You could say David McKee was baptized by fire when he first joined ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in December 1977 as the new regional director of the Southeast Region in Atlanta.
He arrived his first day to find the building engulfed in flames, sparked by a fire at a neighboring deli.
“I pulled up and the fire trucks were there,” he said. “I had to call the national office and say, ‘Guess what? My office isn’t there.’”
He called his wife and told her he hoped he’d made the right decision. St. Jude at that time did not have the brand reputation it has today, but McKee believed strongly in founder Danny Thomas’ mission of saving children with cancer and other catastrophic illnesses in a welcoming facility where no sick child is ever turned away because of a family’s inability to pay for treatment.
“I work for the most pure charity there possibly is,” McKee said. “As long as you stick with the message of what St. Jude is and what we do, and that we’re about finding cures and saving children – and you tell that story in a very distinct way – all elements of the public, we’ve found, have responded. We remind people when the economy is bad that kids still get cancer; they still need your help. We always stick with Danny’s dream.”
Now senior executive vice president and chief operating officer of ALSAC, the fundraising arm of St. Jude, McKee has been honored by Fundraising Success Magazine with its 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award.
“It was a real surprise and honor,” said McKee, whose career with the nation’s second largest health care-related charity now spans more than three decades.
He has helped lead the organization to double-digit average annual growth rates and the introduction of innovative programs and fundraising strategies that have increased fundraising from $11.8 million during his first year to record revenues of $691.9 million in the 2010 fiscal year.
During his time with ALSAC, its annual growth rate has averaged more than 13 percent, and fundraising revenue has grown every year except two – in 1987, the year of the stock market crash, and following the terrorist attacks in September 2001.
“The success that I may have had was the result of the organization I was raising the money for,” McKee said.
Besides a fire on his first day, McKee experienced other hurdles along the way, but he was never deterred.
A little more than 20 years ago, he teamed up with Randy Owen, front man for the band Alabama, to develop a country music radio-thon called Country Cares for St. Jude Kids.
“We made an attempt at it and the first year it failed,” McKee said. “But it made me just all the more determined, and $400 million dollars later I was right. And it made me wonder what would’ve ever happened if I didn’t stick to it, believed in it and made it happen.”
Country Cares is today one of America’s most successful radio fundraising events. Since 1989, the program has involved more than 200 radio stations and raised more than $380 million in pledges.
In 1997, ALSAC introduced its new Hispanic marketing effort, Promesa y Esperanza (Promise and Hope), which is now in more than 40 markets and raises more than $25 million in pledges.
McKee has overseen Math-A-Thon, an annual, nationwide fundraising project that involves school children. It raised $94,000 its first year and now raises $16 million.
Trike-A-Thon, which involves preschool children nationwide, went from raising $205,000 its first year to becoming a $9 million annual program.
In addition to implementing successful fundraising strategies, McKee has served as a critical go-to leader for four CEOs.
When current CEO Richard Shadyac Jr. was considering the offer to take the helm of ALSAC, he discussed the opportunity with his father, who served in that capacity from 1992-2005.
“He told me, ‘Rely on Dave McKee and he will take care of you,’” Shadyac said. “‘He will be the most reliable soldier in your army, and you can depend on him’ – and I do every day.”
McKee said the proudest moments in his career have been the ones in which patients’ lives are saved.
“My biggest moments are when the hospital celebrates success, when we announce a breakthrough in research,” he said. “The hospital relies on 72 percent of the money we raise, and being able to share in the success of the hospital, to know you had an important part in doing so, I think that’s when you have the celebrations.”
He said another great reward is seeing former pediatric patients return to St. Jude to work for the organization.
“We’re just part of a mission, and the right people found St. Jude at the right time,” McKee said. “We’re just part of something bigger. My former boss, Mr. Shadyac Sr., used to say that all we had to do was not mess up because this thing is destined to do what we’re doing.”