Something to Smile About
Forty-five minutes and $240 can change a child’s life forever.
That’s about how long it takes and how much it costs for Operation Smile to fix one child’s cleft lip.
The organization has been fixing smiles and changing lives for more than 25 years.
The worldwide medical charity, based in Norfolk, Va., has been providing free surgery to children in developing countries who were born with facial deformities since it was founded by Dr. William P. Magee Jr., a plastic surgeon, and his wife, Kathleen, a nurse and clinical social worker, in 1982.
With the help of a crew of volunteer doctors and the generosity of donors, the couple has treated more than 120,000 children and young adults around the world.
Operation Smile knows none of that would be possible without the generosity of donors. And it knows what it takes to engage those donors — to the tune of $57.1 million in contributed income in fiscal year 2008.
In August, Operation Smile was named the winner of the Direct Marketing Association’s Nonprofit Federation’s 2008 Nonprofit Organization of the Year Award, which is bestowed to nonprofits for excellence in direct-response fundraising.
Though the DMANF recognized Operation Smile for its direct-marketing skills, the organization’s fundraising strategy includes much more. Over the years, Operation Smile has built its strategy around direct mail, DRTV, cause marketing, online marketing and a presence on social-networking sites.
Those initiatives — along with good communication, hard work and a push to integrate — have helped Operation Smile earn something of a fundraising powerhouse status.
“Over the past few years, we have found the answer to be integration — and having a consistent message across every channel,” says Kyla Shawyer, the organization’s senior vice president of response marketing and development.
Jann Schultz, Operation Smile’s director of donor relations, says the organization has come a long way, adding, “There was a point when you didn’t know we offered payment by credit card, and [our direct mail] didn’t reference the Web.”
Shawyer adds, “It’s much more holistic now. We took a really good look at integrating.”
The power of television
One of Operation Smile’s most successful channels has been direct-response TV, which it tested in 2003 and rolled out in 2004.
The DRTV program hinges on 30-minute or one-hour segments featuring Operation Smile spokeswoman Roma Downey, the actress best known for starring in the television show “Touched by an Angel.”
But Downey isn’t the organization’s only star power. Singer Jessica Simpson is its international youth ambassador, and “Access Hollywood” co-anchor Billy Bush is on its international board of governors.
“We’ve seen so many additional benefits to being on TV. We’ve expanded our donor database — our reach and awareness — and the funds we raised,” Shawyer says, adding that the organization’s donor database has grown by 560 percent since it added DRTV to the mix.
Shawyer says DRTV is an important tool, especially for Operation Smile, because the compelling stories of children struggling with facial abnormalities — and the families who struggle right along with them — elicit a lot of emotion. The DRTV medium allows potential donors to witness the incredible transformational power of their donations, Shawyer says.
“Just the stories and voices of the [children] — there is an emotional connection,” she says. “It stays with everybody.
“Donors call daily and want to do extraordinary things to help the cause after hearing these stories,” Shawyer adds.
She explains that the benefits of television far outweigh the costs for Operation Smile.
“TV is much more cost-effective than direct mail,” Shawyer says. “The long-term donor value of television is exceptional. There’s a really careful balance between generating as much revenue [as you can] and looking at the long-term value.”
In addition to the powerful stories and images that are inherent to Operation Smile’s mission, Shawyer attributes much of the organization’s DRTV success to careful attention to call-center training and oversight.
“Training the call center staff that’s going to be managing your inbound calls, and working with them and scripting them properly, is very important,” she explains. “They should be very aware and educated about [your] mission.”
Though television is a successful medium for Operation Smile, Shawyer points out that it cannot stand alone and is just one part of the organization’s overall, integrated fundraising strategy.
“DRTV must play off your other marketing strategies,” she says. “You must integrate it with direct mail and follow-up e-mails and any other channel that’s available.”
According to Schultz, the TV spots have played an important role in another of Operation Smile’s strategies — corporate partnerships. Representatives of companies see them and want to get involved — relationships that Operation Smile is happy to cultivate.
Since the organization was created, it has worked on developing strong relationships with public and private companies that provide supplies, pharmaceuticals and other in-kind gifts.
The Abbott Fund, an Illinois-based nonprofit funded by the Abbott health care company, has donated nearly $4 million in products and in-kind donations, and more than $450,000 in cash donations since 1993. The fund’s in-kind donations have included its anesthesia product Sevoflurane and equipment like IV fluids, catheters, and pediatric medical equipment and pharmaceuticals that are used in cleft lip and cleft palate surgery.
Through Abbott Fund’s support, Operation Smile’s Pediatric Advanced Life Support/Advanced Cardiac Life Support program has been able to train hundreds of medical professionals in critical life-saving techniques, and to purchase needed training equipment.
“They see [our] stories and want to help,” Schultz says.
Operation Smile actively seeks partnerships that are a good fit for its brand and a “good partner for the mission.” It also responds appropriately to those companies that approach it and are good matches for the organization. It acknowledges its corporate partners in the Donor Spotlight section of its Web site.
But big-business types aren’t the only ones who are moved by Operation Smile’s TV spots. Schultz tells of a 7-year-old boy who saw an Operation Smile television show and submitted an essay titled “Help a Child Have a Smile” to a PTA contest at his school. The essay not only was chosen as the winner, but it inspired the school to hold a yard sale, which raised $2,000 for the organization.
“It just shows how inspiring these stories are and how effective television can be,” Schultz says. “He wanted to help one child, and he ended up helping make a difference for more.”
Cause marketing also has proven to be very successful for Operation Smile, Shawyer says, adding that one of its most exciting marketing campaigns was with Microsoft.
For the Share a Smile campaign, which marked both Operation Smile’s 25th anniversary and the global launch of Microsoft’s Windows Live product suite, Microsoft sent e-mails to 400 million of its users, encouraging them to visit its Windows Live site and upload pictures of their smiles. Microsoft featured every uploaded smile on the Web site and also made a donation to Operation Smile for each one.
More than 750,000 photos were uploaded and shared, Shawyer says, and the campaign raised $500,000 for the organization.
“It was just an incredible campaign,” she says. “There were so many different elements … and so many people got involved. It raised awareness. It was a very exciting campaign.”
Operation Smile also recently partnered with Hollywood makeup artist and beauty maven Victoria Jackson. Victoria Jackson representatives participate in charitable events where the company’s cosmetics are sold, and, through November, 5 percent of sales go directly to Operation Smile’s global efforts.
It also had a long-standing campaign with cosmetics giant Sephora and toy company Hasbro.
A landmark campaign
But not every one of Operation Smile’s campaigns is star-studded. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, it launched a multifaceted series of initiatives culminating with the World Journey of Smiles in November 2007. During the journey, more than 1,900 Operation Smile volunteers gave new smiles to 4,086 children at 40 sites in 25 countries.
Several months prior to the World Journey of Smiles event, Operation Smile began sending targeted appeals to donors, including some that allowed donors to send a personal message and gift to a child receiving a new smile during the event. It’s a campaign that is a great source of pride for the organization — and it started with a new direct-mail piece.
For years, Shawyer says, Operation Smile had been using the same two-color acquisition control package with good results. Its challenge was to develop a new creative approach that would beat the old control and fit the organization’s very tight budget.
It partnered with Pasadena, Calif.-based agency Russ Reid to produce a simple and inexpensive — yet compelling — 6-inch-by-9-inch, four-color package that featured a child’s tearful face on the outside and unfolded to reveal that same child’s stunning after-surgery story and photo. The piece included a get-well card, and donors were asked to send the card back to children that had undergone surgery, along with a contribution.
“The prospective donor was able to read about the amazing genesis of Operation Smile and subsequent 25-year impact we’ve had on children born with facial deformities and understand how their gift would impact the life of a child,” Shawyer says, adding that the piece engaged the donor because it was “personal and emotional.”
It also was very successful, increasing the organization’s core list by 25 percent and even inspiring one first-time donor to send a $10,000 check.
That donor, Shawyer says, contacted the organization asking for 42 more cards so he could personalize each one and returned the cards along with his $10,000 donation.
The piece also received great feedback from Operation Smile’s in-country medical volunteers and international mission teams.
“It was a really wonderful campaign,” Shawyer says. “It was powerful. We’re grateful that we’ve been able to implement an integrated strategy in which all media channels come together not just to raise money or build a brand, but to help change the face of our world.”
Operation Smile seems to have a pretty good handle on direct mail and other more traditional fundraising and brand-awareness strategies. But it also knows when to stick a toe in fresher waters — namely social networking.
Vice President of Marketing and Communications Lisa Jardanhazy says the organization has a presence on MySpace, Facebook, uPlej and other sites, finding them beneficial for reaching younger supporters.
There are thousands of students in more than 500 Operation Smile student clubs in elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, universities and medical schools around the world.
“[The clubs] are very much proponents of our expanded online and interactive efforts,” Jardanhazy says.
“Integration is really our mantra here,” she adds. “Consistent messaging, branding — not bombarding people but integrating. We’re really synchronized in our efforts.”
Since Operation Smile has reached out to so many Spanish-speaking countries, it plans to start focusing some of its fundraising efforts on Hispanic communities in the U.S.
“We’re heavy into Latin American countries — we have [a strong presence] there,” Shawyer says. “So we want to appeal to the Hispanic market in the U.S.”
It’s also excited about its recent text-message campaign — as of this writing it was scheduled to start in mid-September — which asked people to make a $5 donation by text messaging the word “SMILE.”
Shawyer believes mobile giving will prove to be a viable fundraising channel and says Operation Smile is anxious to do more tests.
Of course, having great success in a number of fundraising approaches doesn’t mean Operation Smile is without its challenges. Like most nonprofits, Shawyer says, it worries about “ensuring we have the skills, resources and programs in place to continue to grow our revenues and our donor base, minimize donor attrition and maximize the lifetime value of donors.”
But she points out that Operation Smile’s commitment to mutually beneficial partnerships and — perhaps most importantly — its integration efforts help minimize those challenges. And that, of course, gives it something to smile about. FS
Melissa Busch is the associate senior editor at FundRaising Success. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Related story: Operation Smile Facts