Cover Story: Worth The Gamble
Las Vegas: known for its high rollers, Elvis impersonators, and Siegfried and Roy. But now the glitzy city also is attracting attention for a major philanthropic success.
When the Nevada Cancer Institute rooted down in Las Vegas more than four years ago, its development staff did something unheard of in the city: They asked potential donors for unprecedented $1 million gifts to fund the comprehensive cancer research and care facility. To date, the NVCI has raised in excess of $60 million — $40 million of which has been in individual million-dollar gifts.
Until recently, there had been a near-total lack of research-linked care for Nevadans, who often have to travel out of state for specialized treatment. In 1998, Heather and Jim Murren — both former Wall Streeters with a history of cancer in their families — relocated to Las Vegas and began working with community leaders to build a cancer center for statewide use. Heather Murren is the NVCI’s president and chief executive, while her husband is president of MGM Mirage.
Shortly after her family relocated to Nevada, Heather Murren volunteered at a Las Vegas medical clinic and saw that uninsured cancer patients were sent to emergency rooms, and those who could afford to travel left the state for treatment. Recognizing the need for a cancer institute in the state, Murren quit her job as Merrill Lynch’s lead consumer-products analyst to spearhead the launching of the institute.
“The need for a [cancer institute] has been a recognized need everywhere in the state, in every segment of the community,” says Shelley Gitomer, the NVCI’s vice president for development. “The Murrens did their homework very early on, and the need was confirmed by not only all facets of the government but by people at the University of Nevada, people in the private sector, and by cancer patients and their families. There hasn’t been one segment of the population that has not rallied around this.”
In September, the NVCI opened the doors of its four-story, 142,000-square-foot facility, which fosters scientific research and discovery and provides complete cancer diagnosis and treatment services for patients and their families. Construction of the $52 million facility was funded by donations and a repayable $1 million construction bond.
The first support the NVCI received came from the Howard Hughes Corp. (subsequently acquired by the Rouse Co. and then General Growth Properties) when it donated six acres to the NVCI on which to build its new facility. The acreage is part of a 61-acre parcel that’s earmarked for health and wellness entities in Las Vegas.
A new kind of challenge
Raising money in Las Vegas, a young city where philanthropy is still taking root, hasn’t been easy for local charities and foundations, Gitomer says.
“In many cities that are older than Las Vegas, like Baltimore or Philadelphia, there exists multi-generational fundraising, where it’s part of the texture and thread of the community, and social responsibility is very important,” she explains. “But these are things that are learned over generations, and over time. In Las Vegas, it’s not that the people aren’t generous, but it’s a very young town that’s just going from a town to a city. There’s not a history of fundraising here yet.”
Gitomer also feels the NVCI’s fundraising efforts in Las Vegas will help other local nonprofits because it has heightened potential donors’ awareness that they need to give back to the community in order to fund efforts in education, the arts and healthcare.
“Our coming here has spurred interest in fundraising. We’re not trying to drive other nonprofits’ numbers down. I think we’re helping to drive them up,” Gitomer says, adding that the NVCI is careful in its solicitation to encourage people to keep giving to causes they’ve given to before. “We would be hesitant to accept a gift from someone if it would hurt another nonprofit.”
A vision of hope
Soon after the NVCI’s April 2002 incorporation, the state of Nevada declared it its official cancer institute.
“That kind of gave us instant credibility and really allowed us to have some visibility. Even though it wasn’t monetary, this declaration was a valuable contribution from the state,” Gitomer says.
From its inception, the NVCI wanted to achieve the National Cancer Institute Designated Comprehensive Cancer Care Center designation, which has only been bestowed on 39 cancer facilities in the United States. It’s awarded for cutting-edge research and for programs that demonstrate the close integration of research and clinical efforts, and that translate these discoveries to exemplary patient care.
“It generally takes 10 years to get this designation. We’re three years in, and I don’t think it’ll take us seven more years to get it,” she says, adding, “We wanted to build a facility that would address all facets of cancer care, including outreach and education, research, actual clinical care — really, the entire continuum of care for cancer patients.”
Such a grand vision, Gitomer says, bolstered her team’s confidence in approaching donors for the $1 million gifts they were soliciting.
Ask and you shall receive
In the last three years, the NVCI has been running three efforts concurrently: fundraising; recruiting a robust, high-profile development, medical and research staff; and preparing to open the NVCI’s first building.
Gitomer knew that to complete the NVCI’s facility in record time, they needed to ask for big gifts first. Although the fundraising program was slated to be all-inclusive and eventually focus on donors of all levels, Gitomer says, “Most of my time, and the president’s, has been spent soliciting gifts of $1 million and up.”
She targeted people she calls the “usual suspects,” individuals “who were known to be generous, known to be affluent and had the inclination to give.”
“For us to ask for such a large gift, the cause would have to be something as big as this [cancer], as critical as this, something everyone could relate to,” she explains. “Almost everyone we talked to had some kind of cancer story. Many of the people we solicited actually left town for cancer treatment, either for themselves or for a family member.
“We were also in a state where a mayor had left for breast cancer treatment, and three governors left to be treated for prostate cancer.”
What also helped, she says, was getting some of those first large gifts.
“Some of our early strategy was saying to people, ‘We need a leader. Someone has to go first. And if someone goes first, others will follow.’ Before we even had a location, the first five gifts came in on our dream and our vision, and nothing more,” Gitomer says. “We didn’t have an exact sketch of the building and we didn’t have an exact location, but we had a lot of good statistics, and we knew we could substantiate the need for a cancer center. But first we had to convince them we needed leaders.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Gitomer and Murren approached their first donors face to face. And that old fundraising adage, that you get 90 percent of your donations from 10 percent of the people, applied here. Gitomer says 90 percent of their time was spent working with a small donor group.
Getting those first three to five gifts under its belt was very important to the NVCI. What was even more important was digging the hole for the building and being able to see the beams beginning to rise up.
“We were able to see it, feel it, touch it. That made it much easier to call people,” Gitomer says.
The NVCI’s initial fundraising phase extended until very recently and, as of October, the organization had received 40 gifts of $1 million and up from donors named by the organization as its “Founders,” and three more gifts of $5 million or more from its “Visionary Founders.”
Tapping the business vein
The first corporation the NVCI approached was casino company Harrah’s Entertainment. In the same way that Gitomer and Murren approached their individual donors, they asked Harrah’s to be a leader and focused their initial approach on two Harrah’s executives who had had public bouts with cancer.
Like other potential donors, Harrah’s struggled with the economic practicality of adding another major charitable cause into its giving program. The solution, Gitomer says, was giving founding donors the option to give the $1 million gift all at once or over a few years. Harrah’s opted for the multi-year giving effort; over five years, the company would match employee donations to a total of $1 million.
“Although multi-year giving is not a new concept, it was relatively unused in Las Vegas, except by the university,” Gitomer says. “So far, every year Harrah’s has matched employee gifts dollar for dollar, and we’re right on schedule.”
Once Harrah’s was on board, it made it easier for Gitomer and Murren to approach others. Says Gitomer: “This was the same strategy we used with individuals. We said, ‘Harrah’s joined us. Don’t you want to?’’’
After Harrah’s came Boyd Gaming/Boyd Foundation, Caesars Entertainment and MGM Mirage. Support from foundations came later, as private foundations usually require that a nonprofit be in business for at least five years.
“We were very careful to mine the field for a few foundations we thought we qualified for,” Gitomer says. Several foundations have lent their support to the NVCI.
Through the early part of the campaign, two things surprised Gitomer, a seasoned fundraiser with more than 20 years’ experience. First, the success: “I thought we could be successful, but we’re even more successful than I thought. The first month I was here and was getting the lay of the land, I wondered how this was going to happen. How were we going to raise this amount of money? And how were we going to recruit the caliber of people we needed to recruit? But both of those efforts have been overwhelmingly successful.”
Secondly, the large number of untapped donors in Las Vegas, and the reason for that. When the NVCI started contacting potential donors, Gitomer asked them why they had never given a gift as big as the one the NVCI was asking for. Their response: “I was never asked.”
To avoid losing momentum once the 20-month construction period started, the NVCI switched its fundraising focus slightly. Being able to lead donors through an actual building that’s taking shape can be a big boost to fundraising efforts, but concentrate on it too much and potential donors might think you have all the money you need.
To counteract that possibility, the NVCI began focusing more on the programs than the property.
“We knew from a fundraising point of view that the day the building opened, we couldn’t keep raising money for the building,” Gitomer explains. “The message was we’re going from opening a building to opening a cancer center. This was something our donors needed to know.
“The problem we were afraid of — but it didn’t happen because we planned for it — was that you never want someone to look at the opening of a building as the culmination of your efforts,” she adds. “We wanted them to view it as the beginning of our efforts, so we were careful to shift to the people and programs, as if to say the building is a platform for what we need to accomplish.”
Also woven into Gitomer’s message to donors is that the NVCI already is planning for the next building.
Going beyond the basics
So far, the NVCI’s fundraising program has emphasized major giving, which focuses on million-dollar gifts, but also includes donations of $100,000 and up. These donations chiefly come from the private sector, from individuals and corporations. The organization also receives some funding from medical professionals and researchers who come to work there, bringing with them research and development grants.
Although the NVCI mails its quarterly newsletters, other informational packages and event invitations to about 5,000 people, it has yet to implement a direct-mail fundraising program. The response to the newsletters, which include an ask, is good, so Gitomer definitely sees the value in incorporating direct mail into the mix.
“Informed people are more likely to give. We’ve had very good feedback from those newsletters,” she says. Gitomer sees an annual-giving program that includes direct mail being put into place some time beyond 2006.
“In 2006, we’ll concentrate very much on mid-level giving, the $10,000, $20,000, $50,000 gifts, because right now we’re ignoring those people,” she admits. “That’s really bothering us because we don’t want to appear to be ungrateful to gifts at that level.
“Also, on the other end of the spectrum are the $50, $100, $500 gifts, and we’re going to have to face those donors very quickly because now our doors are open, and we’re getting those calls,” she adds. “People at all levels need the opportunity to give. We’re a cancer center for everyone ... we want to make every donor feel welcome.”
The NVCI hopes donors will feel welcome enough to attend its series of fundraising events. By the looks of it, they do: The center’s single largest event, Rock for the Cure, drew 1,000 people last year and netted $3 million.
Rock for the Cure is held in November, while the NVCI and various sponsors hold smaller events during the year. The NVCI currently has two people to oversee events; plans are in place to increase that number.
Being a new organization, the NVCI was aware from the start that the Internet can play an important role in fundraising and education. From a fundraising perspective, Gitomer says, it attracts folks who want to give memorial gifts, as well as younger donors.
As the NVCI grows and offers more services to more patients, its potential donor base grows with it. But the sensitive nature of its work requires an equally sensitive approach, especially as medical fundraising faces privacy laws such as the Health Insurance Accountability and Portability Act.
“We now have grateful patients, and we realize that a grateful patient program will become a big part of our future,” Gitomer says, adding that the NVCI plans to reach out to current and former patients very delicately.
Looking to the future
The NVCI anticipates welcoming 5,000 new patients annually, which translates to about 200 patient visits daily or several hundred thousand patient visits yearly. To meet that demand, the NVCI will increase its total staff from 168 to about 200 by year’s end.
The NVCI also is looking to the construction of its second building, which will be contiguous to the first. Although no official groundbreaking date has been released, the NVCI has acquired the land.
“Every great cancer center started with one building, and for us to deliver the spectrum and array of services we want to deliver to this community, we need to be bigger,” Gitomer says. “We want to offer these services in one location, so that people, literally, from soup to nuts, walk in the front door and are able to stay on one campus.”
Future plans include other locations in Las Vegas and a satellite operation in northern Nevada.
Gitomer says now that the NVCI’s first facility is open, and donors have visited, they’re proud to have been a part of the effort and to have given.
“They really know their money was well invested, and they’ve started to say, ‘I know other people who would be interested,’” she says.
“In the beginning, we told people, ‘We’re going to make you proud. Yes, we’re asking for a gift of an unprecedented amount. But we’re going to make you proud,’” Gitomer concludes. “Now, we’ve delivered on this, and we have a lot of very happy founders.”