When 8-year-old Max Hanson was diagnosed with a brain tumor after suffering bouts of vomiting and debilitating headaches, his parents, Erin Cordry and Eric Hanson, learned all they could about the aggressive form of cancer — malignant medulloblastoma — afflicting their son. Though the odds were poor, they signed Max up for an experimental treatment through Seattle Children’s Hospital and Research Foundation.
Max’s cancer went into remission after a year of harsh protocols, but with little information available about children’s brain tumors, his parents feared the disease would return. So Cordry joined another patient’s mom and six friends and launched the Pediatric Brain Tumor Research Guild to raise money to finance research at Seattle Children’s.
The guild’s first fundraiser was a “non-event” that encouraged friends and relatives not to spend money on entertainment and to donate to research instead. It raised $100,000. The guild struck gold a few years later when Seattle’s Four Seasons Hotel approached it to partner on a 5K Run of Hope event that proved to be a hit. Not only has the guild raised $2 million in the past six years, but it also has built a community that continues to contribute to Seattle Children’s year after year.
“People often want to help or show support for friends or family with cancer, but they don’t know how,” Cordry explains. “The race gives them a place to go and show support.”
The Pediatric Brain Tumor Research Guild is among the top 10 revenue-generating guilds of the 450 affiliated with Seattle Children’s. The guilds have 6,200 members who have helped establish Seattle Children’s as one of the top fundraising machines in Washington. In 2014, these guilds donated $148.9 million to Seattle Children’s, making it the second most successful fundraising organization in the state, after the University of Washington.
Having raised an average of $51.2 million annually during the past decade, the Seattle Children’s guilds range from youngsters holding bake sales to an endurance car-racing team that has raised just over $5 million, to the Friends of Costco Guild, which, since 1988, has raised nearly $90 million, much of it through an annual golf tournament.
“The people of greater Seattle have been incredibly generous to Seattle Children’s Hospital,” says Aileen Kelly, executive director of the Seattle Children’s Hospital Guild Association, the largest all-volunteer fundraising network for any hospital in the country. The Guild Association serves as an umbrella organization for the guilds and supports their efforts by providing inspiration, training and advice, Kelly says. Guilds manage their own money and write a check to Seattle Children’s after expenses have been paid. They create a mutual support network and often continue long after the founders are gone. At least three of the hospital’s currently active guilds have been in existence since the 1920s.
Although many guilds draw on the dedication of parents or individuals to a specific cause that has touched them deeply, others raise money simply to pay for hospital care when families can’t afford it.
The guild system is one of the main generators of philanthropic giving to Seattle Children’s, accounting for as much as 15 to 20 percent of the donated money it receives. Other sources in the top five are estates/trusts, private foundations, corporations and individuals. Many popular charity events such as the annual Auction of Washington Wines contribute some of their earnings to Children’s.
Guilds also help promote Children’s throughout the wide region it serves — Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. This sort of outreach is crucial, says Thomas Mesaros, senior counsel and former CEO at The Alford Group, a Seattle firm that provides consulting services to nonprofit organizations. He notes that some families understand that the money they and their insurance company pay to the hospital doesn’t always cover the bills. Through involvement in or exposure to guilds, they often come back later and make a contribution.
Sometimes, guild members or their relatives leave portions of their estates to Seattle Children’s, Mesaros adds. In 2013, the estate of Seattle philanthropist Jack R. MacDonald, whose mother had been a member of the Connie Beal Howe Guild, left $75 million to Seattle Children’s.
The hospital’s top-earning guild is the Friends of Costco, which hosts the annual Children’s Golf Classic, a mammoth event spread over seven golf courses. Last year alone, it brought in $6.7 million — the largest single gift to uncompensated care at the hospital. Many Costco suppliers attend the Golf Classic in hopes of rubbing shoulders with top Costco executives who typically participate.
The Heart of Racing endeavor from the Team Seattle Guild, started by former professional sports-car racer Don Kitch and his wife, Donna, also has had considerable success, raising more than $5 million for Seattle Children’s complex cardiac care work since 1996. In 2014, the race team’s new owner, Gabe Newell, founder of Bellevue video game developer Valve, stepped in to foot the team’s expenses of approximately $2.5 million. This gesture allows every donation and sponsorship commitment to go directly to Seattle Children’s Heart Center and a new cardiac catheterization laboratory. The guild has expanded its activities to include team racing in Europe, which Don Kitch believes could result in even more contributions.
“All the benefits of partnering with the racing team — print publicity, television exposure, trackside hospitality, unique entertainment, all of it — it’s tax deductible,” says Kitch. “If you want to bring a key client to watch a race, then have lunch trackside, you can.”
Kitch likes the way the guild model allows people to turn an activity they enjoy into a way to support a cause. Bill Meyer, a Port Townsend attorney who specializes in estate planning, says his clients choose to support Children’s for other reasons. The life of one client’s granddaughter was saved by doctors at Seattle Children’s. A physician who had worked at Children’s was so impressed with the institution that he decided to leave part of his estate to the hospital.
Children’s clearly benefits from its stellar reputation for top-notch care and groundbreaking research. In the late 1980s, Mesaros notes, Swedish Medical Center rejected the advice of a consultant who suggested the hospital system add pediatric care to increase revenues. “We have one of the top children’s hospitals in the country,” Mesaros says. “There is no need for competing pediatric care. That’s how much respect Children’s had then and still has today.”
Erin Cordry is proud of the part she plays in making that care even better. In the past six years, her guild has raised nearly $2 million. In 2015 alone, the group contributed $500,000. Among the projects it helped fund was an approach that adds dyes to tumor cells to make it easier for surgeons to see what needs to be removed. That approach is now in clinical trials for children.
Cordry feels particularly good about giving back to an institution that saved the life of her son. Max is now 20 years old and in college. The family still gathers each year at the Run of Hope to reconnect with friends.
“That’s one thing we love most, actually,” Cordry relates. “It’s a place for kids and families battling or who have battled cancer to come.”
Even many families whose children were not saved attend the Run of Hope year after year to support the guild’s continuing effort. “It means a lot to them,” says Cordry. “They come for the community. They come to help other families avoid the pain they have been through. You can hardly call an event with 2,000 people cozy, but it is.”