Speaking their language

Sharon Jones knows what you want. She knows what you need. She knows how you think, plan and talk. And she knows how to bring you on board to sponsor her foundation. She knows all of this because she has carefully cultivated an advisory council of 10 people just like you - prominent marketers, advertisers, communications specialists and corporate executives - to help her get inside your head.

Sharon Jones knows what you want. She knows what you need. She knows how you think, plan and talk. And she knows how to bring you on board to sponsor her foundation. She knows all of this because she has carefully cultivated an advisory council of 10 people just like you – prominent marketers, advertisers, communications specialists and corporate executives – to help her get inside your head.

Jones, 33, is warm, bubbly and charismatic. She’s also good at what she does. In just six years with the Toronto-based Sick Kids Foundation, she has risen from organizing the foundation’s telethon as a development officer to her current post as director of corporate partnerships. Her team is set to rake in $13 million from corporate partners this year, and Jones aims to double that number over the next five years.

She seems quite capable of it, too. Four years ago, she introduced a radiothon that raised $550,000 in its first year, $1 million the second and $2.3 million the third.

Perhaps her radio education helped. Jones was in the middle of earning a degree in radio and television arts at Ryerson University, when she started working as a counsellor at a Tim Hortons summer camp for underprivileged kids. ‘It was incredibly fulfilling,’ she recalls. ‘I realized TV wasn’t for me.’ She went on to work as a fundraiser at the Tim Hortons Children’s Foundation and Save the Children Canada before landing a job at Sick Kids.

Looks like she made the right choice. ‘Sharon has the ability to ferret out what the donor wants and needs,’ explains retired Sick Kids VP of new business development Bonnie Good, who hired Jones. And therein lies the key to Jones’ success – making corporate partnerships win-win. She is realistic about the fact that corporations want something out of donations.

Part of that learning came early in her career at Sick Kids, when she recognized a language barrier of sorts between fundraisers and the corporate gatekeepers of sponsorship dollars. ‘I realized I was going in on corporate calls and using fundraising language,’ she explains. ‘It was like we were from different planets.’

Not long after this realization, Jones met Nicholas Austin, then of FCB Toronto (now brand leader at TBWAToronto), through mutual friends. She seized the opportunity to learn everything she could about marketing and the corporate world, and they began meeting weekly.

‘He started educating me about branding,’ she recalls. ‘I sucked his brain dry for an hour and a half every Friday morning.’ Austin and Jones began brainstorming strategies to convince potential corporate donors to move charitable donations from their ‘feel good’ budget into their ‘must have’ marketing budget.

The two decided to expand their brain trust, and now the corporate advisory council sits at 10, including Toronto branding consultant Paul Haft and Alison Cepler, creative at TBWAToronto.

Occasionally, Jones asks a council member to sit in on meetings with potential corporate partners. A smart idea, because the donors like having access to their marketing brains and the council gives her an edge over competing charities. ‘Aside from the radiothon, they’re what I’m most proud of,’ she says.

Judging by outside interest, she should be. Jones is beginning to receive calls from people interested in joining. ‘I love that people are calling, but when you get more than 10, the brainstorming breaks apart,’ she says.

The main goal of the council is to help Jones build long-term, multi-level relationships with corporate donors. She wants Sick Kids to become embedded in the donor’s corporate structure – from straight donations to employee-driven fundraising to sponsoring events. She believes involved relationships are in the best interests of both sides – if a corporation focuses its energy on a few select charities, it has the power not only to provide significant help to the charities, but also make it clear to the public what the company stands for. ‘If you ask someone what CIBC stands for, they stand for breast cancer. Tim Horton’s stands for helping underprivileged kids.

‘I only want to partner with companies who share our mission and values,’ Jones emphasizes. Such companies include FedEx,

Bell and Loblaw.

Having a staff that understands marketing and communications first and foremost is a plus. Jones had the foresight to recruit her staff of seven largely from the marketing world.

‘It’s easier to teach outsiders fundraising than to un-teach fundraisers,’ she explains. Team members have been plucked from agencies like JWT and Cossette. Paula Howell, from Lowe Roche, fills the newly created position of VP of marketing – a role Jones’ advisory council helped senior management realize the importance of.

‘Sharon really has a way of mobilizing the troops with her excitement, optimism and enthusiasm,’ says former boss Good. ‘She has a really good team – she’s melded them into a cohesive group.’

While Jones is a self-described change agent, not everyone at the foundation was initially receptive to her more business-minded approach to fundraising. ‘Brand and marketing are dirty words for not-for-profits,’ she says. ‘Three years ago, I wasn’t even allowed to say we were co-branding, even though that’s clearly what we were doing.’

She sees attitudes towards branding changing in the non-profit sector as more fundraisers realize they must adapt to the times. At Sick Kids, Jones got senior managers onside by inviting them to sit in on her council meetings. This experience helped persuade them that effective branding and marketing strategies could raise more money. As a result, while six years ago the foundation’s vision statement was six sentences long, today, her VP of marketing has boiled it down to simply: ‘Healthy children. A better world.’

What’s next? Jones is helping Paula Howell, VP marketing, Sick Kids Foundation, work with JWT to launch the foundation’s first major branding campaign including print, radio, TV and outdoor ads in the fall. The campaign’s message will be threefold: to illustrate that Sick Kids is more than just a hospital, that it helps people across the country and that it’s not as well-funded as commonly perceived. Jones is gearing up to leverage as much free media space as possible, noting: ‘You’ve got to be really creative when you don’t have any money.’