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Award-Winning Program Brings Thousands of Smiles

By Tom Watson on October 10, 2008No Comment

Can you begin by telling our readers a little bit about Operation Smile?

Operation Smile was founded in 1982 by Dr. William P. Magee Jr., a plastic surgeon, and his wife, Kathleen Magee, a nurse and clinical social worker.  Operation Smile, headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia, is a worldwide children’s medical charity whose network of global volunteers is dedicated to helping improve the health and lives of children and young adults. Since its founding, Operation Smile volunteers have treated more than 120,000 children born with cleft lips, cleft palates and other facial deformities. Currently, volunteers are working in 51 countries around the world. In addition to contributing free medical treatment, Operation Smile trains local medical professionals in its partner countries and leaves behind crucial equipment to lay the groundwork for long-term self-sufficiency.

For over 25 years, Operation Smile has made its mission to ensure that every child in the world is given a chance to smile.  In doing so, their programs are effectively changing the face of healthcare for the poor and disadvantaged worldwide.

Through our mission and goals, Operation Smile has created a lasting legacy of partnership, sustainable and achievable healthcare, and is spreading the spirit of volunteerism and collaboration which has become so critical in this time of increasing global challenges.

The Direct Marketing Association’s Nonprofit Federation recently recognized Operation Smile with its 2008 Nonprofit of the Year award for your use of direct-response marketing.  What fundraising initiatives have you implemented in recent years that the DMANF was particularly impressed with?    

Operation Smile’s DRTV shows, along with our integrated direct mail and online programs, have enabled rapid growth of the organization’s donor database.  From 2002, Operation Smile has seen file growth of over 1000%.

The launch of our first DRTV show in late 2003, in partnership with Russ Reid, dramatically changed the way we did business by enabling us to present a tangible expression of how a donor’s gift could truly change a life.  We told the story of how our teams of professional medical volunteers from 56 countries around the globe share their time and talent to help thousands of children that they may never meet again, bringing a positive message to humanity and spreading the spirit of volunteerism; and how we build sustainability by training local volunteer medical teams, creating private and public partnerships ensuring that surgeries can take place year round.

Which one has been most successful for your organization?

Integration of all our direct response initiatives has been the key to our growth.  In November, 2007 we embarked on a multi-faceted series of initiatives culminating with the World Journey of Smiles, where over 4,000 children received free cleft lip or cleft palate surgery conducted through 40 simultaneous medical missions in 25 countries during a 10-day period.  A highly targeted World Journey of Smiles direct response campaign using all media channels with a targeted and consistent message increased awareness and media attention, raising funds to support the campaign and beyond.

Why do you think this strategy resonated so much with donors? 

Several months prior to the World Journey of Smiles event, Operation Smile set out to actively engage donors by sending targeted appeals, including some that allowed donors to send a personal message and gift to a child receiving a new smile on the World Journey of Smiles.  This innovative campaign using direct response yielded such overwhelming awareness, response and a desire for donor involvement that it has become a model for upcoming campaigns.  Moreover, the programmatic achievement made possible by this fundraising effort has spearheaded Operation Smile to greatly expand our growth plans.
What has Operation Smile been able to achieve through the increased revenue that has come in through your direct marketing efforts? 

The success of the direct response program has helped to create a strong sustainable base of donors for Operation Smile that has enabled us to treat thousands more children across the world, to build comprehensive care centers in 7 countries with plans for many more, to train thousands of local doctors and nurses, and to further our position as a key contributor and advocate in the wider movement to address the issue of surgery as a global public health priority.

Why do you think direct-marketing fundraising is such an integral tool in a nonprofit’s development operation?  Are there challenges in this type of fundraising? 

Direct-marketing fundraising is an extremely important part of a nonprofit’s development activities.  This type of fundraising allows the nonprofit to reach out to a mass market of individuals they would never have access to otherwise.  It allows for tremendous brand awareness and, properly executed, provides a foundation for long-term sustainable revenue.  

Nonprofit organizations face some key challenges in the world of direct-marketing fundraising: 
- ensuring that the correct infrastructure is in place to maximize results
- dealing with budget constraints
- constantly struggling to balance investment in testing new acquisition opportunities (and the impact of this investment on fundraising ratios) with short-term revenue objectives
- minimizing donor attrition and maximizing the life time value of donors     
What advice would you give nonprofits that are looking to expand and diversify their direct marketing programs? 

Diversifying and integrating your fundraising activity will create a more balanced and effective development portfolio for long-term revenue sustainability. 

Build strong relationships with your vendors – develop strategic partners that are committed to your vision and work with you, rather than for you.  Focus on key elements that are essential to a successful DR program including: a commitment to “donor first” principles at every donor touch point, ensuring database quality, and providing comprehensive training on your mission, objectives and goals to all those associated with the program.

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