An Interview With Madeline Kerner, National Director of Outreach and Development, Peer Health Exchange
As the curriculum in many public high schools becomes more focused, it drives some subjects to the periphery. In 2003, Peer Health Exchange formed to help some schools reintroduce health education to the classroom.
Now based in San Francisco and working with a 2010-2011 annual operating budget of more than $3.4 million, the organization's efforts help educate thousands of high-school students.
Madeline Kerner, PHE's national director of outreach and development, explains more about what the 26 employees — two of whom are strictly devoted to raising funds — enable the organization to accomplish.
FundRaising Success: What's your mission?
Madeline Kerner: Peer Health Exchange gives teenagers the knowledge and skills they need to make healthy decisions. We do this by training college students to teach a comprehensive health curriculum in public high schools that lack health education.
FS: Please tell us a little about the organization's history.
MK: In 1999, six Yale undergraduates began teaching health workshops in New Haven [Conn.] public schools in order to fill the gap left by an underfunded, understaffed district health program. In 2003, the founding members of the group established Peer Health Exchange to replicate this successful program in other communities with unmet health education needs. Since then, approximately 2,500 trained PHE volunteers have taught PHE's health curriculum to more than 25,000 low-income ninth graders in NYC, Boston, Chicago, the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
FS: How do you fund your mission?
MK: We currently raise support for our mission through local and national private funders. The majority of that support is from foundations, with the rest coming primarily from individuals. Corporations make up a relatively small but growing portion of our funding. We are continuing to identify new sources of funding as we plan organizational growth over the next three [to] five years. Our primary focus for the immediate future is on major individual donors. Given our experience raising support from that group to date, we anticipate it being an area of strength for the future.
FS: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned? How do you overcome them?
MK: Given the impact of our program, the scale of need for effective health education, and our efficiency and replicability, PHE is poised for significant growth. To realize this potential, our fundraising will need to continue to be as efficient as it has been to date. This will require a singleness of purpose, laser-like focus on our priorities and ongoing rigorous evaluation of our strategy. We will work to ensure that our fundraising is not our greatest limiting factor.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
MK: We are currently engaged in strategic planning to chart our impact over the next three [to] five years. That vision for impact will drive our fundraising and outreach goals and strategy.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
MK: We provide an opportunity for people to fund effective, comprehensive health education — for low-income teens not otherwise receiving it — through an exceptionally efficient model. We believe that by communicating effectively about teens' risky behaviors and the resulting harm to their bodies and futures, people become advocates for health education. By coordinating our development work across our national and local offices, by communicating effectively, and by opening our health workshops and work to visitors, we deliver our program and set the stage to achieve our long-term goals.
FS: How do you reach out to supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising? Are you engaged with social media and social networking?
MK: Whenever we can, PHE seeks to engage potential and current donors in our work by inviting them to observe our health education work live in a high-school classroom and by inviting them to speak with our college volunteers. Our future plans for social media will align with our long-term vision for impact, or our next strategic plan, which we are in the process of writing.
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
MK: We recently launched a high-school sponsorship campaign offering donors the opportunity to fund health education for an entire grade of freshmen in a partner high school. As the ranks of our high-school sponsors grow, we are enjoying the opportunity to engage our supporters with their high schools and the college volunteers who deliver health education there.
FS: Have you had any major difficulties or setbacks you've faced along the way? Have there been things you would have done differently with your fundraising?
MK: I anticipate that our next phase of growth will present a variety of new challenges for our fundraising. We will plan as best we can for the growth to come but know that it is likely to present unanticipated challenges.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
MK: Our progress to date is due primarily to our impact and rigor, our investment in donor relationships, and our commitment to clear and compelling communication.