How Purity of Purpose Keeps One Charity on Track

Fisher House provides housing for military and veteran families so that they can stay close to a loved one during an illness or while recovering from an injury at a military or V.A. facility. “At the heart of what we do is a network of 66 Fisher houses that provide a home away from home for the families of anyone treated in a supported hospital medical center with the military healthcare system. It can be everything from the many neonatal cases to those dealing with cancer at the other end of the spectrum,” said David Coker, president of the Fisher House Foundation.

Fisher Houses are intended to be homey and inviting in times of stress. The houses can have up to 21 suites. All have private bedrooms and baths. The common areas include kitchens, laundry, dining and living rooms. Families do not get charged for their stays. Since the program began in 1990, it has saved families an estimated $282 million for lodging and transportation through its Hero Miles Program. Fisher House has benn much appreciated, because “military families don’t have large balances in the bank,” Coker said. He sees the people he assists as ambassadors for the foundation, “We’ve helped 26,000 families this year, and those people tell a story about how, 'When I needed help, this organization was there.'”

The foundation was established 25 years ago by Brooklyn native Zachary Fisher, a prominent New York real estate developer who was prevented from serving in World War II due to a leg injury. Instead, he applied his energy and expertise to constructing coastal fortifications. His involvement with military nonprofits included founding the Intrepid Museum Foundation, which saved the historic aircraft carrier Intrepid from the scrap heap, and supporting the families of the victims of the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut. “Zach Fisher built the first 20-plus houses with a personal check, which is why the program carries his name," Coker said. "When he passed away in 1999, the foundation took over.” Coker has worked for the nonprofit for close to 22 years, following more than 15 years in the Medical Service Corps of the U.S. Army.

Fisher House Foundation occupies an unusual and very specific niche, and Coker says that the key to its success is staying laser-focused on its added value. “You can’t be all things to all people, so find out what you do that sets yourself apart. As we got bigger and more successful, we faced a tremendous pull and tremendous desire to do anything and everything now that we made it.” Yet, the foundation did not waver in its orientation. “There is something to be said for purity of purpose, and therefore defining what your role is going to be. I don’t think you’re going to be successful if you do the same thing as six or seven organizations, so figure out what your focus is, what your core mission is and focus on that.”

One reason for mission drift in organizations is that they often feel they have no choice but to broaden their mandates in pursuit of funding. So how does Fisher House's focus on doing one thing well translate to fundraising? Coker admits, “I hate to give away my secrets.” But with Inside Philanthropy, he parted the curtain. “Foundations and individuals are the largest sources of funding,” he said, primarily due to the “recommendation of people familiar with our services.” He attributes good word of mouth to the cohesiveness of not only military families, but military units. “So every time we help somebody, they are sharing it three to four times over.”

One of the foundation’s major backers is Newman’s Own Foundation, which we just profiled the other day on IP. Newman’s Own’s became interested as it entered into the defense commissary system, the military’s grocery store. The foundation asked its contact there what military charities it might support and heard about Fisher House. Corker recalled: "We got a phone call, and Newman’s Own said ‘Would you take money?’ And we said ‘Yes we are in that business.’ It is a relationship that has just blossomed. In addition to their giving great support to our capital program, we’re now working together on a program called the Newman’s Own Awards.”

The two foundations have partnered with Military Times (Gannett Government Media Corporation) to grant $200,000 “to the most creative military quality-of-life improvement plans.” Organizations can get up to $50,000 in funding. The program will open for proposals again in late January 2016. “It serves several purposes. It gives us recognition, because they’re submitting to us, and if somebody is submitting an idea to you, you are a leader. It is also a way to educate the senior leadership of the military about some of the tremendous ideas that are going on in their communities that they wouldn’t be aware of otherwise, so it really is a win-win,” Coker said.

Although it doesn’t usually hold galas to raise money, Fisher House recently had one for its 25th anniversary. The keynote speaker was Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Meanwhile, a far more distinctive fundraising strategy is the foundation's Hero Miles Program, which gives people the opportunity to donate frequent flyer miles for military families travel to visit their loved ones for free. “We’re just shy of 60,000 trips,” Coker said.

The foundation is pulling fundraising levers, too. “We’ve had a tremendous increase in bequests.” Coker has also seen a large growth in in memoriam giving: “People who stayed at Fisher House appreciate that we touched their lives in a stressful time. After the fact, in lieu of flowers, people ask that the gifts be made to us.”

Coker attributes much of this increase in donations to making it easy for people to support the foundation through online giving, “But we do not market. We don’t do direct mail. I don’t like receiving it so why would I send it to you?” Coker said.