Make sure you’re not overlapping a service that already exists. There was a lot of research involved in making sure that there wasn’t an organization like The Christopher Smith Foundation out there. There’s a lot of for-profit groups that deal with caregivers, but we were shocked to find out how little support there is for them, like next to none. Particularly, how little support there is for caregivers of people with intellectual disabilities.
For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Linda Smith.
Author, speaker and non-profit consultant, Linda Smith is recognized as a fundraising icon within the Las Vegas community and across the globe. After 38 years of leading one of the largest and well-known non-profit organizations in Las Vegas, Smith launched a consulting business in 2016 as a way to connect donors with deserving charities, while providing visionary ideas and various fundraising approaches for non-profits. Inspired by her eldest son, Smith was led to establish The Christopher Smith Foundation in her son’s name, and author her debut memoir, “Unwanted” and its companion book, “Confessions of a Sin City Fundraiser,” which launches January 2022.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
The birth of my son Christopher changed the trajectory of my life. I was an entertainer and dancer; was probably going to end up on television or stage, doing commercials. Then Chris was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome. That’s when I found out about all of the inequities that existed for people who were marginalized in the world. This led me down this path of trying to do something to make the world better for people like my son, Chris.
Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.
A couple of character traits most instrumental to my success are perseverance and making something out of nothing, or out of what you are given. I had a tough upbringing and had to overcome some pretty awful things as a child, like having a father who was a sexual predator and being homeless for a while. I learned that if I didn’t get out there and do things myself, things wouldn’t happen. I became a self-taught dancer because I couldn’t afford dance lessons. I couldn’t just accept the bad things that came along, so I had to try harder and kick things into motion myself. We encounter or experience things that change the trajectory of our life; hopefully, for the positive, but for some people, it has the opposite effect. You have to grow from deep within and decide the life path you’ll take. This worked for me over the years, especially when I would start a project. I’d have my eyes fixed, not on the finish line, but past the finish line. What does that look like once we get past the finish line? This helped me to be very creative and very successful as a fundraiser.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
Since starting the Christopher Smith Foundation, and even when I first joined the nonprofit industry, I found that people are generous at heart and give because they are asked. My mantra in fundraising always is, the number one reason people give is because they were asked. Don’t consider a ‘No’ as a final answer when you’re making an ask for a contribution. It doesn’t necessarily mean a stern ‘No;’ maybe it’s ‘No, not now;’ or maybe it’s ‘No, that’s not the right amount;’ or maybe it’s ‘No, not you.’ You have to find a way around it so people and organizations can get what they’re looking for. People don’t just throw money when you ask them. You have to make a connection, a human connection and draw the donor to the cause to help them understand why there’s a need for their support. Large amounts of money have been contributed by people who potentially had no intention of giving a large gift until they met the person making the ask who connected them to the cause.
I think this is an American thing or a North American thing because I remember talking to a guy in South America and the concept of volunteerism was unfathomable to him. He was like, “What do you mean people will actually work for free? They will do something and not get paid?” and I’m like, “yeah, that’s what volunteerism is.” It is interesting to me that it’s not natural in many societies to help other people.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
As a fundraiser and nonprofit leader, I’m making an impact every time I have a conversation with somebody about people with disabilities because that’s what I’m the most passionate about. There’s so much need in the world and if we can connect people to a cause and show them that their contribution does make a difference, you can make the world a kinder and better place. The more conversations I have, the more I think I can educate people about needs and help them understand that we all require assistance from somewhere.
As a nonprofit consultant, I talk to nonprofit leaders and development professionals and help them understand the importance of their work, that they can’t think small, and it’s not an option to not succeed. Teaching those skills to nonprofit leaders, development professionals, or people starting out in the field, that’s where I can make an impact — by sharing the stories and sharing the success. If I was able to raise half a billion dollars for one Las Vegas charity that no one knew about when I got there, then it’s possible for other organizations to do the same or to do more if they just think bigger and stay focused on the mission and their cause.
As a mom of a child with a disability, I was a lifetime caregiver. With Christopher being my first child, I had to learn how to meet his needs and what it took to raise him in a world with laws in place that were against him. As a parent, you look to your child and hope for their success. But when you have a child with a disability, that’s not always the case. They are always going to need you and your support. The Christopher Smith Foundation was created to say “thank you” to those families and give them a little gift of appreciation and support to let them know that people understand the commitment they have. And then comes along these wonderful people who chose a vocation of being a caregiver or a program manager. They’re rarely paid very much but they’re very appreciated. So, as an extension to saying thank you to families of those with disabilities, the Christopher Smith Foundation provides support and shows its thanks to caregivers, nurses, and doctors who take care of us all. Each time we provide a gift of support, we’re making an impact.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
The Christopher Smith Foundation is a legacy to my son. Had he not been born, I don’t know what my life would have been like. I can’t imagine that I would have been this passionate advocate for people with disabilities. So I feel like there’s a reason Christopher was born to me, and when he passed I wanted to pay tribute to him. He was this special guy who changed my life and because of him, hundreds of millions of dollars were raised in support of kids and families like him. I just didn’t want that to stop; I want his name to live on and his legacy to continue.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
Over the years, there have just been so many individuals and families who have benefitted from my initiatives. To this day, I still receive messages from people who say that they are very grateful that I was able to do what I did for the cause of disability. Many of the families at Opportunity Village, the organization where I spent nearly 40 years as the lead fundraiser, are so very, very grateful. With the Christopher Smith Foundation, it might be a hundred-dollar gift, but it means the world to someone, especially the acknowledgment that somebody recognizes that what they’re doing is special. I recently spoke with a woman who spent her career in the field as a culinary program director for people with disabilities. She said the impact of my reaching out to recognize her with a gift from the Christopher Smith Foundation meant more to her than any promotion she got. It was that acknowledgment out of the blue, that kind of surprise of “I see you and I appreciate you, and want to say thank you.”
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
There are many ways society can address our root cause of supporting caregivers and families of those with disabilities including making connections, sharing the mission, and volunteering.
Make a Connection: Connect with nonprofits or companies that work with and support caregivers and families of those with disabilities. When you make a connection to these organizations, you’re not only showing support but are letting them know that more people are becoming aware of their mission. Another way to make a connection is to donate. Whether it’s gift cards or money, you are helping them show caregivers and family members that they are appreciated and they deserve a little break to indulge in some self-care.
Share the Mission: Taking care of someone with a disability can be hard work and caregivers and families deserve to be supported with a thank you or through public acknowledgments. Whether it be talking about how hard caregivers and families work; sharing social media posts of organizations that work with and support caregivers and families of those with disabilities; or creating or donating through Facebook fundraisers, you’re helping to spread awareness that more needs to be done to show appreciation for their hard work.
Become a Volunteer: Volunteering with a hospital or an organization to fill in for a parent or a caregiver is important. Caregivers and family members can spend hours on end taking care of a loved one. They deserve to have a break and know that someone has their back, especially if they are called away from their child’s or patient’s bedside or just need a quick break to grab a bite to eat or a breath of fresh air.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.
The epiphany for The Christopher Smith Foundation was when Chris was in the hospital one time. He’d been in quite a few times and family was always there with him 24/7; we just shared the load. His brother, dad, and I took eight-hour shifts and then relieved each other. One time, in the room next to us, there was another guy with Down syndrome and his elderly mom who was on her own. She had no one to relieve her. It just struck us how fortunate Christopher was that he had us and that there were three or four of us that could take turns sitting with him.
1 and 2. There has to be a need and a case for support.
When Chris was in the hospital, we noticed that parents had to go to work and couldn’t be there with their child, or a family member with Alzheimer’s and is calling out for help. There’s no one with them. After meeting the mother in the room next to Chris’s, my other son, Jason, said, “That’s what we need to do, mom. The Christopher Smith Foundation should be this organization that supports people like the lady in the room next to us.”
3. Make sure you’re not overlapping a service that already exists.
There was a lot of research involved in making sure that there wasn’t an organization like The Christopher Smith Foundation out there. There’s a lot of for-profit groups that deal with caregivers, but we were shocked to find out how little support there is for them, like next to none. Particularly, how little support there is for caregivers of people with intellectual disabilities.
4. Find your niche.
It’s all wrapped into one story really. Christopher was born with Down syndrome, and I was not going to let his life have no meaning. With kids like Chris, when they’re born — particularly around the time when Chris was born — they were considered undesirable people. They were the most neglected and misunderstood people in human history. I just couldn’t accept that. And to get to know people who are different from us, I think it’s just such a rewarding experience. If you’re in the store and you see an individual who obviously is different, just smile and say hi, and don’t look away. That was my whole experience, and it became my mission in life to try to change people’s perceptions of those with disabilities. So, I’m continuing to do that with the Christopher Smith Foundation.
5. Have dedicated volunteers, board members who believe in your cause.
Our Board of Directors basically started out with family who wanted to be part of the organization. Extended family and friends all wanted to be part of the board and are committed to supporting the mission of the Christopher Smith Foundation. In fact, most of the contributions for the Christopher Smith Foundation actually come from family and close friends.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
I don’t think anything’s changed with my definition of success since the pandemic. To me, success is when we all care for each other; we care about humankind in general. That didn’t change with the pandemic.
As a non-profit leader and fundraiser, success was typically tied to how many dollars you bring in. The more money that you raise, the more you can impact programs and affect change. But to me, it’s also about growing the number of individuals who become aware of the need. Maybe they’re not the biggest donor, but they’re still a donor. I always think about these world events that happen like the pandemic. Whenever these world events happen and it’s publicized on TV, it creates more donors because more people become aware of the situation and feel inclined to help. You see charitable ads on television that detail how horrific things are happening, and there’s a tendency for you to write a check and maybe it’s 5 dollars, 10 dollars, or the most that you could possibly give, but that ad has created a donor. Once you make that contribution, no matter the size, hopefully, you get a thank you and it feels good.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
To me, ‘No’ is just the beginning of a negotiation. They always say, “you know what the scariest word a fundraiser will hear?” And I say, “Yes,” because a quick yes means that you didn’t ask for enough. I’ve had that happen when I asked a donor for 5 million dollars, and I was really excited about that because it was a very big ask. Within the day, I had the yes. But instead of being jubilant, I’m thinking to myself, “I don’t think I asked enough. Should I have asked for 10 million? Maybe I would have gotten seven, but I asked for five and got it.” How do you handle rejection? Or a quick yes?
One particular situation stands out to me: One of the hotels in Las Vegas had been supporting the annual Concert of Love that I produced every year, with an annual 2,000 dollars contribution going back 35–40 years. But after 10 years of them giving the same gift, I received a rejection letter from them saying they weren’t going to donate anymore. I thought, “What the heck?” So, I called the executive office because I did not want to take that ‘no.’ When the person answered, I introduced myself and said, “I received a rejection letter, is that a mistake?” They said, “No, we’ve just made some changes. We’ve been giving to you for 10 years and just changed our giving and we’re looking at other things.” I went, “Oh, but this is the only time of year we come to you for support, and I budget for it because you’ve been giving every year.” They said, “Yeah, well, you’re not getting it this year.” And I knew they were getting irritated with me, so I asked, “I’m just a little lost on one thing. When our board meets, should I tell them that your hotel has dropped people with disabilities?” And they say, “Well, you don’t tell them that.” That person ended up talking to their higher-ups, and when I followed back up with them, I received a 4,000 dollars contribution so they didn’t look like bad guys in front of the board.
So, to me, a ‘No’ can be fun. It can be an opportunity to get out of your comfort zone. Fundraising is a lot of work and it’s not just a matter of asking of people, it’s a matter of developing relationships, nurturing those relationships, and saying ‘thank you’ over and over again. I did that with the hotel, and they eventually became a million-dollar donor. I could have lost them if I just accepted their rejection letter, but I didn’t.
Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit?
The first person who comes to my mind is the doctor who told me to put Chris in an institution and forget about him. You know, the naysayers and people who undervalue those with disabilities. I mean, I’ve shouted from the highest rooftop and have always been very vocal about what I do and why I do it.
Another person would probably be former-Vice President Hubert Humphrey who sponsored Chris’s path to citizenship, because we couldn’t get him into the country due to laws against people with disabilities. Chris was coming into the U.S. on six-month visas, and I had a group of people reach out to him because he had a Down syndrome daughter and was aware of what the families face. He was a kind man and was Chris’s sponsor right up until he passed away when Chris was seven. Had Humphrey not sponsored Chris, I don’t know what the outcome would have been. That was a big fight. He helped me and Chris, and by extension, helped me to grow Opportunity Village, which became a national model for disability organizations around the world, and eventually the Christopher Smith Foundation.
How can our readers follow your progress online?
Readers can visit http://www.christophersmithfoundation.org/ and follow us online on Facebook and Instagram.
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.