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Sarah Nelems, BA '87, Executive Director, Kelowna General Hospital Foundation

Kelowna native Sarah Nelems is an example of how personal enthusiasm, networking and the ability to recognize opportunity can lead to a successful career, even when there is no set plan at the outset. Sarah didn’t have her life mapped out in university; but with the unwavering support of a close-knit family, she wholeheartedly pursued her passions at UBC, falling in love with the studies that would culminate in a classic liberal arts degree.

At UBC, Sarah felt free to explore the worlds of English literature, philosophy, history, art and culture. She didn’t worry too much about where it all would lead her, focusing instead on the journey and incorporating a rich social life into her post secondary experience. She became actively involved in volunteer work, often taking lead roles in fundraising events and awareness campaigns. Little did she know that this diversity of experience was setting the stage for a life-long commitment to philanthropic endeavours and the non-profit sector.

Great Expectations

Sarah was raised with the expectation that she would continue her education after high school. University wasn’t an option; it was the next step. Both parents were university-educated, and they had worked hard to ensure their children had the chance to pursue any opportunity their hearts desired. “Attending UBC was a fabulous experience,” she says. “I really enjoyed the academic content. The classes were small and I had some wonderful professors. I was very lucky to have been able to immerse myself for four years in the subjects I loved.”

dropquoteMy arts degree was a great foundation for so many other professional pursuits.... I was very proud to have graduated from a world-class university. And my UBC degree certainly helped me get into the London School of Economics.dropquote end

-- Nelems on the value of a UBC Arts education

During her undergraduate years, Sarah teamed up some of the fraternities and sororities on campus, helping them in their efforts to organize fundraising campaigns, and forming life-long friendships along the way. She warmly recalls her social life and volunteer work at UBC, but notes her fondest memories come from the academic experience. “A Canadian literature class really stands out for me. It gave me such a sense of pride in being Canadian,” she explains, “and it inspired a passion in me for Canadian literature, politics and life.”

Although Sarah wasn’t stressed over what life after UBC might bring, she did start to think seriously about a career as graduation approached. She would be leaving with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English Literature. She knew she wanted more education and she also knew she needed to approach the next phase of her academic pursuits from a more job-focused perspective. She decided to speak with university advisors about her options. Among other things, she toyed with the idea of law school, before finally settling on a Master’s degree in political science from the London School of Economics in England.

“My arts degree was a great foundation for so many other professional pursuits” says Sarah. “I was very proud to have graduated from a world-class university. And my UBC degree certainly helped me get into the London School of Economics.” In addition to the strong credentials she gained from UBC, Sarah believes the greatest rewards of attending UBC are the friendships she formed and the classical education she received. “UBC set me up for a life-long interest in learning and education. If I could go back, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I went after knowledge with reckless abandon, and that is something that makes me very happy.”

From UBC to the World: a Career Path

After staying pretty close to home through her undergraduate program, Sarah spent the next 20 years living, learning and working around the world. Masters in hand, she moved from London to Boston and took a job in private education. It wasn’t long, though, before the public sector beaconed and she set her sights on the Big Apple. She moved to New York City, taking a post with Columbia University in the field of Alumni Relations. She stayed at Columbia for seven years, eventually moving to the position of Director of Development.

dropquoteI went after knowledge with reckless abandon, and that is something that makes me very happy.dropquote end

-- Nelems on the value and importance of academic freedom

In 2003, Sarah felt the need to expand her horizons yet again. She moved to Cape Town, South Africa, gaining international consulting experience as Director of Marketing & Corporate Sponsorship for Cape Town’s 2004 Olympic Bid. “My career had taken a very indirect path;” notes Sarah, “and it wasn’t a calculated plan or process. I was fortunate to find my place and passion. I worked hard, but I had no idea where I was going when I started out. It’s been a gradual progression, filled with crossroads. I often relocated based on both opportunities and family. The decision-making process is complex, and it is important to stay true to your values. I’ve found I am most effective when I do what I love and trust that the money will follow.”

After her time in South Africa, Sarah returned to her hometown of Kelowna. Today, she is the Executive Director of the Kelowna General Hospital Foundation, responsible for raising money for KGH, now the tertiary care centre between Vancouver and Calgary. Her job includes directing and implementing the Foundation’s strategic plan, as well as managing staff and volunteers. She heads up all fund-development programs and has successfully grown the Foundation’s annual revenues from $2 million to $10 million in her time with the organization.

Over the course of her career, Sarah has helped raise over $100 million for education, arts and healthcare in both the US and Canada. And while she may make the work look easy, fundraising is indeed a difficult job that requires just the right mix of confidence and social skills to succeed, along with a belief in one’s cause and relentless determination. “I think one of the most misunderstood things about my profession is the assumption that there are silver bullets. People think you can waive a magic wand and make others donate to any given cause,” she says. “The truth is, there are no silver bullets. It takes a lot of hard work and commitment. You have to truly believe that what you are doing is the right thing, and know that your efforts will be well worth it once the goal is reached.”

Another challenge that comes with working in the non-profit sector, particularly for a large foundation, is the bureaucratic process. “You may have an end result in mind,” Sarah observes, “but to get there is sometimes a slower, more complicated process than you would like.”

For the most part, though, the rewards of Sarah’s work are plentiful. She enjoys being part of a high-impact undertaking, helping to meet needs in her community, while raising awareness about social and healthcare issues. “The work is gratifying. I like the challenge of identifying community needs, then finding the right partners to help meet those needs through fundraising initiatives and donations. I get to work with community-oriented individuals, businesses and corporations, constantly seeking and building relationships with those who desire and who have the have the resources to build a healthier community.”

One of the proudest moments of Sarah’s career was the recent opening of the Okanagan’s long-awaited Hospice House: a $10-million, 24-bed Kelowna-based facility. The Kelowna General Hospital Foundation partnered in a successful $3-million fundraising campaign to ensure the project became a reality. Sarah also played a role in raising funds for the newly-renovated $3-million neonatal unit at Kelowna General Hospital, which provides six beds for premature, underweight babies needing specialized care. The facility opened in February, 2008.

Peeking into the Personal

dropquoteThe Okanagan Valley fosters an entrepreneurial, exciting, exceptional quality of life that is hard to find anywhere else.dropquote end

-- Nelems on the benefits of life in the Okanagan.

Raised in beautiful British Columbia, Sarah maintains a love of the outdoors and takes advantage of the many recreational opportunities available in the Okanagan: she enjoys boating and skiing and remembers doing these things from a young age. Today, she takes pleasure in watching her eight-year-old son do the same. Of all the places she has lived, none had felt quite like home as Kelowna and it was the exceptional quality of life that finally drew her back after 20 years. “The Okanagan Valley fosters an entrepreneurial, exciting, exceptional quality of life that is hard to find anywhere else,” she says. “I still love to travel though. I guess I am lucky because, for me, it is as great to come home as it is to get away.”

Sarah’s home is always full of friends and family, including her partner Ed, their son, and their dog Annie. Her parents and sister live in the Okanagan, and she jokes that her house can sometimes resemble Grand Central Station. She would have it no other way – comfortable with her place in the world with the chaos that can come with having a lot of people and a lot of love in your life.

A busy mother and focused career woman, Sarah feels both strong and confident at this stage in her life. “Turning 40 was a milestone for me. I really found my voice. I realized I grew up to be who I was meant to be. I am passionate about my family and friends and living a life that is remarkable and memorable.”

It is the word ‘passionate’ that probably best describes Sarah, a person who puts her heart into every aspect of her professional and personal life. She draws inspiration from iconic people like Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela, although she reserves the title of hero for the person who has influenced and inspired her most – her dad. She describes Bill Nelems as someone who had embodied humanitarianism throughout his life, motivating her in every aspect of her own.

The greatest source of happiness in Sarah’s life comes from her son, who she describes as a happy, healthy, curious, exuberant child. In short, he is the essence of her joy, and her proudest accomplishment. “My career is important, but I hope my obit reads something about me being a great mom, friend, sister, partner and daughter. My family is truly the centre of my world.”

Advice to Others

dropquoteTalk to people in the field.... Talk to anyone who has experience -- either as a professional or as a volunteer. Build relationships with as many people as you can.dropquote end

-- Nelems on the importance of networking

Aside from a higher education, Sarah says one of the most important building blocks for a successful career in philanthropy and fundraising is networking skills. She advises those interested in her field to get out and make connections. “Talk to people in the field,” she says. “Talk to anyone who has experience – either as a professional or as a volunteer. Build relationships with as many people as you can. Most of the jobs I’ve had came directly as a result of word of mouth. Also, everyone loves to give advice, so listen. I would have listened a lot more in my early career if I knew what I know now.”

University students who are looking for ways to prepare themselves for a career in the non-profit sector need go no further than their own backyard. Sarah points out that the campus itself is rich in opportunities for relevant experience. “Immerse yourself in campus life, volunteer in your community and be a leader among your peers. You need to put your hand up and take action. Find a role that suits you and show that there is something exceptional about you – that’s what employers are looking for.”

Fundraising is a critical aspect of an increasingly competitive non-profit sector. Positions in the field of Development can pay well, depending on the size of the market. New graduates entering the field might expect to earn around $40,000 per year, with considerable potential to increase. “In Canada, the high-end of the profession will pay around $250,000, although certainly these jobs require a tonne of experience and a unique set of skills that go beyond what can be learned in a classroom.”


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Last reviewed 6/7/2012 4:37:09 PM

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