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VOL. 43 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 15, 2019

Making the most of her ‘gift of words’

Compassion, ability to persuade lead Lauth to fundraising success

By Nancy Henderson

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Kim Lauth wasn’t quite 3 years old when one Sunday night a group of missionaries made a presentation at her church, displaying photos of starving African children with sad eyes and bloated bellies.

“I got so hysterical that my mom had to take me out of church,” Lauth recalls. “I remember thinking as a little girl, ‘How can the grownups go to sleep when these things are going on?’

“One of the things that has kind of always defined me as a person is that I felt the suffering of other people really hard,” she continues. “For me, that has always been so powerful. Even as a 54-year-old woman now, I feel the obligation to kind of bear witness to the things that happen to the people in the world and to try and do something about it.”

More than 50 years since that early heart-wrenching memory, Lauth (pronounced “Lawth”) now spends her days as an independent consultant for nonprofit agencies and recently became chief resource development officer at Positively Living, which assists people who are homeless, mentally ill, addicted to drugs and other substances, and living with HIV and AIDS.

Her fundraising skills surfaced early. When she was a baby, the family moved from Knoxville to Illinois, where one day a direct appeal from the March of Dimes arrived in the mailbox with a cardboard sheet slotted for coins and a flyer with pictures of sick, premature babies in incubators. Lauth quickly convinced her mother to take her door-to-door to collect dimes to fill up the card.

That was just the beginning. Later, she hosted a backyard carnival to raise funds for the local Ronald McDonald House, a tradition that lasted for several years. She also sold Girl Scout cookies and asked neighbors to donate to church missions.

“I look back on that and think about the career that I’ve had,” she says. “But at the time, no one ever even thought about fundraising being a job.”

Even then, Lauth was naturally “persuasive.”

“The gift of words is a gift that I’ve always had, being able to tell a story and to make people feel things and want to take action,” she adds. “The thing that I’ve learned over the life of my career is that people are looking for shared values. If you can connect with people on shared values and give them the opportunity to invest in something that puts their values into action – I think that’s ultimately what fundraising is.”

Originally wanting to earn a law degree – “I still would like to be a lawyer if I were to have a windfall of cash today,” she says – after high school Lauth took writing classes at a local community college and later studied nonprofit management through the Liberty University distance learning program. She was working as assistant manager at a McDonald’s franchise in the early 1990s when her husband, the store manager, encouraged her to apply for a job as a newspaper ad sales representative, where her gift of gab helped her be successful.

A year later, a favorite cousin died from AIDS at a time when the epidemic was raging across the U.S. Compelled to do something, Lauth volunteered at the new local hospice, where she often sat with AIDS patients in their final days, holding their hands when no one else would.

Kim Lauth, chief resource development officer at Positively Living, works to provide funding for the nonprofit program, which supports people living with HIV.

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

Not an “overly maternal” person or hands-on caregiver – “I am not the person you call when you’re sick and I have a very weak stomach,” she admits – she considered the disease a social justice issue worth fighting for.

“People were not always being treated well,” she recounts. “Oftentimes they didn’t get the human contact that they needed. People were afraid. They didn’t understand the disease, and people were being judged and treated as if they had gotten what they deserved in many cases. … I could remind them that they were a human being with dignity and worth.”

Two years later, Lauth was offered a hospice job as volunteer coordinator, and it wasn’t long before she was raising money to fund the program, unaware that the experience would jump-start her nonprofit career. “It was just, ‘Let’s figure out how to do this and help people,’” she says.

She then became executive director of OSF St. James Hospital Foundation Council, which was affiliated with the hospice program, and conducted a capital campaign to build a new facility in Pontiac, Illinois. Finally realizing what she was destined to do – still, it wasn’t just about the fundraising, she says, but a way to influence strategic direction and policy – in 2002 she earned her Certified Fund Raising Executive designation.

Homesick for Knoxville, where she’d visited relatives for many years, she and her husband, Kent, moved there in 2000. She worked for a while at the Alzheimer’s Foundation (now Alzheimer’s Tennessee) before taking positions at the YMCA of East Tennessee, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of East Tennessee, and the East Tennessee Veterans Memorial Association, where she raised money to build a series of granite monuments honoring 6,200 fallen veterans at World’s Fair Park.

She was working at the Girl Scout Council of the Southern Appalachians six years ago when she signed up for a half-marathon. “I’m a dedicated nonathlete,” Lauth confesses. “I was the kid that always tried to hide in gym class and not get picked for anything. I’ve always liked to dance, but other than that I’ve been incredibly not athletic.”

She finished the race and learned an important lesson: “Doing something you didn’t think you could do changes you forever.”

Lauth hadn’t aspired to strike out on her own but in 2013, with her oldest children leaving home (she and her husband have six altogether, hers, his and theirs), she launched Kim Lauth Consulting. She had already done short-term business consulting off and on throughout her career and figured it was time to “go all in.”

She often partners with Knoxville’s Alliance for Better Nonprofits, helping its members create their individual fundraising plans and leading group workshops on topics ranging from how to prepare a successful annual appeal letter to conducting a capital campaign. Lauth also offers videos and podcasts, and shares her expertise at various conferences.

Positively Living provides a home for programs like “Project ACT,” which offers counseling, on-site HIV and hepatitis C testing kits, and awareness programs for the community.

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

Public speaking has always come easily, she acknowledges. “My mom talked about me taking the mic in church when I was a little girl when we were practicing for the Christmas program and telling full stories.”

To the nonprofit professionals she speaks to, she advises, “Nonprofits don’t have needs. Communities have needs that nonprofits fill.”

“Nonprofit organizations need to stop talking about what they need and focus on talking about the impact that they make because ultimately they don’t need to be begging for charity,” she points out.

“They need to be facilitating investment in the impact that they’re making in the community and that whole idea of connecting on shared values.”

Despite their complex social and political differences, Lauth asserts, Americans are, at heart, the same people who came together centuries ago to rebuild their neighbors’ barns after fires and other disasters. “We still want to take care of each other, and we do that in many ways through the hands of nonprofits.”

Jerry Askew, president of the Alliance for Better Nonprofits, met Lauth about 20 years ago when he served on the YMCA board of directors and she was development director. The two worked together to build a fundraising strategy for the Y.

“Kim is extraordinarily professional, but with just enough wry wit to keep you guessing,” says Askew, noting that she isn’t afraid to speak candidly “even when it is not popular.”

“If I had to pick one defining characteristic about her, it would be her integrity. Compromising her core values simply isn’t an option.”

Past president of both the Smoky Mountain Planned Giving Council and the Great Smoky Mountain Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Lauth now serves on the boards of the Knoxville History Project and Zaevion Dobson Memorial Foundation, which provides recreational and educational facilities for underserved communities. She also sits on the advisory board for the Junior League of Knoxville and in June finished a two-year term on the national League of Women Voters, based in Washington, D.C., where she also chaired the organization’s fundraising efforts.

Lauth and her spouse are avid 1980s music fans who have seen 28 bands, from Cheap Trick and Def Leppard to Culture Club and Elton John, perform in the last three years. (They already have tickets to an upcoming Paul McCartney concert.) She is writing a book about fundraising and hopes to “get a little more serious” about playing drums this year.

“I’m certainly not a traditional grandma,” she adds, referring to her six grandchildren. “I don’t think a lot of those exist anymore, but I want to be a great role model and example for the young people in my life. I want people to think of me as somebody who just keeps trying new things and never feels like they’ve arrived. There’s always something cool to do around the corner.”

In October, a lifelong profession of helping others came full circle when she joined Positively Living, best known as Knoxville’s primary HIV and AIDS service organization. She still consults with, speaks to and trains nonprofit clients, although not quite as much, while leading Positively Living’s fundraising efforts, government relations and marketing.

“It really feels like a culmination of a life’s work to me,” Lauth says. “Of course, HIV has changed a lot since I started many years ago working at hospice. HIV can be very well managed now. People can live long and healthy lives. There have also been great strides in the prevention of HIV.”

Looking back, Lauth is grateful she didn’t “peak” in high school.

“I’m always constantly reinventing myself,” she says. “One of the blessings of getting older is that I just have become really pretty fearless. There was a time when I wouldn’t have been comfortable putting myself out there for a national board or trying to do a podcast or recording myself on video or taking on a challenge like working with Positively Living and still doing consulting.

“I’m just really, really grateful that I’ve been able to find this kind of inner fearlessness, to make myself jump in and try new things.”

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