By David Dias
Before newly appointed chief development officer Gordon Cressy can even begin to introduce himself, we hear a knock at his office door. The photographer, Winston, has come to capture his image.
As Cressy poses for photos, he begins to chat with the photographer, whose parents come from China. “Do you speak Mandarin or Cantonese?” Cressy asks, as he shows Winston the Chinese proverb posted on his wall. By the end of the photo session, the two are making lunch dates and talking table tennis.
It’s vintage Cressy charm. At 18, he was rejected from Ryerson’s business program. Now, as Ryerson’s chief development officer, the school is banking on his ability to solicit the rich and powerful, and rake in the fundraising bucks.
The fit 55-year-old could pass for a much younger man. He runs nearly every morning, skis on winter weekends and plays the occasional round of golf in the summer.
All this physical activity, however, seems to be an insufficient outlet for Cressy’s energy — the man can’t stay put. About every six years, after revitalizing a struggling organization, Cressy leaves his job — like a roving fairy godmother — to find the next needy organization.
His contract with Ryerson ends in six years. “I think I’ve always had a sense of personal renewal,” Cressy says. “You give your best to something, and then you go find another challenge.”
In 1982, he became president of the United Way, where he changed funraising from an old boys’ club affair to an effort involving the entire community. In 1987, the United Way campaign brought in $35 million, making it the largest annual compaign in Canada.
The University of Toronto took notice of his fundraising talents and, in 1987, lured him away from the United Way. There was no recruiting, no competition. U of T President George Connell simply called Cressy and offered him the job. Cressy accepted — his six years at the United Way were almost up anyway.
Before Cressy was hired at U of T, fundraising was a passive affair, the equivalent of a silent bum offering his hat for coinage. The university back then chanced upon the occasional endowment, but it didn’t actively seek donations.
As v.p. of development and university relations, Cressy animated the process, gave the bum a dance routine and a sharp, new look. U of T’s rich and famous alumni came out of the woodwork, helping the school raise $125 million — at the time, the largest amount ever received by a Canadian university. Cressy’s campaign strategy made people want to give.
Ryerson hopes he can perform the same magic here.
Staff in the office of university advancement have already fallen under Cressy’s spell. People walk around with smiles on their faces and tell jokes between meetings. A secretary gushes, “If you couldn’t tell, we’re all really happy to have him around!”
During our interview, we hear another knock on the door. “It’s an emergency,” says a woman holding a copy of a promotional magazine, obviously flustered. “We didn’t get permission to use this photo. I’m just really worried. I don’t want Ryerson to get sued.”
Alert, yet calm, Cressy handles the situation. “O.K., it’s done. Are we in trouble?”
“Probably,” she says.
“What do you suggest? Have we called his agent?”
“All right,” he says. “I’ll get right on that.” And then Cressy adds, “By the way, it’s nice to see you.” The anxiety drains from her face and she laughs. It’s easy to see why Cressy has been hired to charm the money out of big businesses.
Cressy’s early life, however, was spent far away from lofty boardrooms. At 19, Cressy travelled to Trinidad — a place he calls his spiritual home — to run a hostel and organize youth programs.
In the ’70s, he taught sociology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He pulls out his old OISE card with an old photo of him in his radical years: fuly bearded, hair falling over his ears. It’s hard to reconcile the image of this hippie with his current, clean-cut appearance.
Cressy is the only Anglo-Saxon to win the Urban Alliance on Race Relations Award, and has volunteered on a dozen boards, including the Toronto Human Society, the Children’s Aid Society and as president of Canada’s YMCA.
Cressy is a man devoted to community activism, and yet, somehow, he communicates effectively with Armani-clad business execs. This is a guy who can say “banks” and “altruistic” in the same sentence.
As a university student, Cressy protested against the establishment, and joined city council in 1978 as a member of the New Democratic Party. But now, in a role where he connects business with philanthropy, he says he has to be nonpartisan, though he still keeps in touch with prominent left-wing friends like former Ontario premier Bob Rae and former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall.
Cressy says he no longer has any desire for the exposure that comes with political life. He believes he can effect more change behind the scenes, quietly captivating the rich and powerful with his grand ideals.
These days, professional charmers like Cressy are in high demand at university. Provincial cutbacks to funding — 15.3 per cent in the last two years — have universities scrambling to find other sources of cash.
Five years after Cressy’s record-breaking $125-million campaign at U of T, the university smashed that mark with a $450-million campaign.
While U of T was rolling in cash, however, Ryerson was just trying to stay in the game. Ryerson’s 1989 campaign exceeded its target, raising about $38 million. But government cutbacks soon forced university advancement to reduce its staff and fundraising revenue dropped.
A change was needed.
From April to June, 1998, Ryerson commissioned Integrated Development Solutions Inc. to audit the advancement office’s fundraising operations.
IDS suggested the school revamp university advancement’s internal structure and ire a “fundraising professional” to lead the next campaign.
President Claude Lajeunesse’s reappointment in September 1998 — requiring him to “ensure an ambitions fundraising strategy” — may have also contributed to the change in leadership.
Only days after the reappointment, the acting executive director of university advancement, Bob Crow, resigned. Just ten days after that, on September 22, the board of governors decided to hire its “professional fundraiser.”
Crow isn’t bitter about being replaced. The former head of university advancement has known Cressy for more than twenty years, and, when he was executive director, used to pop by Cressy’s office to ask for advice. “He’s a wonderful man and a consummate professional.”
At the time of his resignation, however, Crow felt Ryerson’s goals were unrealistic given its resources. He believes Cressy’s appointment is a step in the right direction. “I think Gordon’s appointment is a positive signal … that Ryerson is serious about this,” he says.
Cressy’s appointment at Ryerson was a coincidence. A search firm called Cressy in March to ask for his help in scouting potential candidates.
Little did Ryerson know that Cressy’s six years were almost up. “I was thinking of some people, and — it was almost an offhand mark — I said, ‘If you’re interested in me, call me back.’”
“They called me back and said, ‘Are you serious?’”
Ryerson had announced its new Chief Development Officer April 26.
John Piper, former head of public relations for Bob Rae’s NDP government and the man Cressy calls his “dearest friend,” says Cressy has always had a soft spot for Ryerson. “It’s the working-class university,” Piper says. “Ryerson’s future is as important to him as the financial challenge.”
Cressy’s challenge at Ryerson has already begun. He’s leading the planning process for an upcoming campaign. University advancement is conducting feasibility studies to determine Ryerson’s wish list (buildings, computers, etc.), how much the school can reasonably raise, and what will be the campaign’s official target.
About a year from now, the campaign will enter its “quiet phase,” when Ryerson will cement its ties with rich alumni and corporate sponsors. Traditionally, 50 per cent of donations are raised during the quiet phase.
Besides major gifts (at least $10,000 annually) and used equipment, Ryerson will be going after “planned gifts,” including charitable trusts, gifts annuities, life insurance and bequests. These donations — of ten an alumnus’ final legacy — are a huge part of the campaign.
Legacies at Ryerson are expensive — naming opportunities will be sold to “honour” the school’s benefactors. According to Ryerson’s naming policy, attaching your name to a school will cost a percentage (25 per cent, negotiable) of that school’s annual operating budget. To put your name on a new building, you would have to pay at least 30 per cent of construction costs. New classrooms and labs will go for 50 per cent of construction and equipment,
Ryerson’s naming policy applies to anything that can conceivably be named: faculties; schools; buildings; wings; lecture halls; classes; labs; research programs; library collections; art collections; publications. Anything that can be named, will be. “Only the boiler room stays,” Cressy says.
But students need not worry about controversial or ridiculous names — Eaton’s School of Business comes to mind. Ryerson reserves the right to refuse any donation or sponsorship. “If Coca Cola wanted to sponsor breakfast nutrition,” Cressy says, “I’d say ‘I don’t think so.’”
Cressy makes a clear distinction between philanthropy and business deals that come with strings attached (like Ryerson’s exclusive deal with Coca Cola). “You need ethics around fundraising. I’m not going to have any problem taking money from corporations for our cause, but I want it to be our cause.”
In the past, Cressy has refused sponsorships from the tobacco industry and beer companies because of their poor ethical reputations. But Cressy admits, “If we wanted to be judge and jury on every [corporation], we wouldn’t raise any money.”
John Piper says corporate sponsors appreciate being part of Cressy’s vision. “They don’t want to be seen as just blood-sucking, profit-making corporations,” Piper says. “That’s his skill. He gives them the confidence to add the social to the economic.”
The official publicity campaign will be launched approximately two years from now. Cressy will be pushing a certain image of Ryerson, but he hasn’t quite figured it out yet. Already, though, he says he wants to drop the words “polytechnic” and “applied” from communications because they’re boring.
Another knock at thee door interrupts our interview. “Sorry,” the secretary says, “Your four o’clock is here.” Our interview comes to an end, and we shake hands. “Maybe we can have a sandwich some time,” says Cressy, “and you can tell me about yourself?”
I’m flattered by the proposal, and taken slightly aback. As I prepare to leave Cressy’s office, I realize that I too have been captivated by his charm. “Lunch sounds great,” I say.