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Louise Baxter with two Captain Starlights.   Photo by George Gittany Photography

A very long time ago, when I was under the age of three, I had to spend sometime in hospital for surgery. I can still recall the fear within me, and the sterility of the ward – vivid in my memory are stark brick walls and nothing friendly at all. The only thing I had back then for distraction was my Noddy Fuzzy Felt.

Thankfully, for seriously ill and hospitalised children today, every paediatric hospital in Australia has a Starlight Express Room where our superheroes from Planet Starlight, known on Earth as Captain Starlights, are the catalyst for fun and laughter. These spaces are a haven for the child away from the stress and pain of the wards and are a place where everyone is welcome – mum, dad, siblings and any other family and friends.

I once heard a doctor say, “Sometimes in treating their illness we steal their childhood.”

Starlight exists so everyone can experience a childhood, even children who are seriously ill and hospitalised. This year we officially opened another two Starlight Express Rooms – one in the new Perth Children’s Hospital and one in the Sydney Children’s Hospital. This necessitated two different styles of capital campaigns.

Perth Children’s Hospital was a completely new facility and right from the beginning we knew we’d have to build. This meant we were able to partner with the project team in the development of the hospital plans and location, giving us a long lead time.

The Sydney Children’s Hospital was a different situation. Significant refurbishment of several areas of the hospital and the departure of a research facility resulted in a vacated space, which gave us the opportunity to meet the need for a larger Starlight Express Room.

In fact, we needed twice the previous space to cope with the growing number of children and young people accessing Starlight programs.

Each new Starlight Express Room built in a children’s hospital requires capital build funding of around $2 million, and then ongoing funding of up to $1 million per year. Due to the different time lines of each project, we proceeded with a campaign to raise capital funds and the first three years of funding for Perth Children’s Hospital, but just the capital build funding for Sydney Children’s Hospital.


Starlight has a proven track record of working in partnership with health professionals and delivering our  Starlight Express Rooms and Captain Starlight programs into Australia’s children’s hospitals. We’ve been doing this for 30 years, and more recently our programs have evolved to include Livewire, which supports the growing number of adolescents in our children’s hospitals (this is a positive trend and is due to improved survival rates).

Our new Starlight Express Rooms are built to accommodate all children and young people during the day, and then in the evening they are a space for those aged 12 to 20 years only. This provides that all-important time for peer-to-peer interaction, which can be missing from the life of a seriously ill young person.

Importantly, we have a social return on investment study by PwC, which highlights the fact that for every $1 Starlight invests in our hospital programs, $5.70 is returned to the community in value.

Captain Starlights bring joy and laughter to seriously ill children across Australia.


When considering a capital campaign, organisations often focus on new contacts. Teams scan lists of those with the financial capacity. While I’m sure you could get lucky, if you have zero connection with these people you are more likely to join the long list of unsolicited approaches they receive.

People always underestimate the opportunities sitting right under their noses on their existing databases. Assuming you have been in contact with these individuals and have been connecting them with relevant information about the impact of your programs, and you haven’t done anything to upset them, this is where I suggest you start!

The fundraising adage that if someone has made a significant gift to you without any ask, imagine the gift they may consider if youengage with them, rings true. For each capital campaign we connect with individuals and families who have given a significant gift to Starlight without a specific ask. These gifts range from $6,000 to $20,000 – some were one-off gifts and some were recurring gifts.


Never lose sight of the enormous opportunity this type of campaign gives you to engage potential donors in the process of implementing and completing your project. You can show them the design in progress and update them as the design moves through various drafts.

In our case, this was an opportunity for potential donors to be part of creating a space that would support thousands of seriously ill children and their families each year. A space designed to incorporate all the latest research into the therapeutic benefits of design; to be full of light, reflect the colours of nature and have designated zones for craft, music, play and quiet time. A space that meets the needs of children and all their friends and family during the day and then morphs into a Livewire space where young people can gather in an environment of peer support. A space that could be used night and day.

We showed our donors the empty space so they could see and feel how their gift would transform it into something unique that would not exist without their support.


I’m a firm believer in the need to nurture relationships and not ask during the first meeting. You are building a relationship and trust. This can take some time but generally you will know when the time is right to ask. I also believe any significant ask is the responsibility of the CEO or another senior executive.

You need to listen very hard. It’s not about you knowing everything or selling the project. It’s all about you listening and truly hearing. Your potential donors will give you lots of information if you ask the right questions then listen. Years ago, one of our board members shared his way of doing this, which he called becoming the ‘naive enquirer’.

The ask can take place in several environments depending on the desire of your donors. I’ve asked donors to consider a major gift in a one-on-one meeting, over the phone, and at home where the family members could all be part of the conversation. All these different locations have ended with those interested committing to a major gift.

Interestingly, the most significant $1 million gift came from a phone conversation. Of course it was not the first conversation and the individual had received lots of information prior to this discussion, but it shows that if the quality of the discussions is high, the donor is engaged and you have listened to their needs, then it doesn’t really matter where and how the ask takes place.

At one point, we thought we had raised all the funds and then, as with most builds, it ran a bit over our expectations. We approached one of our donors and we were completely open about this situation. The donor agreed to donate the shortfall.


The agreement to give is just the start of your relationship with your donors. You should keep them involved with all that is going on and with the option of site tours as things progress. For the official opening, you should ask them how they’d like to be acknowledged (or not). If I have a donor who does not want acknowledgement, I encourage them to accept some form of public thanks as it is great role modelling and it does inspire others to give.

Once an individual or a family has made this commitment to your organisation, they will want to feel part of the impact they are helping you deliver. Regular, personal contact and updates are really important.


Those who have given to a capital campaign shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into this donor type. The door has been opened for you to engage them in your ongoing program needs. Hopefully, after such a generous gift, they will be sufficiently invested in your programs to consider support in this way.


In any philanthropic role I feel it is incredibly important to always be yourself. People want to deal with someone they can trust and who is transparent and authentic. You are not acting a part – you should be letting the passion you have for your cause shine through. That passion is infectious and it is a very valuable asset when you are building a relationship with a major donor.


Louise Baxter GAICD

Louise become Chief Executive of Starlight Express Foundation in 2009. Since then Louise has been responsible for significant program development and expansion funded by sustainable revenue growth. Her focus on performance through people has resulted in Starlight receiving numerous accolades. Louise is an inspiring, authentic leader with clear strengths in establishing strategic vision and achieving organisational alignment.

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