Lining the walls of the office of Joe Lake, the new CEO of the Starfish Television Network, a 501(c) (3) public charity and television network founded in 2006 and headquartered in Midvale, are pictures of the many celebrities he has worked with.
There are pictures of Joe with Goldie Hawn, Sidney Poitier, Jeff Bridges, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Rob Lowe and Walter Cronkite, and affectionately-autographed publicity stills from Bob Hope and Rich Little.
It’s something you’d expect in the office of a Hollywood agent, or at a celebrity hangout in Manhattan, or Chicago or Vegas. But the Starfish Television Network, whose mission is to tell the stories of nation’s nonprofits in a way that educates, entertains and inspires its audience by airing television and video programming for and about the nation’s nonprofits, isn’t in any of those places.
It’s not in Los Angeles or even Atlanta. It’s in Midvale, Utah. And while he grew up in Salt Lake City and lives in Draper, Utah, Joe Lake is no Zelig sneaking into all those pictures.
Along with Mick Shannon, the Osmond family and actor John Schneider, Lake was a co-founder at Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) more than 25 years ago and spent many years in executive positions there before retiring in 1998. Since its founding, CMN has generated more than $3.4 billion for children’s hospitals in the United States and Canada.
That’s big-boy money, to be sure. To give some perspective, last year CMN raised more than $300 million, about what Utah tech superstar Omniture grossed in 2008.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are “no second acts in American lives.” That’s because he didn’t know Joe Lake.
Since his time at CMN, Joe’s retirement has basically had two speeds: Fast and faster. Joe Lake was, for instance, the guy who helped Larry King grow the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, built up its board, broadened its fund-raising approach and then left it in the hands of other professional managers.
So a few minutes before he walked The New York Times bestselling author and Starfish supporter Andy Andrews into an interview on Good Morning America, I put a number of questions to Joe about Starfish, nonprofit fundraising in a recession, and how companies and nonprofits can help each other out in these tough economic times.
You were on the board at Starfish. What induced you to take the CEO job?
“I wasn’t looking for a full-time position and certainly wasn’t ready to take on a CEO role. When I was asked to serve as chairman of the advisory board, I said yes because it was a great concept— the nation’s first charity channel— and because I went back with the founder and other staff to the early years of Children’s Miracle Network. We all worked the Children’s Miracle Network telethons together. Over the course of that year or so as board chair, I saw amazing things happen — getting a channel on DISH, receiving programming from hundreds of nonprofit organizations, a start in original programming. As the board of trustees decided to move forward in this third year, they asked me to come in as CEO. One of the biggest reasons I said yes was this: If we could do what we did for Children’s Miracle Network with just a 21-hour telethon once a year, then how much good could we do with 24 hours 7 days a week of airtime?”
Starfish has a really big mission, doesn’t it?
“Starfish Television Network is the nation’s first charity channel. We are dedicated solely to bringing you programming which can make the world a better place for all of us. We want to bring stories of organizations and individuals that are making a difference, in their communities and around the world. There is so much good going on in the world — so many people giving their time, energy, resources — so many people who want to create a positive change in the world for themselves and future generations. Starfish shows those stories.”Starfish is now entering in its third year and has thereby already succeeded. What’s it going to take to get it to the next level?
“We really want to become a true network — not just in television terms but in terms of being a resource for our member organizations. We want to partner with them to help them get their message out and raise more money to do more good. We want to partner with organizations on original programming, provide fundraising ideas and new dollars, and collaborate on best practices. To take Starfish to the next level will require more funding, more sponsorship and more people. The more we can do, the more we can help.”More than 25 years ago you personally pitched Bill Marriott on the benefits of supporting a cause. In a sponsorship relationship, what can charities offer businesses that they can’t get elsewhere?
“The opportunity to have a third party acknowledge the social good works that corporate America does that goes unnoticed and unsung. In this season of tough economy, every company is looking for an edge, charity offers that advantage. I think the biggest thing to remember is that, all things being equal, consumers are more likely to select a brand that they see tied to cause. Use every available opportunity to recognize the support of sponsors.”I can’t think of another charity in the States that has a mission and capability to broadcast television the way Starfish does. The flip side is that Starfish can offer sponsors benefits they couldn’t get anywhere else, isn’t it?
“We can offer sponsors recognition with multiple and ongoing airings of programs on Starfish. For example, one organization has an eight-minute program about their mission and cause. Since receiving that program, it has aired 96 times. If that program were to be sponsored, a business would be tied permanently to that program. Therefore would have already been seen as ‘this program brought to you by XYZ’ nearly 100 times on a national network! If a business has a particular cause they want to align with, Starfish has programs to fill that need. If a business has a specific program they wish to sponsor, we can discuss that too. There are so many ways for businesses to show that they are good corporate citizens and that they care about making a positive difference. Really, where else on television would a program receive more than two to three airings total? Because of our mission, we are able to share messages and re-air programs at a higher frequency than other networks. In addition, while Starfish Television Network is not allowed to sell advertising time, we believe strongly in enhanced donor recognition. Depending on their level of support major sponsors of Starfish receive produced acknowledgements of their support several times each month, week and day. These announcements thank companies for their sponsorship and allow us to recognize them in the best possible public light for their support of not just one organization but all 500+ charities featured on Starfish.”The New York Times ran a story earlier this month about how the big fundraising galas are having hard time finding people to honor because the companies the honorees work for don’t have the money to spare. It’s pretty tough out there for nonprofits right now. You’ve been through recessions before as a fund-raiser. How does this one compare?
“You mention fund-raising galas. It’s true. Charities that do fund-raising galas need to approach them in a different way in these challenging times. The days of honoring a CEO or executive because their company will put up the bulk of the sponsorship money is thing of the past right now. These galas can still be done and can still be successful, however charities need to provide events that are more fun, maybe a unique experience, an event that can draw on attendance — not sponsorship or honorees —for funds raised. The key is to spend less and raise more. Work with vendors to underwrite the hard costs. Don’t pay celebrities for appearances and entertainment. It is possible to have a first class event without spending a ton of money. Recently, I was involved in a gala for St. Rose Dominican Hospitals in Las Vegas. It was their 52nd Annual Mardi Gras Ball. Despite the economic challenges, we saw their attendance double and they raised over $1 million.”You keep a file of fundraising ideas for nonprofits that have crossed your desk, cite one or two that you think would be perfect for right now.
“You want to make the ‘ask’ easy on the donor as well as the person asking. Most of Children’s Miracle Network’s money was raised one dollar at a time, from selling Miracle Balloons paper icons or grass roots fundraising. Work with your sponsors on getting their employees and the community involved. Do just ask them for money. The key with paper icons is to ask, every person, every time. You’ll get a lot of ‘noes’ but you’ll be surprised at the ‘yeses.’”Anything else you’d care to add?
In 1982, when Mick Shannon, Marie Osmond, John Schneider and I launched Children’s Miracle Network, we often encountered people asking why someone hadn’t thought of this idea before. Well, in 2009, Starfish Television Network is in the same position. People constantly ask me, ‘Why hasn’t this been done before?’ I don’t know, but I’m sure glad they didn’t.”