Friends of Mercy leader shares wisdoms gained from 30 years in philanthropy

(August 2017) - Remember your roots and pay attention to your donors. These are the clear themes that emerge as Stephanie Weber talks about her almost three-decade long career in development at Friends of Mercy Foundation in Bakersfield, Calif.

As she prepares to retire this fall, she describes the path that led her to be vice president of philanthropy as unusual. She went to college, worked for a big oil company, then moved to Fresno and became a stay-at-home mom for more than a decade. When her family moved to Bakersfield and her youngest started school, she found herself itching for a new challenge outside of the home and open to the possibilities of what that might look like. Friends of Mercy Foundation had just formally started in 1988 and in 1989 the one-person staff was growing. The director was looking for a part-time receptionist. Stephanie applied, thinking the work sounded intriguing, and had some convincing to do, as she was quite over-qualified for the position.

She got the job, and found she was something of a natural. Her role quickly grew to encompass duties from events to annual giving and foundation operations. Before she knew it she was full time. Eight years later, when the executive director retired, she was appointed to fill the position.

“I’m truly a success story in terms of promotion from within. I learned every single role here and, as the foundation grew, so did my career,” she says. “We joke here that it’s good news, bad news. I know every one of my staff member’s jobs.”

She’s also known as something of a Mercy historian around the community.

“You have to know the culture of your community,” she says “You can get caught up in numbers and strategies and metrics and comparisons. Take advantage of best practices – that’s how I grew my career. Go to tons of education conferences. Bring it back, but then ask, ‘Will it work in our culture?’ Adapt it so that it fits and is meaningful to your donors.”

Stephanie and McCauley Society.Employing this strategy is how she recruited 54 members to the Catherine McCauley Society in its first year and how she’s grown it to over 150 members, almost 90 percent of who return year after year. The giving society is comprised of all women philanthropists and exists to honor the legacy of the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, Mercy Hospital’s founding congregation. She replicated it with a men’s group that honors the legacy of Mercy Hospital’s most loyal benefactor and advisor, William Howell.

“They love being part of something bigger than themselves. They relate to being part of our story and continuing the legacy of those who came before them."

And she believes everyone is a part of that story, “Whether you give us a crumpled old one dollar bill in an envelope or a hundred thousand dollars, we treat you the same. It’s been that way since day one.”

Her stories run deep with examples: A donor who gave $15 as part of a grateful patient direct mail campaign who, over the years, became a recurring donor, then a phone buddy. She was a person who would fix a broken walker with duct tape, but who still found a way to send a check in honor of her birthday and to let Stephanie know she was in her prayers.

When Stephanie finally met her in person at the hospital’s 100-year anniversary celebration, they both cried, by then they were old friends who had supported each other through life’s ups and downs. When the donor passed away, she left the hospital a considerable amount in her estate – more than anyone might have assumed from her wealth or stature.

By contrast, the largest transformational gift in her career also came from a grateful patient; but from a woman of immense wealth.  As a result of excellent care her husband received, she left the hospital a ranch originally valued at $3.8 million, now being sold for nearly $30 million that will help construct a new hospital tower. Stephanie is proud of stewarding the property until the donor’s intent could be met.

“Listen, then listen some more,” she says is her most valuable wisdom earned over the years. But also, she adds, know when to share.

“Transparency is really important. When things aren’t going well, it’s not so easy to be transparent. But you must, at the appropriate time, share challenges with your board and your donors.”

Stephanie Weber and benefactor Vivian.Stephanie recalled a difficult time when she was about to receive the first payment on a $750,000 pledge for the hospital’s  cancer center at the same time she learned that news was about to come out that their downtown hospital was slated to close. She was nervous to face the donor, who she describes as having a strong personality, but when he went to hand her the check she still summoned her courage and told him, “Let’s just wait. I don’t have answers for you yet.”

At the time, he said simply, “OK” and she hoped she was doing the right thing to foster the relationship.

Fast forward to the annual golf tournament and the same donor hands her what she assumes is $2,500 for his event sponsorship, but when she gets back to the office and opens the envelope, she finds that it is his gift of $750,000.

“I called him and he said, ‘I appreciate that you were honest with me and I didn’t want you to have to ask me again,’” she recalls. “We have to have the difficult conversations sometimes. We’re a conduit for the hospital. The donor must always trust that we’re going to steward their dollars in the manner they wish.”

The hospital, by the way, did not end up closing.

So, what’s next for Stephanie? She’s looking forward to having more time for her favorite hobbies, like knitting and gardening, and she plans to spend more time with her grandchildren.

“I didn’t have a chance to do all of the after school things with my own children and I want to do that with my four grandchildren– have them over to swim, or go watch their three-thirty in the afternoon volleyball game. I want to do those things.”

She suspects that after 28 years she’ll miss some of those relationships in the community that she has developed and she thinks she may do some consulting, but hopes to pick and choose projects.

“Just like when I first walked into the foundation all those years ago, I find myself very open to what’s next.”