End of a fundraising era at CHEO as Keohane retires

Kevin Keohane

We can’t speak to sports and politics but when it comes to fundraising executives, nice guys like Kevin Keohane really do finish first.

For 20 years, Keohane has been raising money for the charitable arm of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. But, come Dec. 31st, Keohane is retiring after nine years as president and chief executive of CHEO Foundation.

“It’s been the most remarkable, the most rewarding experience of my life,” said Keohane, 60. “I literally feel lucky every day when I realize that I’m working as part of something that’s so much bigger than any of us. We’re working together to try and improve the lives of kids and families, many of whom live through difficult days, every day.”

Keohane considers luck a common theme in his life, beginning with his idyllic childhood. He grew up in Ottawa’s Brittania Heights, where one set of grandparents lived beside his family home and his other grandmother behind, where all the kids from school would play hockey in their homemade backyard rink. 

“The snowbanks looked like a fortress with all the hockey sticks in them,” he said.

Keohane was born the seventh of eight children, all of whom cottage together in West Quebec’s Norway Bay. His father, Brian, became a director at Revenue Canada while his mother, Enid, went back to work once her large brood was old enough. Not only was she a high school teacher but she also took night classes, graduating cum laude from the University of Ottawa.

As a young man, Keohane balanced his job in the circulation department of the Ottawa Citizen with earning a degree in mass communications from Carleton University. He later moved to sales and marketing, where he really found his groove, working with such community leaders as Russell Mills, Jim Orban and Peter O’Leary.

“The one thing that’s been consistent throughout my career is that I’ve worked with amazing people,” said Keohane, who says he learned by watching and listening to the smartest, most capable people in the room. “They were always very giving of their time and their expertise to help me along the way.”

In 2001, Keohane joined the CHEO Foundation as vice-president of development and corporate relations. He took over from Dave Ready, who’d gone on to lead the Ottawa Senators Foundation.  

“It was the luckiest move,” said Keohane. There he goes, talking about luck again.

Keohane had formed a strong relationship with the pediatric health care and research hospital while working as the Ottawa Citizen’s point person for sponsorship and promotion opportunities.

CHEO had also saved his son’s life five years earlier. Neil, now 24, was rushed to the NICU after being born nine weeks early. Daughter Kelsey, now 30, was also a frequent visitor for childhood asthma. Keohane and his wife, Colleen, witnessed the community’s vital role, from the volunteers to the specialized equipment, programs and research funded by private citizens.

“It’s what made the decision to go work at CHEO an easy one for me, even though I loved what I was doing at the time,” he said.

In late 2012, Keohane was promoted from COO to CEO, after Fred Bartlett retired. He was now in charge of fundraising for a hospital that, in his mind, belonged to the community. It was the public — mostly moms and grandmothers — who’d successfully campaigned to have the hospital built. They were tired of seeing kids transported to Toronto or Montreal for acute care. CHEO opened on Smyth Road in May 1974.

While fundraising for a universally loved hospital sounds easy, there’s a false perception that everyone gives to CHEO and, therefore, it gets enough donations, said Keohane. CHEO enjoys tremendous grassroots support but doesn’t receive as many large donations from individuals, compared to adult healthcare organizations, so it needs to rely more heavily a higher number of smaller donors. 

Its beneficiaries — sick kids and their young parents — don’t typically have that kind of money.

“For that, we need to rely on the rest of the community,” said Keohane of why activities such as the CHEO Dream of a Lifetime Lottery and checkout lane donations make such a difference. “Those things add up and, collectively, the community is providing us with support that enables us to improve kids' lives in ways that are too many to count.”

In 2001, when Keohane joined the CHEO Foundation, it pulled in $12 million in revenue from different funding sources. By 2020, that number was up to $44 million. “The community raised that money, the community did it,” said Keohane. 

There would be no CHEO Foundation, said Keohane, if not for the donors, corporate sponsors,  third-party event organizers and volunteers.

“They’re the ones who make it happen. Those aren’t just words or a nice, polite thing to say; it’s absolutely the truth,” he said. “My job has always been to try and make sure that people feel the pride that they deserve for having the kindness and generosity to commit themselves to doing something that’s going to help kids and families that they likely will never meet.”

The secret to good fundraising, he said, starts with believing in the cause. 

“It’s about sharing challenges that organizations and people face and outlining for people how their support can help bring about better circumstances for the people who are affected.

“I just think you need to find something that you’re passionate about and then you have to do what you would do with any other job. You need to work hard, you need to treat people with respect, and you need to work as part of a team.”

When Keohane steps away from his role, he will be thinking about all the former patients who have touched him deeply, and who continue to make a difference. The CHEO Foundation supports CHEO, the CHEO Research Institute and Roger Neilson House.

“I have met a number of children who are no longer with us. Some of those kids have left such an impact on me, not because of the fact that they died but because of the way that they lived.

“They were not unaware that they weren’t going to make it; they were aware. But, they had maturity and strength and determination. If you think you’re having a bad day or you think you have any reason to feel sorry for yourself, you only have to look to those kids who never felt sorry for themselves. Ever. 

“They were always committed to trying to make sure life was better for other kids and they continue to inspire the work that goes on at CHEO today.”

Keohane said he’s grateful to have worked with hospital CEO Alex Munter, CHEO Research Institute CEO and scientific director Dr. Jason Berman and his predecessor, Dr. Martin Osmond, calling them “great leaders” with a common vision.

A good workplace is built by people who move in the same direction and, at CHEO, that includes everyone from the executives to the doctors and nurses to the staff in the cafeteria, said Keohane. “None of the things that get accomplished at CHEO are ever the result of any one individual. It’s so many people working together, in different ways.”

Keohane’s decision to retire is influenced by a couple of factors. It’s not lost on him that he’s turning 61, the age his father was when he passed away. As well, he believes it’s time for fresh leadership as the hospital embarks on a 30-year plan to renovate and rebuild the aging facility. 

“Whenever my successor is announced, I will be behind that person 100 percent and helping to make sure that their transition into the role is as easy as possible, and that they feel as well supported by our team as I was when I was lucky enough to come into the job.”

And there’s that word again: luck