How to raise money when you're unknown, unpopular

publication date: Jan 27, 2012
author/source: Janet Gadeski
You're raising funds for a health disaster that hits one in five Canadian families. Power brokers won't return your calls. Patients and families hide from public view. A prominent philanthropist says he's not giving because he doesn't think there's any hope. Meanwhile, just down the street, hospitals and universities trumpet the latest achievements in their mega-campaigns.

That's what you would have experienced not so long ago if you were fundraising for mental health.

Darrell Gregersen, head of Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation, remembers those days painfully well. She recalls watching the former Clarke Institute's "relentless, unbelievable persistence" as its campaign team struggled for years to reach, then surpass, a $10 million goal - a sum that major gift fundraisers in other causes sometimes raised in a single visit.

Today she leads the fundraising foundation of an organization that for years has put communication first. "CAMH in particular, long before I got here, really understood that the power of storytelling was going to be transformative and that we needed to have people who would publicly speak out about the importance of getting help for mental illness," she explains in an interview with Canadian Fundraising & Philanthropy.

That strategy is paying off in dramatic support - $108 million so far - for CAMH's building program. When complete, the new facilities will be bright, modern and integrated with the surrounding community: an apt symbol of new attitudes towards mental illness and its treatment.

Advocates both famous and unknown

Michael Wilson, former finance minister and ambassador to the US spoke out in the early days of CAMH about the mental illness and suicide of his son. Broadcaster Valerie Pringle and her daughter Catherine shared the story of Catherine's anxiety disorder. But it wasn't just the rich and famous who spoke out. The stories of prominent and unknown people alike formed the cornerstone of the CAMH Foundation's campaign.

That campaign, says Gregersen, turned public understanding around, finally allowing community leaders and foundation staff to talk about mental health and fundraise in the same successful, high-profile ways that work for other causes. "More and more people now understand," she continues, "that mental health is essential to the survival of our communities."

Same need, same support, same impact

Philanthropists are hearing the message too. Toronto's Campbell family are loyal supporters of Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital, internationally famous for its cancer research and treatment programs. Now they've committed $30 million to the CAMH campaign. Gregersen highlights their gift as an example of the new philanthropic attitude towards mental illness.

"The Campbell family is saying there can be the same transformation as AIDS and cancer, and what it needs is the same level of research," she enthuses. "The family really seized that. They understand that there is no family untouched by mental illness anywhere in Canada. They see the societal as well as the family impact. They saw the power of their investment in cancer through PMH - and made a powerful statement when they committed the same support to mental illness."

Corporate donors have stepped up too. Bell Canada has committed $50 million to a multi-year mental health initiative. $10 million of that, the largest Canadian corporate gift ever to mental health, is earmarked for CAMH.

What's in a name?

It was not until 2009 that a donor permitted CAMH to name a building after him. "The members of Canada's McCain family are known for philanthropy, but not for putting their name on things," Gregersen points out. "Michael [McCain] in particular understood the value of allowing us to put his name on one of our buildings."

What's been surprising, motivating, even exhilarating, she muses, is how much it means to the clients when a public figure allows his name on a building. It sends one more highly visible message that their illness is legitimate and important people care about their recovery. Staff members are equally encouraged by the attention a famous name draws to their work.

Start with the "why"

Though mental illness is one of the most dramatic examples, other causes remain unappealing, stigmatized or unknown. Gregersen encourages fundraisers to be optimistic despite the challenges.

"Don't worry about the fact that it's difficult," she encourages. "Be consistent, powerful, and compelling about why it's relevant. Helping people understand why it's relevant is your first responsibility. Don't put your organization's goals first. Instead, focus on who are you trying to talk to and what matters most to them. And then show them how your organization deals with what matters to them."

Learn more about the campaign at

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