Seven Hours to the One Fund: How a Fundraising Giant Was Built in Record Time

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Posted July 8, 2013 by Scott Kearnan in Business
One Fund Logo

Within hours of the Boston Marathon bombings, Mike Sheehan coined the city’s newly formed fundraising effort, the One Fund. Sheehan, then-CEO and current chairman of downtown advertising and marketing agency Hill Holliday, hoped that name would communicate its centralized, unfussy approach to funneling donations.

But the name also captures the spirit of unity that characterized its very creation. Setting up a fundraising initiative of such magnitude would normally take months. Yet the ubiquitous One Fund was created in less than one business day—the result of seamless coordination between civic and business leaders. The mayor, the governor, reps from the health care world, financial institutions, and even cell phone service providers all came together immediately. That is reflective of the connectedness of the Boston community, says Sheehan.

“It’s a testament to leadership,” says Sheehan about the speed and ease with which the Fund was created. “It’s also a testament to the mayor’s relationship with the business community. In many cities, the mayor has an adversarial relationship with business. Here he has good relationships and knows how to get things done.”

How did they get done? For Sheehan, it started at Massachusetts General Hospital. By sheer coincidence, he was at the hospital visiting family when he found out about the bombings. Soon there was “organized chaos,” as hospital staff readied for the arrival of bombing victims.

Sheehan, like all Bostonians, was personally shaken. “I attended my first Marathon when I was six years old,” he says. “I worked in the Back Bay for years. I can’t think of how many Mondays I stood along that route myself.”

He wanted to help. So when he returned home, Sheehan fired off an e-mail to the John Hancock team, the Marathon’s lead sponsor. “I told them that if they needed communications help they could lean on us,” says Sheehan. He received an e-mail back soon after. There would be a conference call at 10 a.m. the next day.

And so it began, the task of organizing a vital victim relief fund at a breakneck pace. “We knew that they were going to have a press conference announcing some kind of fund later that day,” said Sheehan. “So we had about six hours to do everything.”

Mike Sheehan

Former Hill Holliday CEO Mike Sheehan. Photo courtesy of Hill Holliday

The rapid-fire and necessary communication took place, says Sheehan, mainly via text message. First came devising a name, which Sheehan hoped would connote simplicity. Then Hill Holliday’s technologist John Running used his personal credit card to register all the different variations on One Fund domain names. (The website was created by Blue State Digital, the Boston-based business behind Barack Obama’s groundbreaking online campaign for president.) Within about 20 minutes, agency designer James Adame had created a simple but striking logo inspired by the blue and gold marathon bib. Then a PayPal account was set up, and the fund was able to accept donations by 5 p.m., when its founding was announced. (It got an immediate $1 million head start from John Hancock.) Hill Holliday used its connections with newspaper and magazine publishers to get donated ad space for the One Fund.

But it wasn’t just the Hill Holliday team that leapt into action, says Sheehan. Law firm Goodwin Procter volunteered to handle all the paperwork and legalities that come with setting up a nonprofit. Boston Properties offered office space in the Prudential for One Fund volunteers, and AT&T gave them smartphones. Bank of America, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and many more jumped in with expertise in processing funds.

The speed with which so many agencies were able to work together in such a short time was unlike anything Sheehan had ever seen. “I have absolutely never seen anything remotely like this, in terms of the speed in which it was done,” he says. “And the money that flows in is pure fundraising. There have been zero expenses, not a nickel.”

And he has been blown away by the generosity of donors. “To be honest with you, I expected this would raise 10 million, maybe 15 million. Twenty million was my stretch goal.”

Donations have since exceeded $50 million.

“There has not been a victim relief fund, funded by private donors only, that comes remotely close to this,” says Sheehan. “It’s amazing.”

And for a major Boston player, it was a poignant way to end his decade-long tenure as Hill Holliday CEO. In May, he passed the CEO reins to former Hill Holliday president Karen Kaplan, though he is remaining involved with the agency as chairman.

“I had been planning my transition for years, and this was not part of the plan,” says Sheehan. “But because of the transition, I had the time to do so in earnest. To be able to help all these people, it was the ultimate final thing to work on.”

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