Sarah Jessica Parker, Ray Romano, Robin Williams, Antonio Banderas — celebs so diverse you might be hard pressed to find a common link.
But add the name Marlo Thomas, and most people would immediately recall that all of these stars and a host of others have been high-profile spokespeople for the nonprofit institution that her famous father founded some 50 years ago — ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The renowned research and treatment center, which cares for children from around the world at no cost to their families, was built on the hopes of a struggling entertainer, and it continues to hitch its awareness- and fundraising wagon to the hottest Hollywood stars of any given decade.
The son of Lebanese immigrants, Danny Thomas was trying to make it in “the biz” in the early 1950s. In a now-famous bargain, he vowed to build a shrine to St. Jude Thaddeus if the patron saint of lost causes would guide him in his career.
Within a year, Thomas was earning $500 a week as a comedian, and he was on the fast track to stardom — a USO tour with Marlene Dietrich, radio spots and roles in TV shows such as “Make Room for Daddy.” Finally, Thomas landed “The Danny Thomas Show” and went on to create “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Mod Squad.”
In 1957, he followed through on his promise, founding the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) to raise money to build, operate and maintain St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which opened in Memphis, Tenn., in 1962.
Thomas founded the hospital on four pillars — that it would:
- provide unsurpassed patient care;
- provide unparalleled scientific research;
- be a hospital without walls, taking in children from across the country and around the world, and sharing the knowledge it receives through research with hospitals, medical schools and institutions worldwide; and
- never deny care because of race, religion or a family’s inability to pay.
At a cost of $1.2 million a day, the institution pays for each patient’s medical care, as well as research into the diseases that affect them. It also pays travel expenses for patients and their parents, family lodging while the child is at the hospital, and food and ancillary services such as dental, opthamological and psychological care, to ensure that all the family has to be concerned with is the health of their child.
To get the ball rolling, Thomas used his own celebrity and connections to other stars to bring the mission of St. Jude to the public eye.
“Danny really reached out to a lot of his cohorts in saying, ‘You know, we’ve been so fortunate in the opportunities that were given to us,’ especially those who came from other countries and had different ethnic backgrounds, and he really called on them to help give back to the country that gave them so many opportunities and created livelihoods for them,” says Teri Watson, senior director of radio and entertainment marketing for ALSAC/St. Jude.
At Thomas’ urging, Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley were among the organization’s first celebrity endorsers.
The celeb tradition continues today, spearheaded by Thomas’ daughter Marlo, an award-winning actress in her own right (she starred in and produced the ’60s sitcom “That Girl”), who also has produced TV specials and books whose royalties have benefitted St. Jude.
She is the national outreach director for the hospital and its most recognizable “face,” hosting the hour-long TV special “Fighting For Life.” Airing more than 1,000 times every year in more than 150 markets, the show shares the stories of the children St. Jude serves and urges people to become sustainer givers. Marlo also hosts — along with her siblings Terre and Tony — the annual Runway for Life Celebrity Fashion Show in Hollywood, a star-studded event that raises $1 million a year for the hospital, and she travels to events around the country to promote St. Jude with corporations, other celebrities and private individuals.
Stephanie Sandler, CEO of The Giving Back Fund, a philanthropic resource to the sports and entertainment communities, says Marlo’s connection to St. Jude, as both a celebrity and as Danny Thomas’ daughter, resonates deeply with the public.
“I think that certainly helps to be recognizable, and the fact that [Danny’s] daughter is involved I think adds to the authenticity of [St. Jude] because people feel that it’s obviously a moving story that she’s continued on after her father has passed,” she says. “It may have been that way even if she wasn’t a celebrity, but the fact that people recognize her as ‘That Girl,’ and she has a very particular personality in the public is, I think, pretty powerful.”
Powerful, too, is the star power St. Jude attracts and the wildly successful campaigns it drives.
ALSAC/St. Jude’s radio fundraising program, which is on schedule to raise more than $50 million this year, hinges on the Country Cares for St. Jude Kids radiothon. In 1989, just two years before his death, Danny Thomas asked Randy Owen, lead singer of the band Alabama, to help fundraise for the organization in the country music industry. Owen reached out to country radio personalities and executives, and they determined that the best solution would be to hold celebrity-fueled radiothons.
Nineteen years later, Country Cares is a network of country music radio stations that hold radiothons throughout the year for the institution. The program gives ALSAC/St. Jude free use of the stations’ airwaves for two days to present patient stories, first-hand phone interviews with patients, and celebrity endorsers talking about their experiences visiting the hospital and what it has meant to the many people that they’ve met while traveling around the country.
On television, stars such as Williams, Parker, Banderas, Romano, Jennifer Aniston, Bernie Mac, Jimmy Smits and others joined Marlo Thomas and 42 of ALSAC/St. Jude’s corporate and retail partners, including Target, Domino’s Pizza, Williams Sonoma and CVS, for the Thanks and Giving campaign. Created in 2004, the late-fall campaign features celebrities and St. Jude patients in media spots talking about the hospital, its patients and the illnesses it treats, and ends with Marlo urging the public to shop at stores that display Thanks and Giving signage where consumers may add a donation at checkout or purchase a specialty item to benefit St. Jude.
Another celebrity project, “The Right Words at the Right Time,” is a book that features stories about inspiration and turning points — by Al Pacino, Paul McCartney, Gwyneth Paltrow, Steven Spielberg, Itzahk Perlman, Venus Williams and Muhammad Ali, among many others — the proceeds of which benefit St. Jude.
Organizations that work closely with celebrities will acknowledge the potential pitfalls, especially in terms of the fleeting nature of stardom itself and the potential for a fall from grace.
But Sandler says St. Jude’s tactic of having multiple celebrity endorsers not only allows it to reach out to a broader audience, but also protects it from being brought down by any one scandal or any one celeb’s diminished status.
“The pro and con of working with a celebrity is that you benefit from their status. But that can also hurt you if something goes wrong,” Sandler says. “So it’s really a way of making sure that you’re protecting yourself at the same time.”
Celebrity endorsements serve as testimonials for the organization and are especially useful in wooing fans.
“People pay attention when a celebrity speaks. When they say, ‘This is something that I endorse, or that I believe in. It’s a cause or a mission that’s near and dear to my heart,’ people pay attention to that. You just can’t buy that, and so that goes a long way in speaking to the public,” Watson says.
According to Sandler, one of the key benefits of celebrity endorsers, aside from the visibility they afford an organization, is that the public views them as financial supporters.
This has directly affected ALSAC/St. Jude’s fundraising efforts, namely its national direct-marketing program, which is its largest source of funds.
Direct mail traditionally has been one of ALSAC/St. Jude’s most effective fundraising tools, with more than 91 million mail pieces sent to donors and prospects each year, recruiting more than a million new donors annually and bringing in 90 percent of the direct-marketing department’s funds.
The direct-marketing program’s goals are to generate gifts from individual donors and to recruit Partners In Hope, sustainer donors who make monthly gifts. Right now, ALSAC/St. Jude has 400,000 such “partners.”
Lori O’Brien, senior vice president of national direct marketing for ALSAC/St. Jude, says the key to the direct-marketing program’s success has been the migration of donors into the Partners In Hope program.
“Our sustainer program is one of the largest in the nation, and those donors who do give on a monthly basis are very loyal and they’re very, very cost-effective for the organization to maintain. So it’s great for the hospital because more money goes to the children,” she says.
Another key component of the direct-marketing program is online giving. O’Brien says a lot of parents discover St. Jude for the first time on the Web because their child has been diagnosed with cancer and they’re searching to learn more about it.
“I think all nonprofits are struggling with how we can take mail donors and ask them to become Internet donors,” O’Brien says. “The problem is that we want them to do it probably ahead of the curve of when those donors are comfortable with that because of their age. So we’re getting ready to test that with our sustaining group of donors, our Partners In Hope, offering them an online cultivation experience,” she adds.
Strong backing from celebrities also gives the organization a lot of leeway in terms of the breadth of fundraising channels it can use.
“There’s a lot more marketing you can do. There’s a lot more creative fundraising you can do with celebrities,” Sandler notes. “You can get corporations involved with cause marketing, and you can get a lot more free publicity when you have a celebrity involved.”
The celebrity-heavy Thanks and Giving campaign has been incredibly successful, raising more than $6 million online in three years: $1.9 million in 2004, $2.8 million in 2005 and $3 million in 2006 — a 31 percent growth.
O’Brien says ALSAC/St. Jude’s fundraising success also has a lot to do with the support the department receives internally.
“The reason I love St. Jude is that it encourages risk-taking in fundraising. I mean, you have to be smart about it, but if you have an idea of something that’s going to work, you have the resources to test it,” she says.
“Unlike a lot of boards that may be governing really to the point of keeping you from pushing the edge of the envelope, the St. Jude board, while being extremely fiscally minded, also understands that you have to test and we have to keep ahead of the curve,” she adds.
Increasing its publicity and creating more avenues for giving is necessary as the organization looks to donors of the future.
“We want to make sure that we’re current with the digital age. I think when 30 million Americans vote on ‘American Idol,’ that says something to me that that’s a concept that we have to tap into and grow,” says John P. Moses, chief executive officer at ALSAC/St. Jude.
“So it is a challenge, and we plan to meet it because you know the next generation of donors is not going to be people necessarily that will put a check in the envelope and mail it. And we’ve got to be able to accommodate them,” he adds.
A ‘volunteer army’
On the other side of the fundraising coin for ALSAC/St. Jude, opposite the involvement of celebrities, are the droves of ordinary people who volunteer to fundraise for the organization, which views Danny Thomas as its first volunteer.
For a while, St. Jude’s only fundraisers were volunteers across the country who held small events in their local communities — mainly fans inspired by the celebrities they saw supporting the organization. As it grew, the hospital began to add professional fundraising staff, but it never stopped relying on volunteers.
“It would be very costly to have a fundraising staff that does what our volunteers do,” says Marilyn Elledge, senior vice president of donor care for ALSAC/St. Jude. “They enable us to raise far greater sums than we would otherwise raise; they extend our brand and our name throughout the communities. They’re just irreplaceable. I’m so proud of the model Danny started with us.”
ALSAC/St. Jude has more than 30,000 fundraising events a year put on by what Moses calls its “volunteer army” — more than 1 million volunteers around the country, whose regional events accounted for 26 percent of the organization’s net fundraising in FY 2006.
The institution considers a volunteer anyone who works to raise money and is not compensated in any way, which includes its celebrity army.
Volunteers from kindergarten to adult hold fundraising events that include math-a-thons, marches, dinners and golf tournaments.
Volunteers most often are recruited through phone calls in which ALSAC/St. Jude staff explain the hospital’s mission and its need for donations, and ask people to help by organizing an event in their community. Volunteers then organize the events and recruit people to participate.
“One of the things I love to tell my staff is they’re friend-raising as well as fundraising, and people are more likely to give their time to a cause they’re passionate about,” Elledge says. “So we very strongly try to nurture their relationship with St. Jude and help them to love being a part of St. Jude.”
The institution does this by sharing patient stories with volunteers and providing them information on what it is able to accomplish in medicine and research because of funds raised.
“We also try to make their volunteer job very easy by providing them with lots of instructions and help, being just one phone call away whenever they need us, and then providing that ongoing, hopefully wonderful, St. Jude experience throughout that time — between the time we ask them to participate and the time they actually do their event,” she adds.
“Up ’til Dawn” is a student-run program hosted by colleges and universities nationwide that unites students, faculty and staff in awareness- and fundraising events. It culminates with an all-night celebration where students stay “up ’til dawn” in honor of St. Jude patients. Since the program’s creation in 1998, more than 185 campuses have participated and raised more than $16 million.
It’s all about trust
At the end of the day, integrity is the main hallmark of fundraising for ALSAC/St. Jude.
“I think that the donor understands that over 85 cents of every dollar received goes directly to the hospital and to the kids,” Moses says. “And I think that integrity and that credibility that we have with the donor is really what indicates who really owns this hospital.
“It’s owned by middle America, because our average contribution last year was $25.09,” he explains. “Our total corporate income this year will be about $34 million out of a budget of fundraising of $538 million. So you can see that really it’s the average donor. It’s middle America that really supports and owns the dream of St. Jude.”
Nothing compares to the impact of actually visiting the hospital and looking into the eyes of its patients — a one-on-one encounter with ALSAC/St. Jude’s raison d’être. But the organization has found ways to communicate its reason for being to its constituents, most of whom will never walk its halls, in a way that resonates with the public and upholds the mission its founder set for it.
“Danny Thomas was very known and very loved in America and trusted, and he started the institution because of a promise he made,” O’Brien says. “So we have a whole generation of people who grew up watching Danny Thomas, trusting him and believing in him, and we have worked very hard to maintain that trust.”