By MARIA DI MENTO of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Chronicle of Philanthropy
When the financier Jeff Yabuki and his wife, Gail, announced last year they would give $20 million to the Children’s Wisconsin health system, they become one of a growing number of wealthy donors awarding large contributions to programs that focus on mental health.
They also became one of many philanthropists who are growing increasingly comfortable talking about their personal experiences with mental health challenges and engaging in efforts to attract more resources to organizations that help people facing similar issues.
Among the steps the Yabukis took: They worked with fundraisers at Children’s Wisconsin to create a video that could be shared with other potential donors.
In the video, Jeff Yabuki tells the heartbreaking story of the evening in 2017 when his brother Craig Yabuki drove to Zuma Beach in Malibu, California, and killed himself.
A successful businessman who founded his own accounting firm, Craig was 52 and a much-beloved son, brother, husband, and father. His suicide shocked many in his orbit who knew him as fun loving, joyful, and family focused, says Jeff Yabuki.
“He loved to read, he loved to ski, and before he started to suffer, he was the center of lots of interesting discussions and fun. He just had this incredible life and joy in his eyes,” Jeff Yabuki says. “It was one of the things that was so enlightening to me because I saw that change and go away.”
Telling Craig’s story publicly did not come easily for Jeff. But after talking it over with confidants, Yabuki decided it was time to tell Craig’s story — especially if he encouraged others to talk about their or their loved ones’ mental-health struggles.
“Until more of us share our stories and make it OK for others to share their stories, we’re going to continue to fight this problem,” he says. “It was very difficult to do this, but the good that came out of it, the literally hundreds if not thousands of people who have said thank you and we’re sorry for your loss — every time someone says that, it’s healing.”
It hasn’t always been easy for fundraisers to bring up topics like depression or suicide with rich donors — but that might be changing. Today, more sports figures and other celebrities are speaking up about their own mental-health struggles. The taboo against talking about mental health is losing its power, and that’s leading to more big gifts.
Wealthy donors publicly gave more to mental health last year than in any other year over the past decade: According to a Chronicle of Philanthropy tally of publicized donations of $1 million or more, 15 donors gave 16 such gifts totaling nearly $767 million in 2021.
Raising money for mental-health programs has become increasingly important as more Americans are experiencing anxiety, depression, and other mental-health disorders. Nearly 20% of US adults, 50 million people, experienced some form of mental illness in 2019, according to a recent report by Mental Health America, and suicidal ideation, thinking seriously about ending one’s own life, is on the rise.
Severe depression among US youths is also growing, with 15 percent experiencing major depression in the last year.
Police violence and pandemic-related illness, death, isolation, and economic fallout have been especially tough on people of color and other marginalized groups. Andrea Brown, executive director of the Black Mental Health Alliance, says these crises have heightened anxiety among Black people, especially Black youths. If there’s a silver lining, Brown says, it’s that today’s Black youths are much more comfortable acknowledging their mental-health struggles than their elders were.
“Young people are more apt to want to have a conversation around how they feel,” Brown says. “Then they become these ambassadors for having conversations around mental health and wellness, but we need to do much, much more.”
TACKMA sportswear founder Jeffrey Schottenstein and his parents, Jay and Jeanie, gave $10 million to Ohio State University for a new mental-health program to build students’ emotional resiliency and better equip them to cope with mental-health challenges. The gift grew out of conversations Jeffrey Schottenstein had with university officials about his struggle with depression and anxiety during his freshman year there and how keeping it to himself made it worse.
“No one can see what you’re going through inside; you have to say it out loud,” Schottenstein says. “For a long time, I was ashamed of what my mind did to me. Shame and fear are among the top reasons why more than half of people facing mental-health challenges don’t seek the help they need. For me, the biggest motivator in speaking openly is remembering how alone and isolated I felt. I never want anyone to feel that way.”
Ian Adair is a rarity among nonprofit executives: He writes and speaks extensively about his mental-health challenges as well as those of his family. Adair served as executive director of the Gracepoint Foundation from 2017 until he left recently for a senior role at the Association of Fundraising Professionals. When he was hired at the Gracepoint Foundation, the small nonprofit was bringing in little money for the much larger mental-health service provider it supports. Adair says the organization didn’t know how to connect with wealthy donors. Five years on, however, the nonprofit has raised a total of $2.3 million and has a much more active set of wealthy supporters.
Adair says that success stems partly from his slowly encouraging some senior staff and board members to speak openly about their mental-health struggles or how those experienced by family and friends affected them and eventually led them to the Gracepoint Foundation. Most had never been asked why they joined. When Adair inquired, he learned that several trustees had lost family members to suicide, while others had struggled with mental illness themselves or witnessed their employees’ mental-health struggles.
He used what he learned to create one of the organization’s most successful fundraising efforts to date. Adair and his team helped trustees, senior staff, and others who were willing to share their experiences create social-media posts they could send out to their followers, which helped the organization capture donors’ attention and build trust with them.
Says Adair: “When you have people willing to authentically and genuinely give something of themselves, it just resonates.”
This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Maria Di Mento is a senior reporter at the Chronicle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The AP and the Chronicle receive support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The AP and the Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.
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