Most Americans have probably heard of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. St. Jude fundraising letters arrive in mailboxes from coast to coast. Yet it’s a safe guess that considerably fewer could say what it does. St. Jude is one of America’s most remarkable healthcare charities. Since its founding 50 years ago, St. Jude has helped to push survival rates for catastrophic childhood cancers from 20 percent to about 80 percent—in a child-friendly atmosphere and without charging families for treatment.
“I give to St. Jude for the simple fact that their sole commitment is the cure of all diseases afflicting children,” says Tom Dunbar, an asset manager in Louisville, Kentucky. Dunbar’s son Evan was treated at St. Jude but died of neuroblastoma in 2001 at age six. “This commitment and their success have saved and greatly improved the lives of millions of children and their families, but they realize they have more to cure.” He donates about $100,000 per year to the hospital that once treated his ailing child.
The hospital was conceived when a Lebanese-American actor entered a Catholic church in Detroit. He had a young family to support and was struggling to find work. “Help me find my way in life,” he prayed to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes, “and I will build you a shrine where the poor and the helpless and the hopeless may come for comfort and aid.”
The actor was Danny Thomas, and his star soon began to rise—he became a radio, TV, and movie celebrity in the ’40s and ’50s. As his fame grew, he pursued his idea for a shrine to St. Jude. But he couldn’t do it alone, so Thomas enlisted the help of people with similar heritage. That effort became known in 1957 as the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), which is the fundraising arm of St. Jude. Together, ALSAC and Thomas raised enough money to open the hospital in 1962.
The hospital is now America’s third-largest healthcare charity and the 15th largest charity overall, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. ALSAC raises upward of $750 million every year. Operating the hospital costs about $1.7 million per day, and 81 cents of every dollar ALSAC collects goes toward research and treatment. David McKee, ALSAC’s chief operating officer, says that 74 percent of St. Jude’s budget comes from donations. (Most hospitals derive about 8–10 percent of their budgets from charitable giving.) “The rest of [our income] comes from insurance recovery and research grants,” he explains.
One of Thomas’ first priorities was to ensure no one would be turned away because of an inability to pay for services. “When I first thought about the hospital, I wanted there to be a rule that no one would ever ask families about race, creed, color, or ability to pay before their children could be admitted to St. Jude,” Thomas once said. “I have no patience with hospitals that want a lot of numbers from people before they start treating them.” That rule is honored today. St. Jude collects what it can from insurance, and no family is ever sent a bill for a child’s care. St. Jude also provides, at no charge, prescriptions, medical supplies, travel to and from Memphis, and family lodging while a patient is being treated.
All of the children treated at St. Jude—7,800 per year—are enrolled in a clinical research study. St. Jude patients are therefore more likely to have rare diseases or cancers that are harder to treat. These investigations yield fresh treatments for once-deadly illnesses. The clinical studies done at St. Jude have helped to instigate the dramatic increases in childhood cancer survival rates that have taken place in the U.S. over the last generation (see graph below).
U.S. Survival Rates for Selected Childhood Cancers
The hospital’s success rates aren’t the only thing that draws supporters. The cheerful and child-friendly environment, where walls are painted with bright colors, and bald toddlers race around on tricycles, is also part of its appeal. St. Jude has “captured my heart and mind,” says Mary Wardrop, a retired math professor from Monroe, Louisiana. “The loving, curative care of the children who come for help, and their families, is touching. The research that identifies the causes for the various illnesses, and the transition from that research to cures, is intellectually stimulating for me.” Although she started giving small amounts in 2000, Wardrop made her first serious donation—$50,000—in 2003. Since then, she has given a total of about $260,000, including three charitable annuities.
The average gift to St. Jude is about $30. The hospital’s biggest fundraising vehicle by far is a direct-mail pledge program called Partners in Hope. The next-largest fundraiser is the Danny Thomas Society, a planned giving program. After that come more than 34,000 regional events and programs each year, such as Up ’til Dawn on more than 300 college campuses nationwide and the Country Cares radiothon.
A more recent addition to St. Jude’s stable of fundraising vehicles is the annual Thanks & Giving campaign begun in 2004 by Thomas’ children, Marlo, Terre, and Tony Thomas. It raises millions for the hospital between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
As St. Jude’s founder once said, “I’d rather have a million people give me a dollar than one give me a million. That way you’ve got a million people involved.”
Lindsay Jones is a reporter for the Memphis Flyer and Memphis magazine.