big that we split off to form the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, where I was one of the first two employees. We realized pretty quickly that we knew how to raise money, but we needed to figure out how to give it away wisely, and it became my job to work with experts to build a grantmaking program for childhood cancer research. Gradually I turned loose of fundraising and am now the Chief Mission Officer at the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, in charge of our funding program as well as family relations with those who let us honor their kids to inspire fundraising.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
For many years, the St. Baldrick’s Foundation was growing by millions of dollars in revenue and thousands of volunteers each year, but the general public had never heard of us. We had a small staff of about 20, and more than 50,000 volunteers who we coached to organize St. Baldrick’s head-shaving events across the country. I was wearing a St. Baldrick’s t-shirt on a flight to New York, when an airline attendant suddenly exclaimed, “St. Baldrick’s! My boyfriend organizes an event for them, they’re terrific!” I told her I was on staff, and she said, “Oh, no, they don’t have staff, it’s all volunteers,” and proceeded to tell me what an awesome foundation St. Baldrick’s is and what great childhood cancer research it funds. I was thrilled she knew who we are and that our volunteers took so much ownership of the mission.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Our first year as an independent foundation, we had just five employees, all working from our own homes. We had no idea our event volume would almost double over the prior year, and at that time 90% of our events were concentrated around the weeks surrounding St. Patrick’s Day. In late January, I told my husband that it was becoming hard to write down all the phone messages we received on the new toll-free number, let alone return the calls, before the machine would fill up again. He said, “You know they have call centers for that.” I called our CEO, we both hit ourselves on the forehead and by the next day we had a call center — just before the madness really hit. I guess if we learned anything from that, it was that when the treadmill starts to go so fast that you’re about to fall, jump off it for a minute, take a breath, look at what’s happening and take steps to solve the problem.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
From the beginning, St. Baldrick’s head-shaving events have been run by volunteers, and that remains true today. Each of our events and the shavees that participate have their own web page where they can write personal messages about why they are raising money for childhood cancer research, post before-and-after pictures and more. These tools allowed our volunteers to spread the word about our mission — and the fun of shaving heads for donations — at a time when the internet was beginning to change everyone’s lives.
St. Baldrick’s became the fastest-growing grassroots movement I’ve ever seen. For years, the best we could do as staff was keep up with demand. We’d tell new staff members around January, “Strap yourselves in” for the roller coaster ride of the next few months. So many nonprofit organizations struggle to recruit and motivate volunteers — especially those who will raise money. But we had tens of thousands of enthusiastic warriors for our cause from the beginning.
I remember the first day that our website alone brought in $1 million dollars in a 24-hour period. To this day I don’t know how we kept up with it all; when so much more of the work was manual than it is today. I think we all felt such a responsibility to the volunteers and to the families of kids fighting cancer, and so inspired at seeing that this was changing the face of childhood cancer research, that we couldn’t stop.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Ours is the largest grant-making program for childhood cancer research aside from the federal government, and we fund every type and every stage of research, from new discoveries in the lab to clinical trials to test new treatments. We’ve also put a big focus on training the next generation of childhood cancer researchers.
I’m proud of our St. Baldrick’s Robert J. Arceci Innovation Awards, in honor of a great researcher who was known for thinking outside the box. These awards require no proposal, and the recipients receive $250,000 a year for three years, with the complete freedom to pursue innovative research. Already we’ve seen outstanding discoveries from these awards, which are given, based on nominations, to a researcher from the U.S. or Canada each spring, and to one researcher from another country each fall.
This year we took on a new strategic initiative to support the development of a Pediatric Cancer Data Commons — a tool that can transform the whole world of childhood cancer research. The Data Commons will help harmonize and connect all kinds of data — from tissue samples to clinical trials to radiology images and scans and more — from many different sources around the world. Any researcher will then be able to use this data to explore new ideas and make new discoveries in a way that is not currently possible. It’s going to truly transform efforts to find new cures for children with cancer, and help survivors live with fewer toxic late effects of treatment.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Hire the right people — those with the skills you need and a passion for the work — and then listen to their ideas for how to do things better. Also, learn their natural strengths and help them use those skills in their daily work.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I’ve had the good fortune of managing small teams, but I would say with any team, make sure they are all extremely well trained, and that they know when to act on their own and when to ask for advice.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Early in my career I took classes from The Grantsmanship Center — we’re talking back in the early 1980’s when it was relatively new — and then worked there for a couple of years. Thetrainers took me under their wing and taught me so much about fundraising and nonprofit management — and guided my career for more than 10 years. One day I got a call from one of those mentors, the late Florence Green, asking me to apply for a position with a new cancer foundation being set up by the family of John Wayne. I thanked her, but said I was too happy to consider leaving my position as Director of Membership for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. She asked me to think about it and said she would call back. The next week I learned that a beloved curator at the museum had terminal cancer, and that if he’d only been diagnosed sooner, they could have saved him. When Flo called back, I agreed to the interview, and became the first employee of what is now the foundation supporting the John Wayne Cancer Institute. After spending many years raising funds for troubled kids and cancer research, the move to childhood cancer research was a perfect fit, and I owe that privilege to several important mentors along the way.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve really focused on being the person behind the success of others, and that’s a role that suits me best. It feels very natural and fulfilling. Whether that’s guiding the fundraising success of volunteers, or helping donors accomplish what means most to them, or supporting the researchers who are finding cures for kids, I get the utmost satisfaction from giving people the resources they need to be successful.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1) It’s okay not to know what you want to do when you start out in the work world. Just follow your interests and use your natural strengths, and doors will open. I never finished the master’s degree I started in family therapy, but I’ve had almost four decades of work more interesting and fulfilling than I could have predicted.
2) It is indeed possible to make a good living doing work that inspires you. My family and close friends always encouraged me in that, but a few people thought it was a career path that would result in burnout and low pay — and it can! But if you find your passion, put your natural talents to work and stretch yourself to keep learning and growing, you will be fine.
3) Be so focused on your goal that you are unafraid to do what it takes to achieve it. I always hated public speaking, but when a boy I was working with was suddenly facing juvenile detention primarily because he was in a bad family situation, I stood up in a courtroom full of people and insisted the judge consider a foster home instead. I only realized later that my sense of righting an injustice had overcome any fear I had. Now when I speak in front of groups, I try to take the focus off my nerves and put it on the need for the audience to hear something important.
4) Respect your goals enough to be honest about your skills and where you need help. The only subject I was not good at in school was science, and now I’m Chief Mission Officer for a childhood cancer research organization. How is that possible? I’ve learned a lot about the mission over the past 22 years, but mainly I’ve learned how to ask for advice, how to listen and be strategic about putting those recommendations to work and how to connect with the right people for the right needs. I tell our researchers that if they can make me understand their project, I can make anyone understand it — and that’s important for motivating donors and volunteers.
5) Surround yourself with people you enjoy being with. Especially in nonprofit organizations, we tend to put in very long hours. I count myself very lucky to spend many of those hours with people I respect, and with whom I can share good times and bad — and a lot of laughter. Also, learn how to separate from work and enjoy family and friends and the things that recharge your batteries away from work.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Right now, I guess I’d like that movement to be about more people listening to other points of view and showing respect for people who are different from themselves. Let’s not be afraid to do that.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
That’s easy. It’s a Maya Angelou quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” To me, that’s one of the most important concepts to remember when working with donors and volunteers — with anybody, really.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
That’s easy, too. James Taylor, because his music and his spirit simply make me happy, and have for more than 40 years.
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About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click here to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.