News and analysis
February 08, 2015

A Science Charity Uses a Big Gift to Woo New Donors

Andy Manis

A $50-million gift by the founders of the Foundation Fighting Blindness is supporting the work of David Gamm and other researchers. The charity is using the donation to spark a $100-million capital drive.

As science organizations reel from a near-decade-long flattening of federal research grant dollars and a downturn in venture capital, many are devising ways to use large private gifts to draw in new donors.

The Foundation Fighting Blindness, for example, is using a $50-million gift from its founders, Gordon and Llura Gund, No. 37 on the Philanthropy 50 list, to help raise an additional $100-million for a capital campaign designed in part to help pay for expensive human trials of potential treatments for eye disorders like macular degeneration. The campaign will end in June 2016.

The Gund Family Challenge has raised about $14.2-million in its first two years. Mr. Gund has added about $13-million to that amount as part of a matching-gift program.

Even though the total represents only one-sixth of the campaign’s goal, the charity is encouraged by the emergence of many new donors.

"So far, the match has been a very powerful tool," says Bill Schmidt, the organization’s chief executive. "We’re letting people know that the challenge is an opportunity for them to make a bigger difference."

As is often the case with disease-related charities, the organization is emphasizing the need for new money to take advantage of breakthroughs in the understanding of disorders.

"We’ve recently moved from mouse models of disease to testing treatments on people," says Mr. Schmidt. "But the costs of trials are way high, so we need their help more right now. That’s a key part of our messaging."

The charity is currently helping to support 20 clinical trials, he says.

The organization supports research into eye diseases that affect millions, like macular degeneration, as well as several "orphan diseases" that affect fewer than 200,000 people, like retinitis pigmentosa and Leber congenital amaurosis.

"Reaching new people is a challenge for us because we typically fight diseases that affect small groups of people," Mr. Schmidt says.

In addition to wooing new donors with matching-gift strategies, Mr. Schmidt says that fundraisers should:

Focus on families of people affected by the disorder. They may be the only ones besides doctors who understand the nature of those ailments, Mr. Schmidt says. Ask physician practices to tell patients with the diseases and their families about the organization and its needs.

Devise events that show the plight of those who have a particular disease. The Foundation Fighting Blindness holds 15 fundraising dinners each year throughout the country. For 30 minutes after the main course is served, the room is darkened to simulate blindness. "It’s a great way to build awareness," Mr. Schmidt says.

Court foundations and corporations. Though foundation grants for orphan diseases are relatively rare, some grant makers do support research programs. Some biotech and pharmaceutical companies may also be interested.

Keep a disease in the public’s mind. Mr. Schmidt’s group holds 50 walks annually and encourages affected families to form teams that spread information about a disease—and the charity’s efforts to fight it—to neighbors and co-workers. "It’s a way to get people engaged who don’t know about us or who can’t give us large donations," he says. "Sometimes those walks will find us some large donors, too."