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Making an Argument for a Narrower Focus in Charitable Donations

David Gould | Photographer's Choice RF | Getty Images

This is a time of year when solicitations for donations are coming at you from every direction, and for good reason: the end of the year is when people make most of their gifts to charity.

But these requests for money, from the checkout line to the mailbox, can pull well-intentioned people in too many directions and turn an act of generosity that should lift the spirits of the donor and help a worthy cause into another stressful obligation.

This onslaught and a story I was told this week — more about that later — got me thinking about the argument for focused giving, for picking an area that you care about and putting most of your philanthropic dollars into it. This is something my wife and I have done for many years and have found very rewarding: it has made us more knowledgeable, passionate and involved in the area we support.

Patrick Rooney, associate dean for academic affairs and research at Indiana University's School of Philanthropy, said he did not want to deter people from giving away their money however they wanted. But he added, "You're better off to target three, four or five charities and give larger gifts to a small number of charities as opposed to giving a large number of small checks."

Part of the reason is that a single larger gift could do more good. But that was not the only benefit. "From the recipient organization's perspective, having a gift from $1, $100, $1,000, to $100 million, there are some transaction costs," Mr. Rooney said. "You've got to book it, deposit it, acknowledge the donor and cultivate the donor for future gifts. If you have a lot of checks for $5 and $10, you have a lot of transaction costs for a relatively small gift."

The other side of this debate is equally valid: it's your money, and if you want to give a little bit to 27 different groups, that's your choice. As Melissa Berman, president and chief executive of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers, told me: "Philanthropy is voluntary. When someone tells you how your money is supposed to be used and in what proportion, that's called a tax."

I can appreciate both sides. But I spent this week talking to a group of people focused on one cause — breast cancer research. Their desire to support this cause, which has had great success, made an interesting argument for being more selective with donations. Here's the story.

The Lunch

Addressing about two dozen women over lunch in late November, Leonard A. Lauder, chairman emeritus of Este Lauder, told how he had bought his wife, Evelyn, a piece of jewelry every time she finished a round of chemotherapy and they thought she was better.

Mrs. Lauder, who learned she had breast cancer in 1987 and survived it, started the Breast Cancer Research Foundation in 1993, with the goal of raising funds for research that would eradicate the disease. Last year, she died of ovarian cancer.

A few weeks before she died, Mr. Lauder said, he found her standing in their kitchen one night wearing a ring he had bought her.

"She said, 'I'll never have a chance to wear this ring. so I'm wearing it tonight,' " Mr. Lauder told me. "When she died, I had all this jewelry. I didn't feel right giving it to someone. I thought, 'What should I do with the jewelry?' "

He decided to auction it off and give all the money to the foundation. He said he got Sotheby's to waive the commission it charges sellers so that any money raised would go to a new fund at the foundation to focus on the genetic links between different types of cancers.

Among those in the audience of prospective bidders that day was Cindy Citrone. Mrs. Citrone's mother and father died of cancer, and she is active in various cancer charities in Connecticut, where she lives. She also sits on the board of visitors of M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Cancer charities are something she and her husband, Rob, who runs a hedge fund, support in many different ways.

She was moved by Mr. Lauder's account of how he wanted his gifts to his wife to be passed on as part of a continuing contribution to the fight against cancer. "After hearing him tell this story of love and the legacy of joy," she said, "I came home and wanted to be part of it."

But until that day, she had not been involved with the foundation. She had learned about the lunch only a day earlier from Meredith Israel, who in 2009, at age 35, received a diagnosis of breast cancer that had spread throughout her body.

Ms. Israel became a tireless advocate for breast cancer research, and the two women became friends after meeting at a fund-raiser three years ago. Recently, Ms. Israel stopped her own treatment, resigned to the progression of her illness. "Meredith has always talked a lot about this foundation," Mrs. Citrone told me. "This is her favorite foundation. She liked that 91 cents of every dollar goes to research."

The Auction

A week after that lunch, in the first week of December, Mrs. Citrone registered for what she said was her first auction. She ended up buying two pieces — a small, pink-diamond ring and diamond bracelet that had the word "love" written on it in rubies. Sotheby's said the two pieces cost $425,000.

"We're very blessed that we can purchase jewelry like this," she said. "At some point, we want to auction it back off so it continues to serve the cause."

The auction of Mrs. Lauder's jewelry raised $19.1 million, all of which will go into a fund in her name that will expand the foundation's mission into longer-term research. The foundation, committed to giving away as much as it takes in, has no endowment. It makes about $40 million in grants each year and has supported the research of 197 scientists in 13 countries.

Myra Biblowit, its president, said the foundation was dependent on donors who gave regularly and generously. She said that without such focused donors, the foundation would not have been able to raise annual donations to $53 million this year, from $8 million when she joined 12 years ago.

Mr. Lauder, well known as a patron of the arts and a past chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, has concentrated on a few charities for many years. He said his focus had shifted to two charities — the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation, which he said was doing similar advanced research on drugs to prevent, treat and cure that disease, and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

"I'm focused on making sure her mission goes on and is accomplished," said Mr. Lauder, who stepped in as interim chairman when his wife died. "I didn't want to leave it undone. I wanted to focus on helping her mission go on."

The Impact

While I found this story touching, I had to ask the question: was there a way to measure the impact of so much concentrated giving to this charity?

Larry Norton, the foundation's scientific director and the deputy physician in chief for breast cancer programs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said the grants had led to many measurable advances in cancer treatment.

He said researchers working with funds from the foundation had identified many of the genetic receptors of breast cancer as well as abnormalities that allow cancer cells to divide and spread. The foundation contributed funds for many of the clinical trials of Herceptin, a breakthrough drug for a certain type of breast cancer.

The focus of its grants now is to look at the molecular similarities between breast cancer and other types of cancer, and why some cancers spread and others do not.

But Dr. Norton said the biggest advance had been to bring top scientists together and to provide them with funds, instead of specific projects that may or may not work. "All creativity comes from two things: freedom and security," he said. "We wanted them to take chances and do high-quality work."

That is something that will take a lot of money. Mr. Lauder said he, for one, intended to stay focused on it: "You can assume I'm going to be there."

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