Have you ever wondered why some non-profits become established, sustain their mission and continue to grow over time, even during the inevitable downturns in the economy, while others seem not to fair so well? While there are many factors that contribute to the long-term success of a non-profit, I would posit that there is one unequivocal reason that connects these successful organizations to their founding – the passion, energy, vision and support of a singular enduring leader and champion.

My first experience with such an individual was Danny Thomas, the founder of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Danny became a household name in the 1960’s with his popular television program “Make Room for Daddy.” Fulfilling a religious vow to “give something back” if he was to make it in his chosen entertainment profession, he barnstormed around the country raising money and awareness for the creation of the first research and clinical care institution for children battling leukemia and other deadly cancers.  Established in 1962 and supported exclusively by volunteers from the Syrian and Lebanese American community (Danny was of Lebanese decent), the organization finally professionalized its fundraising efforts in the late 1970’s and I came on board in 1980.

Danny was untiring in his support of the organization and it grew exponentially over the years raising a billion dollars several years ago and coming quite close to that mark several other times. Upon his passing in 1991, his daughter Marlo took over his leadership role and continued her dad’s efforts to keep the hospital’s mission front and center in the American public’s eye.

My next professional position was with the Jimmy Fund in Boston – the “fundraising arm” of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The Fund preceded the establishment of the institution and was created spontaneously by the airing of a national radio program on May 22, 1948 called “Truth or Consequences.” During the broadcast, the host Ralph Edwards interviewed a young leukemia patient and eight players from the Boston Braves baseball team. To protect the boy’s identity, his real name was not divulged, but rather he was referred to as “Jimmy.” When Ralph made a spontaneous appeal to the listening audience to help young patients like Jimmy, who were being treated by Dr. Sidney Farber, donations came pouring in from all across the country.  Subsequently, the “Jimmy Fund” was created to accept these contributions; gifts totaling $240,000 would be used to build the Jimmy Fund Clinic in 1953.

The Braves left town and in the early 50s the team’s sponsorship of the fund migrated to the Boston Red Sox. The star of the Red Sox at the time was Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter. Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey agreed to take over the exclusive sponsorship of the fund from the Braves. Ted embraced his role as ambassador for the fund with great passion and energy. It was learned later, and unbeknownst to many, that Ted’s brother Danny had battled leukemia and succumbed in 1960 at the age of 39, perhaps acting as a singularly motivating factor for Ted’s involvement. His personal efforts as a player and through the rest of his life to promote the mission of the Jimmy Fund established it as the preeminent charity throughout New England.

Not all of the champions I came to know and admire came from the entertainment or sports world, in fact most did not, but you get the gist of the story.

In the case of these two fundraising powerhouses, while established from humble beginnings, decades later continue to prosper. Conversely, organizations without a champion leader have not succeed nearly as well and fundraising was a much tougher proposition.