Will Phil Knight's Cancer Challenge Hurt Oregon Charities?

Local nonprofits are pursuing huge fundraising goals. Will they all make the finish line?

By Nena Baker June 2, 2014 Published in the June 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Even on the YouTube video, you can hear the gasps and mid-sip snorts of wine. Last September, at a gala fundraiser for the cancer-research center that already bears his name, Nike cofounder Phil Knight threw down a challenge: if Oregon Health & Science University can raise $500 million, he and wife Penny will match every penny. 

The catch? OHSU must hit the goal in two years. “If the campaign raises $499 million, we are relieved of our pledge,” Knight deadpanned to laughter. Then, the 76-year-old sneaker tycoon turned serious, as the room rose to a standing ovation. “Is there a higher calling than curing cancer?”

Perhaps not. But right now, as OHSU runs its sprint for Knight’s half-billion, at least 100 other nonprofit organizations in Oregon and Southwest Washington are also raising money in major campaigns, according to a 2014 survey by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. From Portland State University to the Oregon Food Bank to the Portland Japanese Garden, our region’s nonprofits are either chasing or planning to pursue at least $2.5 billion (not including what’s become known as the Knight Cancer Challenge). Reality check: giving to Oregon nonprofits hovers around $1.5 billion annually, ranking us 20th nationwide in charitable donations as a percent of median discretionary income. 

So will the Knights’ challenge and OHSU’s frantic effort to meet it push everyone else to the back of the line? Optimism and worries both abound. The Knight Challenge could inspire new donors and prove that Portland’s small circle of usual donor suspects—every fundraising pro can find their way to Arlene Schnitzer’s office blindfolded—can dig even deeper. 

“It’s natural to think that if one organization gets more that it will take away from others,” said nonprofit consultant Aggie Sweeney, chief executive officer of the Collins Group in Seattle. “The real opportunity here is to understand the amount that donors have to give is not a set amount.”

But if the giving proves finite, smaller organizations—those that live or die on five-figure donations—could prove vulnerable. “It’s Pollyannaish to think that we’re not in a competitive marketplace for donor support,” observed Portland fundraising consultant Kevin Johnson, principal at Retriever Development Counsel. “We all swim in the same waters.” 

In the challenge’s first six months, OHSU mustered 3,700 donors from 47 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada for a total of $86 million—17 percent of the needed amount. The Oregon Legislature added another 40 percent with its fast-track, near-unanimous passage of $200 million in bonds for OHSU. But the real search is just getting started. Unlike Washington, where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alone granted $3.2 billion in 2012, Oregon lacks both deep-pocketed foundations and high-net-worth individuals. A pro-bono advertising campaign under development by Wieden & Kennedy should help. But two years is a blip in the typical multiyear structure of major fundraising initiatives. Most campaigns rarely “go public” until 80 or 90 percent of the money is in hand. Knight fired the starter pistol before OHSU even braced its feet in the blocks. 

Dr. Joe Robertson, OHSU president, acknowledges that for a regional nonprofit community with constant cravings, the challenge is “very much a disruptive event.” It even shook up the OHSU Foundation, which quickly redeployed 25 of its 115 staffers to work full-time on the effort. But the 100-meter-sprint strategy he sees as pure Knight genius. “To his credit, Phil quite strategically created a sense of urgency around this effort that we think will help us get the job done.” 

Beyond Oregon, Knight’s timing looks promising as a new gilded age of giving emerges. The Gateses, Warren Buffett, Paul Allen, and more than 100 other billionaires have promised to earmark more than half their fortunes to their chosen causes. Knight’s pledge could raise both OHSU’s and Oregon’s profile to those donors. But the impact locally is so far being measured in smaller but significant acts.  

At Hoffman Construction, President Wayne Drinkward challenged the company’s employee-shareholders to raise $250,000 for OHSU’s effort, to be matched by the company. Drinkward personally promised $500,000 to match his whole team’s giving.

Leveraging donations appealed to Drinkward’s sensibilities as both a businessman (Hoffman has completed $402 million in OHSU buildings) and an Oregonian. “We live in a populist and progressive place, so if I can put in more and you can put in something and we can get it done, then we all feel good.” To Drinkward’s surprise, the employees raised $361,000, which the company then matched for a total of $722,000. Drinkward stepped up to an increased personal match. The anticipated contribution of $1 million became $1.44 million. “They stuck it to me,” he said, “so we could all stick it to Phil.”

Those working to fund Oregon’s other high callings will have to see if Knight’s bigger stick means a sharper short end.

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