From its popular galas to exclusive surveys, the evolving nonprofit leans heavily on comms
The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, the nonprofit dedicated to drawing awareness to finding a cure for paralysis, is currently in celebration mode. The Senate recently passed the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Act, which will help effectuate research and quality-of-life programs.
“Getting that passed has been part of our overall communications plan,” says Maggie Goldberg, SVP of marketing and communications. “[A quality-of-life program is] one of those things you don't think about if you don't need it, but truthfully, everyone now knows someone who's living with paralysis.”
Advocacy, including outreach connected with stem-cell research and fundraising, is a key focus area for the organization, alongside quality-of-life programs and research.
The organization has come a long way since 2006, when people questioned if the foundation could survive following the death of Dana Reeve, two years after her husband passed.
“Since the deaths of our founders, a lot of our media strategy has been driven by crisis communications and by rebranding,” says Goldberg. “We've had two rebrandings since both their deaths.”
Christopher Reeve, the actor best known for playing Superman, became the face and the driving force of the nonprofit, originally known as the American Paralysis Association, following a spinal cord injury.
“It's almost as though we worked backward in a sense,” says Goldberg. “We went from a small New Jersey-based organization to one that is world renowned. He brought the power of celebrity, which brought an increase in awareness and donations.”
Star power remains part of the organization's PR strategy with its annual “Making Magic Happen” gala. The event hosts A-list celebrities and friends of Reeve, such as Robin Williams and Meryl Streep.
“Our challenge is now to think about the next generation of people who won't remember Christopher Reeve,” explains Goldberg. “To engage this generation, we created the Committee of Champions.”
This committee, chaired by actress Angie Harmon and illusionist David Blaine, is a group of young professionals who want to support the cause. Actors serve as ambassadors.
Goldberg notes that Wilmer Valderrama's visit to a rehab hospital and wheelchair basketball game was covered by People. To launch the Chicago chapter last year, comedienne Chelsea Handler performed at the House of Blues, with all proceeds going to the organization. The nonprofit also organizes an athletic fundraising program, Team Reeve.
Stars put a face to these issues, but the organization is reaching out to interested parties and advocates in a direct way, including through the relaunch of its Web site in September 2008.
“What we're most excited about this year is we are going to announce the results of our Paralysis Population Survey,” Goldberg says. “[It's] the largest population-based sample regarding disability that we're aware of.”
The results of the survey will be revealed at a press conference in March. A PR campaign will support the announcement.
The organization is working with Ketchum, its new AOR, to create its 2009 strategy, and leverage media relations and its past experience with its healthcare provider network. The agency began its work on December 1, 2008.
“It's really humbling,” says Amy Losak, SVP of healthcare at Ketchum. “This is an organization with such an important history and vision... It's a true partnership.”
The agency has worked with Susan Blond in the past on a project basis, particularly in generating buzz for “Making Magic Happen.”
“We had amazing placements,” says Jaime Cassavechia, VP at Susan Blond. “The celebs [get] involved and [are] very passionate.”
Other partners include Turner Strategies, which will help with the upcoming survey; La-grant Communications for Hispanic outreach; and IW Group for Asian-facing initiatives.
“This foundation has always appreciated and understood PR,” says Goldberg, “to the point, where budgets have always been directed there. I'm very fortunate to work at a company where there is that value.”
At a glance
Organization: Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation
President: Peter Wilderotter
Headquarters: Short Hills, NJ
Key trade titles: The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Fundraising Success, The Wall Street Journal, New Mobility
Comms budget: $250,000
Maggie Goldberg, SVP of marcomms;
Rob Gerth, online comms manager;
Julie Lubinsky, senior Web producer;
Priti Mehta, director of community outreach programs