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Most Americans know St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital through television advertisements featuring Hollywood celebrities asking for contributions or the millions of fundraising appeals that regularly arrive in mailboxes across the country.
But a select group of potential donors is targeted in a more intimate way. Representatives of the hospital’s fundraising arm visit their homes; dine with them at local restaurants; send them personal notes and birthday cards; and schedule them for “love calls.”
What makes these potential donors so special? They told St. Jude they were considering leaving the hospital a substantial amount in their wills. Once the suggestion was made, specialized fundraisers set a singular goal: build relationships with the donors to make sure the money flows to the hospital after their deaths.
The intense cultivation of these donors is part of a strategy that has helped St. Jude establish what may be the most successful charitable bequest program in the country. In the most recent five-year period of reported financial results, bequests constituted $1.5 billion, or 20%, of the $7.5 billion St. Jude raised in those years. That amount, both in terms of dollars and as a percentage of fundraising, far outpaces that raised by other leading children’s hospitals and charities generally.
While a financial boon to St. Jude, the hospital’s pursuit has led to fraught disputes with donors’ family members and allegations that it goes too far in its quest for bequests.
St. Jude is a major research center with a 73-bed hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, that primarily treats kids from the Mid-South. Its bequest operation has a broad reach, with fundraisers based across the nation and a willingness to challenge families in court over the assets their loved ones leave behind. These battles can sometimes be lengthy and costly, spending donor money on litigation and diminishing inheritances. Family attorneys who specialize in such fights say that St. Jude can be especially aggressive, often pursuing cases all the way to state supreme courts.
“At the end of it, there is very little to hold on to feel good about,” said Vance Lanier, of Lafayette, Louisiana, who won a yearslong legal battle with St. Jude over his father’s estate but not before both sides spent heavily on the case.
“Think of all the fees for lawyers that didn’t go to St. Jude, not one child, not one cancer patient,” Lanier said. “Where is the sanity in all this?”
The nonprofit even courts those who aid in estate planning and drawing up wills, sponsoring conferences where attorneys, financial advisers and estate …….