Sometimes the only way forward is through a complete shift in perspective. Sometimes it requires getting uncomfortable, ditching the status quo, and changing the story you’ve been telling yourself and the world about your organization. Through careful reflection, courageous decision making, and bold action, transformative change can occur – and quickly. That’s exactly what has happened at Glenbow.

Bespoke had the privilege to work with Glenbow’s board and interim leadership team in the early stages of their transformation. When we arrived, the organization had just completed an ambitious strategic plan with aggressive goals and tight timelines and was undergoing transitions in their board and executive team. Though they’d been an Alberta institution for half a century, their fundraising program was still in its formative stages – they had an operating budget of ~$10M with approximately $1.5M in philanthropic contributions. In addition, they were operating in an economic downturn leading into the COVID-19 pandemic, where the arts were one of the hardest hit sectors in the country.

Despite these obstacles, they moved forward boldly, and three years later have forged a path to the forefront of Canada’s arts and culture scene. By rethinking the role of art, cultivating new perspectives at the board and executive level, and letting go of preconceived notions of who they were as an organization, they have built momentum that is creating social impact and raised close to $175 million in the process.

Irfhan Rawji was a major catalyst behind this rethinking process. Rawji joined the Glenbow board in 2014, became board chair in 2018, and remains involved as ambassador, donor and co-chair of the Glenbow Reimagined campaign. He spoke with us about how Glenbow is creating trust and excitement that has led to unprecedented investment by reimagining four key areas: governance, organizational strategy, culture, and impact.

Reimagining Governance

Glenbow ranks among Canada’s art giants, holding the third largest art collection in the country, but few people saw them that way. To claim their place on the national stage, Rawji and his team recruited new board members from across the country. They also thought differently about the board make up, embracing candidates with diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

“When people come with different lived experiences, they bring unique ideas and are able to connect with different communities,” explains Rawji. “Our priority was to bring in people with passion for the purpose, but who were not already connected with the organization, so that they came in without biases. Today, 47% of Glenbow’s board members are Black, Indigenous, or people of colour and our new board composition allows us to expand our reach and think differently about Glenbow.”

Reimagining Organizational Strategy

Glenbow is a decades old organization with a solid foundation to build on. But to stay relevant and create a sustainable future, its board had to think differently about who they were and what the role the organization could play for the community and the country. “Much of our collection was hidden behind closed doors,” says Rawjii. “To move forward, we needed to let go of everything we thought Glenbow was. We needed to think bigger. When we shared and tested our new vision with donors and funders, the untapped potential blew their minds.”

In 2019, the Glenbow team went through a strategic planning process that established their roadmap for the next four years. “The clarity of vision that came out of developing our strategic plan was critical,” says Rawji. “The planning process allowed us to articulate what was possible, build consensus among our board members and critical stakeholders, reaffirm the organization’s potential, and establish an ambitious but attainable plan for the future.”

Reimagining Culture

Campaign success comes when everyone in and around the organization buys in. “To move in a new direction, we needed new voices at the table,” says Rawji. “We had to make some changes to ensure that every member of our executive team supported the vision, believed in the new path we were taking and would be active ambassadors to build excitement in the rest of the team and the community.”

Glenbow hired Bespoke to support them during this transitional period. “We needed an external partner to bridge the gap between the past and the future,” Rawji explains. “We needed a team who could join us in thinking big and guide us in recruiting the right personnel. Bespoke understood our vision and helped us develop a campaign that resonated with funders and donors. They provided key executive leadership during a period of transition. They also made it obvious that we were a winning team, which helped us attract top talent.”

Reimagining Impact

After having secured the trust and investment needed from government to update their building and infrastructure, Glenbow was able to work with community funders to attract additional investments to rethink the way they operated and the experience they offered. A transformational gift from Shaw gave them an unprecedented opportunity to offer free admission to everyone, forever. “The funds from all three levels of government allowed us to create momentum that made people want to jump on board,” says Rawji. “Our supporters saw that it was going to be a success, and they wanted to part of that success.”

With the building and admission costs funded, other supporters were able to back the vision and the mission within the walls. “People get excited to support impactful programming and practices rather than infrastructure,” Rawji says. “Donors understood that we had momentum, so they needed to get in early if they wanted to support an initiative that was meaningful to them.”

Glenbow Reimagined is a prime case study in creating social impact through a trifecta for success – governance, strategy, and culture. Through this campaign, the organization has not only raised the funds necessary to rebuild, but to completely rethink the way they do what they do. They have achieved beyond what even they imagined was possible, and we’re excited to watch as their transformation continues.