In the hotbed of academic medical center excellence that is Boston, Kris Laping is a standout in every way. Her philanthropic efforts as Senior Vice President of Development for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) have led to an impressive reputation as a builder and manager of superior teams – so much so that she is a valued resource and trusted mentor to many within and beyond the New England development scene.
Her experience in the social services and higher education sectors only serves to accentuate her broad-based knowledge of the development profession. Prior to joining BIDMC over ten years ago, Laping held roles as Assistant Dean for Development at Harvard University; Senior Vice President of Development for Boys & Girls Club of Boston; and Director of Annual Giving at Brandeis University.
Lindauer had the opportunity to speak in-depth with Laping as she looked back on a career built on missions – and the steadfast belief that with a willingness to try, anything is possible.
Q. How and why did you choose the development profession?
A. I’ve been in development for just over 27 years, and, like most of us who went into the field at the time, I didn’t actually set out to go into development. I knew I wanted to do something mission driven, that would allow me to be creative and work with people. And, I had an interest in advertising and public relations. When I became aware of it, development sounded interesting.
Because the Boston area has so many wonderful universities, I decided to focus on that sector. I landed at Brandeis University. My only experience at that point had been as a phone-a-thon caller when I was a college student and I really did not like that at all. I lasted for two nights and I was hung up on multiple times. So it was a little ironic that I chose to work in development but I ended up really falling in love with the profession. Six months into it, I felt like I had found my calling. So many people I know, even in the later stages of their lives, feel like they still haven’t found their calling. I was very lucky.
Q. You’ve worked in the social services, higher education, and now, healthcare sectors. Can you talk a little bit about the pros and cons of each?
A. I enjoyed my time in each sector. You often have intangible rewards in this profession and I think for anyone trying to find their niche — whether it is the arts or education or healthcare — it is important to find the area that really gets your juices flowing. Because it is hard work and you can’t be in it for the glory! You are in it for the internal reward so it is really important that you love the work that you are trying to represent, and pick the part of development that taps into your passion in the most significant way.
I think that social services and healthcare have real immediacy for people. There is a lot of opportunity to create urgency around your mission and your case and definitely a chance to establish an emotional connection to the product that you are representing.
The pace is incredibly intense in academic medicine. As I talk to colleagues in other academic medical centers, they agree that it only seems to get faster. The pressure is on us to produce increasing revenues, as it is with all that is happening within the realm of healthcare. You have to love that kind of pace — otherwise it is not a good place to be. Higher-ed is more predictable, so for people who like the comfort of having a plan and the notion that six months later you are still on that same plan, higher-ed is a good spot for you. You are not going to find that in healthcare — but for me that’s part of the excitement of it. The people who have been in healthcare fundraising a long time seem to thrive on that dynamic.
Q. What traits would you say are necessary to lead a development department?
A. You need to have resilience and flexibility. You have to have an ability to navigate complexity. That’s something you don’t often find in job descriptions but I think that is probably one of the most important skills for the Chief Development Officer in academic medicine. There is the formal structure and hierarchy but then there is the informal way of how things get done. In order to move forward in your agenda, you have to understand how to navigate that and it is not intuitive. So developing those political skills along your career path is really, really important.
Q. Is there something in your career path that, on reflection, prepared you for the CDO role in healthcare?
A. I can actually trace it back to the first place I worked which was Brandeis, an organization that will always have a special place in my heart. I was there at a time when there was a lot of change and even turmoil and it was a difficult place to be because of the need to adapt to change at the presidential level and four changes at the Vice President level in the five years I was there.
Because I was able to move things forward under different regimes, I gained a great education and understanding of how to navigate and that was serendipity. But I probably learned more on every level in that five years than I would have learned in ten years in a more stable kind of environment, both in terms of the skills I developed as a professional, and also in terms of working with very different professionals at many different levels.
Q. What made you tough it out?
A. I thought the institution was amazing. Brandeis was only 40 years old at the time I started, but it had a global view and a global reach and was attracting philanthropic support from donors all around the world, mostly from non-alumni donors at that point. I thought that was interesting and challenging. I just fell in love with the place, and felt like it was an important institution that really deserved my loyalty.
Q. So how did your next step come about and was it a hard decision to leave?
A. It was hard to leave. But the opportunity that came my way was the chance to run my own shop at a community hospital. My supervisor at Brandeis offered me a larger role if I would stay, but I felt that reporting directly to the president and CEO of the hospital would be a good experience for me.
In retrospect, it was. I learned a lot; it was my first chief development officer role at the age of 27. But I also discovered that I am not a small institution person – and these are important things to learn along the way.
Q. You are known for building and managing top-quality teams. What traits do you look for in a fundraiser?
A. Fire in the belly. And that is a really hard thing to interview for. But you can pick up on some of that as you talk with people. It’s positive energy; a sense of adventure. It’s someone who you think will want to take the hill. In most of the places I’ve been, you needed to do things outside the box. I’ve been drawn to places where you need to be more creative and entrepreneurial and I think that people who like that kind of work tend to be drawn to those institutions and stay a long time.
I also look for people who are honest and supportive of their colleagues. I have found that you can meet a lot of talented people along the way, but not all of them are team players. You could have an extraordinarily talented person who could actually advance your organization in important ways if they play as part of the team. But, if they don’t, they can affect the whole team in a negative way.
At this moment in time I have the best aligned team that I have ever had because everyone is rowing in the same direction. I think it’s pretty stunning and until you see that you don’t realize the difference between a group of talented people who are all doing their own thing versus a group of talented people who are all in it together and working as a unit.
Q. How do you get them rowing in the right direction? And what do you do when they are not?
A. I think sometimes it’s just as simple as having people understand what the big picture is and where everyone fits in. And so there is lots of communication about where we are going and what each functional area’s role is in our collective success.
Also, it’s important to recognize the people who are at the back of the house when the frontline fundraisers are getting the recognition. I think that acknowledging the unsung heroes is motivating to everyone and makes a real difference.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, you may not be able to get certain people to row in the same direction. And you may have to make changes. I have a lot of patience and a really long fuse, but I am also pragmatic. I realize that if you can’t change behavior after a certain point in time, it’s better for the team to make changes in order to make the unit work.
Q. How do you keep your team motivated during tough times and, also, how do you keep them from resting on their laurels during the good times?
A. Every team goes through ups and downs and over my ten years at BIDMC we have had highs and lows. I’ve been surprised at how great the team has been about sticking together and staying positive during more challenging times. One of the things we do is have down time where people are together socially. We have at least two staff gatherings a year in addition to monthly staff meetings. Part of what we do is business where we talk about our goals and reflect on what we can do better. And part of it is social and fun and that is really time well spent. I have to say that the members of our group really like each other. I have heard from a couple of people we hired recently that they can’t believe how welcome they feel by the group compared to places they have been.
I also think recognition counts for a lot, even when the bottom line doesn’t reflect the results of the effort. It is important to acknowledge that the effort was made. We have an “Impact Award” that we give once a quarter to an outstanding team member or a group of team members who go above and beyond. It’s actually hard to choose people because we have so many hardworking team members. Because we move so fast, it’s essential to our success to pause and celebrate the efforts of the team. So we’ve built that into our business model.
In terms of resting on our laurels, I actually feel that it is not really a problem because after we hit a goal, we are asked to achieve an even higher goal. The larger challenge for us is deliberately pausing to celebrate something we have done before we move onto the next big goal. We don’t always do that well, but we have gotten better at it.
We just had our best fundraising year ever. We hit a 300 million dollar campaign goal and we have had lots of firsts in the last year and we are finally getting to our staff celebration, which is probably three months later then it should have been. But we are doing it.
Q. What is the biggest challenge facing academic medical fundraising today?
A. With all the cost pressures on medicine, the need for philanthropy is bigger than ever before. Reimbursements are shrinking on the clinical side and NIH funding for research is decreasing. Every time I turn around someone says “Oh, well, we’ll just have more philanthropy to take care of that.” We need more talented people than ever, people who are more savvy politically and who can understand and translate science into language for lay people. We need staff who can deal with change and churning and a really fast pace. It is really challenging to find the right people even as we are given the opportunity to expand our teams. It’s increasingly difficult to find man power and women power to do the work we need to do and reach the increasingly ambitious goals that we have to reach if we are going to maintain the level of quality that academic medical institutions are known for. There is a lot at stake; there really is.
Q. Talk about BIDMC specifically and how the organization supports your department.
A. I have been able to grow my team from three people, when I got there, to a staff of 50. Before I got to BIDMC, there was a lot of turnover and there were major layoffs; it was not a great time to raise money and for development people it was like “I don’t even want to talk to a donor because of what they saw in the paper this morning.” By time I got there, a lot of the infrastructure and team had disintegrated; there were just three people left who were processing gifts that came in over the transom.
There was a commitment of budgetary resources to ramp up and rebuild the development effort when I arrived. I have also been very, very fortunate to have worked for two CEO’s there who were committed to development in terms of time. My first CEO devoted a full day a week to development work, knowing that it was really important as part of the BIDMC business model. There was a 100 million dollar swing in finances in the first three years that I was there — not for development but for the hospital as a whole.
My current CEO is also deeply committed to philanthropy and spends an even a higher portion of his time on philanthropy, despite the fact that he is also out there transforming our organization from a stand-alone institution into a health system that spans a much larger geography. That high-level of commitment from the very top of the organization is very, very important. We have a motivated group of physicians as well because they need resources. And so we will continue to grow.
We need to manage that growth carefully, though. One year we hired 15 people in six months and that really slowed us down, because on-boarding 15 staff and getting them up to speed is no small feat. Managing growth while finding the right talent is challenging, but important.
Q. What led you to take on the challenge of CDO at BIDMC?
A. I love academic medicine. I was in a great organization – Boys & Girls Club of Boston — and we were planning a campaign. I was persuaded by a friend of mine who was the interim VP at BIDMC to talk to the head of their search committee. It was someone I knew from when I was Harvard. And I said “Oh, it’s not a good time; I’ve only been at Boys & Girls Club a year-and-a-half.” But once I spoke with my friend and started looking around on the BIDMC website, it was like there was no turning back. Because I love biomedical research.
I also knew that there was strong intent to rekindle the historic legacy of philanthropy in the BIDMC community. The board members who were on the search committee just seemed so committed to doing anything they could to help rebuild that. All of them have fulfilled their commitments and then some in these last ten years.
Lastly, I just like challenges. I like building. I like start-ups and I felt that this was an exceptional institution that really deserves to not only remain at the table but to be recognized for the world class institution it is.
Q. What advice do you have for people aspiring to be in your position?
A. Development professionals who want to become a Chief Development Officer should take on new things at every opportunity. Broaden your experience as much as possible. If you are a great frontline fundraiser, you need to balance that with meaningful management experience. If you are an excellent manager, you need to balance that with great frontline fundraiser experience.
Some professionals operate under the principle of, “If you give me a promotion, I will take more on.” But my principles go back to my experience at Brandeis, where if someone would leave I just said, “I am happy to pick that up.” Because of that attitude, my tenure there was like an apprenticeship in almost every area of development. The experience allowed me to do so much more than I would have been able to. So a willingness to be open and take things on is an important part of advancing one’s career. And yes, that means your work life can be pretty intense. But I believe if people see you as being willing to try new things and broaden your skillset they will view you differently – and more positively.
There are some people in my team who proactively say: “This is something we can do better,” and they pick it up and run with it. I think that being proactive about learning and doing new things is critical to success. I also believe that knowing people in other organizations who are doing the job at a next level up, instead of just the more senior members in your own shop, is important, too. It’s good to know the field broadly so that you have more fluency about the other sectors and the profession itself.
In short, make sure there is a point in your career where you are taking in as much as you possibly can. Soak it up like a sponge. You never know when you may be presented with better opportunities in other organizations.