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Myra Biblowit, the president of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, and Larry Nortan, the scientific adviser to the foundation, in New York, Dec. 20, 2012. Biblowit says the foundation was dependent on donors who gave regularly and generously.

Suzanne Dechillo, New York Times

Narrowing charitable giving can lead to a bigger payoff

  • Article by: PAUL SULLIVAN
  • New York Times
  • December 29, 2012 - 3:19 PM

Solicitations for donations are coming at you from every direction, especially this time of year.

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 got me thinking about the argument for focused giving, for picking an area you care about and putting most of your philanthropic dollars into it.

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," 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.

I can appreciate both sides. But I spent this month 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 Lauder, chairman emeritus of Estée 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.

Evelyn 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, Leonard 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,'" he 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. Her mother and father died of cancer. She was moved by Leonard 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."

THE AUCTION: A week later, 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.

The auction of Evelyn 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.

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.

Leonard Lauder has concentrated on a few charities for many years. He said his focus had shifted to two charities -- the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

THE IMPACT: I wondered if there was a way to measure the impact of so much concentrated giving to this charity.

Larry Norton, the cancer 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.

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