The Fundraising Executive

THE FLYWHEEL EFFECT: Organizational Branding at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

By Eddie Thompson | October 9, 2019 | Development Management Donor Communications

Over the last few months I’ve posted several articles on Jim Collins’ follow-up supplement to his best-seller—the 35-page booklet entitled Good to Great and the Social Sectors. Collins introduces the fifth Good-to-Great principle for nonprofits with this proposition:

“In building a great institution, there is no one single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment. Rather, our research showed that it’s more like turning a giant flywheel.”

Pushing on the organizational flywheel day after day, week after week, month after month yields imperceptible progress. Though it seems like the speed with which it turns is unchanged, visionary leadership teams continue their relentless push toward their organizational ideal [see Ideal Leadership]. With pressure consistently applied, the flywheel gradually picks up speed. Consequently, the weight of a large flywheel begins to create organizational momentum that compounds with each turn and builds upon brand reputation. Organizations that have had a long-term focus on building and protecting their brand, eventually achieve a momentum that makes all things easier—recruiting, retention, access, social capital… AND fundraising.

Collins cites Harvard University as one example of an institution with an exceptional brand reputation. Whether or not Harvard actually does a significantly better job of educating students is debatable. However, the impact of their brand seems to remove all hesitations, especially when it comes to fundraising. Harvard University has an endowment in excess of $37 billion (that’s “billion” with a “B”). Nevertheless, as one Harvard alumnus put it, “I give to Harvard every year even though often I feel like I’m simply hauling sand to the beach.” In other words, fundraising is easy for organizations that have had a long-term and consistent commitment to being great and have over time developed an equally great brand reputation.

Organizations that have had a long-term focus on building and protecting their brand, eventually achieve a momentum that makes all things easier—recruiting, retention, access, social capital… AND fundraising.

One institution that has built and consistently maintains that focus on excellence is St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.  A few notes on the brand reputation of St. Jude:

— For the sixth year in a row, St. Jude was named the #1 Health Non-profit Brand in the national Harris Poll Equi-Trend study, a brand equity study that compares the brand-health of more than 2,000+ unique brands across 200 categories.

—In that same Harris poll, St. Jude was ranked the Most Trusted and Most Loved brand in the Healthcare nonprofit space.

—St. Jude has ranked among the top four companies to work for by millennials (and now Gen Z-ers) for the past seven years—twice ranked as number one. Since 2011, only three companies have consistently ranked among the top five during this period: Walt Disney Company, Google, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

To illustrate the impact of brand reputation on fundraising, I’ve been involved with at least half a dozen donors with no direct experience or exposure to St. Jude—individuals who have put charitable gifts in their estate plan for that institution. They’ve never visited the hospital, never been to Memphis, and never had any contact with a St. Jude representative. Yet, one of those individuals plans to leave a bequest in excess of a million dollars to the hospital—and St. Jude doesn’t even know about it yet. These are only a few examples of donors with whom I’ve personally worked and does not include Thompson & Associates reps nationwide. It seems there’s a lot of money donated to St. Jude based purely on brand reputation. St. Jude is not alone. We have other healthcare clients with exceptional brand reputations, such as MD Anderson Cancer Center, Adventist Health, UnityPoint Health, and Sanford Health.

I’ve been involved with at least half a dozen donors with no direct experience or exposure to St. Jude… Yet, one of those individuals plans to leave a bequest in excess of a million dollars to the hospital—and St. Jude doesn’t even know about it yet.

I’ve known Jon Rich for a good number of years. Jon is the Senior Director for Major and Leadership Gifts at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It struck me one day, “Who better to comment on institutional branding than Jon?” Below is a summary of that interview.

EDDIE: How do you define and understand the nuances of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital brand? 

JON: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital started a simple idea proposed by entertainer Danny Thomas—to save kids from cancer, no matter who they were, where they came from, and regardless of their ability to pay. Since then, the organization has had to continually evolve in order to keep growing. The positive St. Jude brand recognition is the result of our continued focus on that original mission.

EDDIE: Was there one seminal event, defining moment, or critical juncture that has significantly contributed to the current brand reputation of St. Jude?

JON: A major turning point that truly defined our brand was the hiring of our first Chief Marketing and Experience Officer, Emily Callahan. This decision put into action the plan that over time would move the brand of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to iconic status among consumers. Emily provides strategic direction to a division of 200, committed to helping a global audience understand how St. Jude is leading the way the world understands, treats, and defeats childhood cancer. As the first-ever CMO at ALSAC (American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities), the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, she works to promote and protect the brand through cross-functional collaboration. Emily is a focused leader who employs brand research, endorsements, and every tool in the marketing mix to promote what we do at St. Jude.

MY COMMENT: Emily Callahan came to St. Jude as an award-winning communications and marketing professional and has been in that position since October 2010. It’s an example of another Good-to-Great objective—getting and keeping the right people who lead by example.

EDDIE: Are there policies, procedures, or institutional norms that are consistently employed for the express purpose of protecting the St. Jude brand? 

JON: Brand consistency should be at the forefront for any organization to succeed. The donors and volunteers who support us from around the globe deserve transparency and consistency when interacting with St. Jude—from those making donations on our website to the tens-of-thousands of volunteers at events across the U.S.

To maintain that consistency, our staff is tasked with protecting the St. Jude brand through all messaging and imagery that is shared publicly. All language and materials go through a review process before being distributed. That way, no matter where you are in the world, your experience with St. Jude is consistent.

EDDIE: A great brand and a reputation for excellence is like a rising tide—it floats all boats. In other words, an excellent brand reputation seems to make all things easier. Has that been your experience?

JON: Brand reputation is incredibly important and continually enables us to grow as an organization. We have been fortunate to receive many accolades that communicate to our supporters that they are helping our doctors and researchers obtain the resources needed to save the lives of thousands of children, not only at the hospital in Memphis, Tennessee but around the world.

I can honestly say that it is truly an honor to be able to support the mission of St. Jude each and every day. That energy is apparent throughout the halls in our offices as well. We are thankful and fortunate to be around the patient-families on a regular basis. They are the ones who drive our mission—Finding cures. Saving children.® That simple idea is our greatest motivation and the context with which we connect with our donors in meaningful ways.

MY COMMENT: Jon and his team are closely connected to the children and families they serve. On every visit to St. Jude, I can feel their passion. That’s a reminder for all nonprofit staff. Successful team members (including executives, administrators, fundraisers and support staff) need to stay in touch with those they serve.

EDDIE: As Senior Director for Major and Leadership Gifts, how do you keep fundraising staff motivated and accountable?

JON: In an ever-changing and technologically advancing world that is full of disruptors, our challenge is to frequently adapt ways to most effectively reach our donors. We employ all the latest innovative tools and techniques to track our progress—to meet and/or exceed our annual goals. Our staff at St. Jude, including our marketing, communication, and donor-relations teams are truly dedicated participants in this cause. We are all individually and collectively accountable.

EDDIE: The St. Jude reputation is unparalleled—almost mythical. Yet, I’m sure there are lots of challenges, especially for an institution that provides incredibly expensive medical services at no charge to families. So, what are some of the unique challenges for the fund-development department at St. Jude?

JON: We are always facing new challenges. We have to be as excellent in our fundraising and donor relationships as we are in our medical research, family support, and patient care. We set aggressive but realistic goals, and after reaching those goals, we then set the bar higher. Put simply, we will not stop until no child dies from cancer.

We constantly remind ourselves that simple is smart. There is indeed a lot of complexity in what we do at St. Jude. However, it’s not just about what we do, it’s about convincing people why our work matters. Our consumer research shows that the most powerful motivator for donors is this: helping a child live. Remaining focused on the importance of this simple concept is why we have support from around the globe.

EDDIE: Celebrities commonly endorse nonprofit causes. What has been the long-term impact of the Thomas family involvement?

JON: Marlo Thomas, our National Outreach Director, along with her siblings, Terre and Tony Thomas, carry the torch for their family’s humanitarian work for St. Jude and beyond. This legacy is now embraced by the next generations as Danny and Rose Marie’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren actively support the work of St. Jude. Their heartfelt dedication is embraced today by millions of people from all walks of life who have made the mission of St. Jude their own: Finding cures. Saving children.®

My Comment: High accountability, consistent leadership, passion throughout the entire team, a simple compelling funding appeal, and the relentless pursuit of excellence in all facets of the organization—together contribute to brand reputation and create powerful moments behind all aspects of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D., FCEP
Founder and CEO
Thompson & Associates

“If we merely aim for the industry standard, then our goal is mediocrity. Emulating the average nonprofit, we are destined to live with all the problems the average nonprofit faces. So, we suggest you aim to be exceptional in your approach to fund development.” —Eddie Thompson