BC Cancer Foundation CEO Sarah Roth talks raising money in tough times

The organization is currently raising what it calls the largest health campaign in B.C. history.

BC Cancer Foundation

The organization is currently raising what it calls the largest health campaign in B.C. history 

Sarah Roth is no stranger to the tragedy that is losing a family member. Before she even knew her biological father, he was killed by a drunk driver while riding a bicycle in Ireland. Her American mother (they met while skiing in Vermont) returned home and gave birth to Roth in New York. Eventually, she met the man Roth calls her father and the pair raised Roth in New Jersey.  

Growing up, Roth had three brothers. She lost two of them before she was 18—one to a car accident, one to suicide. So when she says that the value of life and investing in health is everything to her, one can’t help but believe it.  

In 2006, Roth was married with two young kids in Boston. She had earned an MBA in business administration from Northeastern University and had been part of two multi-billion-dollar campaigns for Boston Children’s and NewYork-Presbyterian hospitals when she and her family visited Vancouver.

“We just fell in love with it,” she recalls. “We rode our bikes to UBC and said, Wouldn’t it be amazing to work here? When you live here, you don’t realize that piece of land that the university is on is breathtaking.”  

She kept her eye on UBC’s website and, when she saw a role for the assistant dean of the medical school, she sent in her resume. “I think Canadians still look up to what happens in the U.S., especially in philanthropy, because the U.S. is a real leader in that field,” she says. She got the job. 

In 2016, she joined the BC Cancer Foundation as CEO. One of her main duties in that role has been “re-defining who we are for British Columbians,” she says. A big proportion of the foundation’s dollars are spent funding research, as the public generally expects, but she realized soon after joining that the organization couldn’t just be about that.  

“Our role is to support deeply personal cancer journeys,” Roth explains. “I have a deep belief that, from the moment you’re diagnosed, philanthropy plays a very important role in all aspects of that journey. And we need more of it, because the public health system is so strained. So we work both internally and externally to position us as the hope for patients in all aspects, whether that’s supporting mental health, which we weren’t doing, to funding new equipment and screening programs.”

Since her time at the helm, the foundation has almost doubled its revenue, according to Roth. That hasn’t been easy, especially in recent years as the amount of philanthropic dollars up for grabs has diminished significantly. 

“If you’re telling the story well and you’re being clear and transparent about the impact of donor dollars, it won’t be hard,” The foundation’s revenue declined in COVID as it couldn’t hold events, but Roth resisted any urge to send out crisis messaging. “We were very clear that, you know, cancer doesn’t stop because of COVID. In fact, it becomes harder for people to access care. So we came out with a message of strength—keep investing, we have a great cancer system. Even though we were as worried as everyone else. You need to have trust and confidence and be inspired by the organization. That’s something I take to heart and ensure we’re focused on.” 

As the foundation embarks on a mission to raise $500 million in what it’s calling the most ambitious health campaign in B.C. history, Roth is confident. The money is earmarked for, among other things, equipping cancer centres in Surrey and Burnaby and accelerating advances in radiation therapy.  

“John Horgan, I think he had 35 rounds of radiation. That’s hard on your body, it’s exhausting,” says Roth, who would like to take that number way down. “We want to be there when BC Cancer says, We see potential here, we need the funding to do a trial.” 

According to the Government of Canada, about two in every five Canadians are expected to develop cancer at some point in their lives. “This is, in my opinion, one of the most important areas to invest in,” says Roth. “The dollars stay here, and they’re given to the people we employ. That’s also important—wanting people to stay here and thrive here.”