Women's College Hospital Foundation gets new president and CEO
August 2, 2018
With a passion for advocacy, Jennifer Bernard aspired to be a lawyer.
That goal shifted after graduating from the University of Toronto and working as a fundraiser for three years for the annual Caribbean carnival which is celebrating its 51st anniversary.
“I got such a high from doing something that enabled,” recounted Bernard. “I knew that was something that appealed to me and I should work in that field.”
Considered one of Canada’s leading fundraisers, Bernard is the Women’s College Hospital Foundation (WCHF) new president and chief executive officer.
She started on August 1.
The foundation works with a dedicated community of passionate donors and volunteers to support Women’s College Hospital (WCH) as it advances health for women and revolutionizes healthcare for everyone’s benefit.
In June 2013, the hospital opened its new state-of-the-art ambulatory care facility that is transforming the way healthcare is provided to women and diverse communities in Canada.
Combining treatments, surgery, research and education in one place to deliver superior and efficient care appealed to Bernard who was the McMaster Children’s Hospital Foundation (MCHF) vice-president of development for eight-and-a-half years.
“It’s the only one and I have known many people who have gone through Women’s College and received care that is special and unique,” she said. “There is so much strain on the healthcare system right now. We are in the midst of a tsunami of baby-boomers which will put even more pressure on the system. Women’s College, when they re-imagined themselves, didn’t just re-imagine a new hospital with bricks and mortars and lots of beds and the ‘same old same old’. They literally decided to take a stake in building a new kind of hospital and, in doing so, forced themselves to be the innovators for the healthcare sector in Canada.”
In addition to being Canada’s only research institute dedicated to leading innovation in the health of women, the hospital performs surgery that doesn’t require patients to stay overnight, trains future healthcare professionals to work in integrated and complex settings and provides enhanced access and equity, including the Cancer Awareness & Readiness for Education and Strategy (CARES) program that educates women in marginalised populations about the importance of breast and cervical cancer screening and takes the screening clinics into their communities.
Women’s rights activist Dr. Emily Stowe, Canada’s second licensed female physician, was instrumental in launching WCH that’s emerged as a shining example of revolutionary healthcare.
“My vision is to take that revolution to the next level by changing the focus from a philanthropic point of view of how we approach things because we have a unique opportunity to really own the women’s platform and support communities that are usually shut out, women with HIV and those who are subjected to violence in addition to those in the LGBTQ community who are often marginalised,” Bernard said.
Tapping into the immigrant community is also a priority for the certified fundraising executive.
“I am really excited about opening up the philanthropic doors to them,” she pointed out. “That community is rich and ripe with people that want to give back and who are capable of giving back. Many of them have done very well for themselves and it has been statistically proven that they give back at higher levels than Canadian-born people. They are entrepreneurs, so they have a lot more say in where their money goes. I don’t think the philanthropic community has done a great job of really reaching out to that sector.”
In the last Statistics Canada study done in 2010, it was revealed that immigrants donated an average of $554 compared to $409 for the Canadian-born.
Last February, an immigrant couple – the wife arrived in Canada in 1986 as a refugee from Iran and her husband migrated 13 years later from Switzerland – donated $60 million to promote Arctic innovation.
“Very few donors donate without you asking them and inviting them in and making them feel welcomed,” said Bernard. “We have to reflect what we want. We just can’t say we want the visible minority and immigrant community to come to us if we don’t reflect that. For me, it’s going to be looking at our talent, volunteers, events and branding. Are we branding ourselves to invite those communities in? Do they feel welcomed? Are we treating them with respect? Do we know who they are and how they want to be spoken to? Are we speaking their language? Are we expecting them to speak our language? Are we going to find them where they are or are we expecting them to find us? Those are the kinds of things I am very interested in.”
Bernard, who graduated from Morning Star Secondary School in Mississauga, plans to reach out to women in all sectors.
Research suggests that women are more likely to donate to charity than men.
“I am going to play to our strength,” she noted. “We are women and we are obviously going after women at all levels. Women should support this hospital because we support women. We are uniquely qualified to do that. My vision is to enhance what the hospital was built on which is changing things for women and, in doing so, changing things for everyone.”
Bernard said the time spent at McMaster fully prepared her for the new role at WCH.
She played a pivotal role in developing new partnerships while doubling the annual revenue and extending the foundation’s philanthropic reach.
Under her watch, McMaster Children’s Hospital opened a nephrology clinic in July 2017. It marked the first time that the hospital has had a stand-alone clinic – it was completely funded by a donor-led campaign -- to treat children with kidney disease.
“Every place I have worked, I have been completely absorbed and passionate about the mission,” said Bernard who has two sons. “The children’s platform was not one that was difficult to be passionate about. But what really interested me was that I was part of a huge healthcare network which is Hamilton Health Sciences. I sat at the table of one of the most complex organizations in Canada. I was exposed to complex board and financial issues, governance and major campaigns and that really prepared me in every way to take the next step as a chief executive officer.”
The MCHF along with Hamilton General Hospital Foundation, Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre Foundation, St. Peter’s Hospital Foundation and all of their associated programs are under the Hamilton Health Sciences Foundation purview.
Before joining McMaster in February 2010, Bernard successfully supported and executed capital campaigns, major gift and planned giving programs with the Ontario Science Centre (OSC), the Royal Conservatory of Music and Trillium Health Partners Foundation.
She compared fundraising for large organizations to working in a high level sales environment.
“I love the art of really finding the right way that a person who wants to give can express that,” Bernard said. “It is an expression of love. Unlike buying something tangible, donating provides an opportunity for someone to tell people who they are and what they care about. I love aligning that love with the right opportunity for a person. I believe that you should give until it feels good and not until it hurts. By doing that, my belief is that you give more when you feel good. For me, I love the moment when the donor and the institution meet and you create magic. It never gets old.”
Che Marville, the vice-president of life enrichment & employee engagement at Origin Active Living, said Bernard’s wit, imagination and ability to communicate complex ideas elegantly and succinctly make her unstoppable as a leader in the Canadian fundraising arena.
They met 25 years ago at the OSC when Marville was a program manager & exhibition developer and Bernard was the Omni Max capital campaign manager.
“As a colleague, I had the tremendous opportunity to be a witness to Jennifer’s capacity to build relationships that supported science research,” said Marville who was Oakville’s New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate in the 2014 provincial and 2015 federal elections. “She has an incredible business intuition matched with a great desire to make a difference for the most vulnerable amongst us. She is motivated by a deep sense of service and a belief that an idea can change the world.”
Naki Osutei, the associate vice-president of partnership & engagement with TD’s global corporate partnership team, also worked with Bernard.
“She was heading up major gifts for the Royal Conservatory of Music where I got one of my first jobs after graduating with an undergraduate degree,” Osutei said. “Aside from representing leadership in an area that was relatively new to me, Jennifer was the first senior level Black person I’d ever worked with. In her, I saw a new future for myself. I learned from her coaching and by watching how she dealt with people from all echelons of society. It has been more than 15 years since we worked together and I still benefit from her learning and from her breaking boundaries.”
Former United Achievers Club of Brampton education officer Hyacinth Lindo has known Bernard for nearly three decades.
“Jennifer is an exceptional person who is very accomplished,” she said. “She is also extremely pleasant and a ‘go-getter’ who is very assertive and enjoys giving back willingly.”
The middle of three children, Bernard was born in Trinidad & Tobago to Grenadian parents who migrated to Canada when she was two years old. Her father – Vincent Bernard – passed away in June 2017 at age 89 – while her mother, Claire Bernard, is still alive.
Seeing the absolute pride and joy on her mom’s face after learning of her daughter’s new appointment was a defining moment that’s etched in Bernard’s memory forever.
“She said that coming from Mount Alexander which is a farming community, she could never have imagined that her daughter would grow up to be a CEO,” related Bernard who studied classical piano for 15 years. “Mom said she knew I was capable of it and she was so happy that she actually lived long enough to see it happen. My heart expanded a thousand fold. That was one of the best moments of my life.”