Thursday, April 19, 2007

Philanthropy - Give and Take

Somewhere in me I have something BIG to say about philanthropy and nonprofit organizations and fundraising, but it just hasn’t found its voice yet.

I know that I am constantly amazed by people’s generosity and the variety of good and important causes that exist to make our world a better place. And I am forever impressed by successful, creative fundraisers. To be a great development professional you have to have so many different skills.

But also churning around in this gray area of my thinking on this subject is the impact of “the great idea”. That ground-breaking philanthropic idea that creates a shift and changes the entire fundraising enterprise. Like Easter Seals did years ago when it was the first organization to send free address labels with their solicitations, or the original organization that decided to offer a premium, or thank-you gift, for certain giving levels, or the dawn of the mega-gifts like Warren Buffet’s staggering donation of 30 billion to the Gates Foundation. These are only a few of the many great ideas of philanthropy that have had enormous and lasting impact on giving decisions and fundraising activities.

I’m thinking about this today as I’m tripping down memory lane after reading the article, “A Time to Thrive” from the April 5 edition of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. This detailed article reveals how many charities are setting new fundraising records through traditional and not-so-traditional means (7 in 10 charities raised more money last year than in 2005, and nearly a quarter of organizations said they achieved gains of almost 50 percent or higher.)

A big section of the article told about Lance Armstrong and his Armstrong Foundation in Austin that raises money for cancer research. It just so happens that every part of Lance Armstrong’s personal story fascinates me, not the least of which is the impact and success of his foundation. Talk about the right time, right place thing working out to its perfect manifestation – this guy has been able to leverage his cancer survival, phenomenal sports success, celebrity and personal passion into an amazing organization.

But the part of the story that made me feel good today was when I read that the sale of the yellow Livestrong bracelets has grossed $65 million since 2004. That is truly amazing.

Lance Armstrong’s management firm that handles his business dealings was also our partner at the public television station where I worked, helping us produce Austin City Limits for PBS. As a result of that partnership, I had the amazing good fortune to be part of different ACL projects and meetings and got to know these people a little bit.

We were in a meeting one day preparing for our big ACL Gala and a friend from this firm handed me a little plastic bag containing one of the Livestrong bracelets. She said that this was a new thing that they had developed in conjunction with Lance’s foundation and the bracelets had just arrived that day. She explained to me its symbolism and how they were hoping to get people to show their support for cancer awareness, research and treatment by wearing them.

Little did I know when I put that bracelet on that day that I was one of the first to be wearing the next great idea in philanthropy. I thought the bracelet with its simple, yet powerful, message was cool and the idea had meaning, and I could certainly see Austinites getting into them since Lance was one of their favorite sons, but I had no idea (and neither did they!) that the yellow bracelets would quickly become an international phenomenon and would touch people’s psyches in the way that they did.

And to think that the Livestrong bracelets went on to spur an entire philanthropic (and commercial) industry where almost every “cause” jumped on the band wagon and produced their own bracelet for their constituents to show their support. We certainly did at public television – our bracelet is blue and says “Support public television”. A couple of the programs that we air during pledge drive created a bracelet for their show and offered it as a premium. For awhile, these different bracelets were everywhere.

The fad has certainly quieted down since its inception, but I still see people every now and then wearing the yellow Livestrong bracelets and I am reminded of the importance and impact philanthropy has in our world and how the next great idea might be right around the corner.

And how any one of us can play a part in its success.

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  • At 4/19/2007 , Blogger Hoosh said...

    Max wore one to school today that is red, white and blue like a flag. Not even three years old and he's already living strong to support HIS cause (which is, of course, show-and-tell).


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