She’s all heart

Ann Ronning is the Community Fundraising Manager at the Heart Foundation and a die-hard Dr Who fan. In this interview with fellow Whovian Kim Carter, she talks about her work at the Heart Foundation and the delights of community events. She talks about the importance of getting the word out about heart disease, the challenges of working as a fundraiser in the nation’s capital and that TARDIS she put on Lake George.

You gotta have heart: Ann Ronning with the Healthy Heart mascot at a community fundraising event in Canberra.

You have a background in printing, promotions and events. Did these activities set you up for a transition to fundraising? What helped and what did you have to learn?

My background has given me the tools and experiences to create and market fundraising campaigns that get noticed. I was lucky that my day-to-day experience often was in helping charities and community groups have successful fundraising events and appeals. It was such a rewarding aspect of my previous roles that it felt natural to pursue fundraising as my next career move. One advantage was that I entered a fundraising career as a regional manager.

Although I had the spirit and the heart of a fundraiser, I had to learn the fundamentals quickly. Within the first few months, I took part in an FIA Certificate in Fundraising course to learn about bequests, direct mail and major gifts.

You organised The Canberra Times Fun Run and Family Walk for several years. Did that set you up nicely to come to the Heart Foundation’s community fundraising division?

When I came into the CTFR event director role, I had the task of increasing donations to the Heart Foundation. But for the first time in the event’s 30-year history, I needed to cover event costs through entry fees. I had to find a way to grow donations without killing off the registrations through an entry price increase. To solve the problem, I discovered online peer-to-peer fundraising, and through it, managed to retain the previous donation amount and additionally grow the event donation over the next three years.

I joined the Heart Foundation in a generalist fundraising management role, but community fundraising continued to be an important income stream for the ACT Division. In the Heart Foundation organisational transformation, I moved into a specialised role in community fundraising based on my experience.

Peer-to-peer is still a growing trend. The technology is continually improving, especially the sophistication in communication with fundraisers. I have been working on a new Do It Yourself community fundraising program. It has been fantastic to combine my experience in marketing and fundraising to create a national program supported by a remote team working across the country.

What attracted you to the Heart Foundation?

It was two things: the importance of the mission and the passionate, professional team at Heart Foundation ACT.

I lost a dearly beloved grandfather to a heart attack and my grandmother suffered from rheumatic heart disease later in life. So, I’m personally affected, but I’m motivated by how much good the Heart Foundation has done to improve survival rates and help people live healthier lives.

In my role at The Canberra Times, I worked with a lot of charities and community groups. I developed a great respect for the Heart Foundation team and ACT CEO, Tony Stubbs. I became highly involved as a supporter, contributing to their marketing advisory group and in 2011 was awarded ‘Major Contributor of the Year’ for my efforts. When I wanted to change careers, I only wanted to go to the Heart Foundation.

Heart disease is the # 1 killer of Australians. Is the message still getting through?

Everyone knows about heart attacks (as seen on TV), but many people do not know that so many live with debilitating heart disease or what is their risk for heart disease. Sometimes I think there is this assumption that heart disease is a natural thing to die from; it’s ‘normal’ because it’s so common. So, it won’t matter if I eat vegetables or go for a walk. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Heart disease is often preventable with simple, healthy lifestyle changes.

However, once you present the facts or share a story about the effects of heart disease on a family, the community listens and want to help.  

What events do you most enjoy putting on for the public?

I’ve done it all – from fun runs to art shows to gala balls – but I think the best events are recognition events. In the ACT, we held the Women with Heart Awards for several years. These awards recognised women in the community who had contributed to heart health. These women could be donors, cardiologists, nurses, researchers, volunteers or in government roles. I loved sharing their stories and acknowledging their efforts. 

What are the joys and challenges in your work? For example, how has the federation of Heart Foundation (going from nine entities to one) affected you?

I find joy in challenges! I have really enjoyed working on a national program. I had to deep dive into all state and territory fundraising legislation and regulations, work with a virtual team across the country, and commission a new online platform. My highlights are always working with the community fundraisers who share their stories and fundraise to help us.

The only tricky part is many staff are in new roles or have just joined the Heart Foundation, so sometimes it feels like you are on repeat or re-inventing the wheel!

What is your most successful community fundraiser?

I’ve been involved with two great campaigns. Locally, the Canberra Celebrity Heart Challenge was a real triumph. It ran over two years, raising significant funds and saw nearly 30 ‘Canberra Celebrities’ improve their heart health over the 12-week health challenge. I still tear up thinking about a participant telling me that the challenge changed their life. The celebrity gave up having a drink after work and instead went for walks or runs with their sons, creating a more loving relationship. So, the Canberra Celebrity Heart Challenge wasn’t just a fundraiser, but a life changer.

MyMarathon has been a tremendous virtual campaign for the Heart Foundation too.  I’ve loved being involved with this new type of campaign. It perfectly combines a personal challenge with easy-to-do fundraising.

Do you have advice for fundraisers about community events?

My advice for fundraisers is tools and engagement. The easier you can make the activity or event, the more fun it will be for all involved. I’m a big fan of online resources and a digital-first approach. And, as with the Canberra Celebrity Heart Challenge, find a way to make the event or activity change the fundraiser’s life.

What do you wish people understood about fundraising?

It’s not only about asking for money. I see it as my privilege to help others have an impact on the causes they care about most. I also haven’t met m(any) highly paid fundraisers, most of us do it for the love of our communities.

You chair the FIA ACT State Committee. What are you trying to accomplish?

I want to grow the professional community here in Canberra. We have a lot of solo fundraisers who might have to wear several hats like marketing and communications alongside fundraising. Or come from a different background and find themselves a fundraiser. Knowing other experienced fundraisers, joining the FIA and finding training is going to help them, and their organisations, be successful.

What are the joys/challenges of working in the nation’s capital?

Canberrans are the most generous donors in Australia, according to the Australian Tax Office. However, there are only so many of them, and most charities are sharing the same supporters. The gala and events calendar can get quite crowded, so you need to time your events carefully. It’s a beautiful city with plenty of public spaces for events.

Best moment/funniest moment at a community event?

Probably having the Celebrity Challengers throw our ACT CEO Tony Stubbs in the pool at the event finale. It’s also always great to wear the Happy Heart mascot. Apparently, I’m the best Happy Heart mascot and should consider becoming a full-time mascot!

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I have a passion for strength sports. Right now, I do Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting and Strong(Wo)Man and train over six sessions a week. I need a lot of training because I’m not very good, but I love it. I also enjoy sewing and cooking. I get super excited when someone is having a baby or a birthday because I can sew up a gift or bake a cake for the occasion.

Finally, as a Doctor Who fan myself, I must ask you about the TARDIS you set up at Lake George last October…

Hello, fellow Whovian! I call my TARDIS the big blue box that love built. My husband Bruce made it for me as my 40th birthday gift. It’s full-sized (more than 3 metres), with lights and sounds, and based on the Matt Smith-style TARDIS. I had plans to take it to parties with me and use it for fundraising, but even though it was specially designed to take apart and re-assemble, it ended up being too large and heavy to transport with a normal trailer. For the YouTube episode, we needed to hire a moving truck to get the dismantled TARDIS to the site!

Fan of the doctor: Ann with the Dr Who TARDIS her husband built for her as a 40th birthday present.