Julia Pollan '10 Studies Small Philanthropy's Big Success

Julia Pollan '11
Julia Pollan '11
A man with a red nose and white face paint strolls into a pediatric hospital. He greets a small child who has cancer. Pulling out a letter “e” made of construction paper, he shows it to the girl. The letter is solid brown, and when the clown asks her what it is, she looks confused. But then a smile flickers across her face: “Oh, it’s a brown ‘e,’” she understands. “A brownie!”

A non-profit organization like Clown Care is small but has a huge presence in both the hearts of its clientele and the nation. Julia Pollan ’10 is interested in how small philanthropic programs are able to achieve so much large-scale success. This summer, she is pursuing a research project with Associate Professor of Sociology Jennifer Irons using the Emerson Grant she received in the spring. Created in 1997, the Emerson Foundation Grant program was designed to provide students with significant opportunities to work collaboratively with faculty members, researching an area of interest.

Big Apple Circus’ Clown Care program is a community outreach organization that goes to great lengths to make a sick child giggle. The doctors are specially-trained professionals chosen for their artistry and sensitivity, and through juggling, magic, music, and humor, they reinvigorate a sense of hope and life in children, many of whom are terminally ill.

Pollan says that an organization like this one has a distinctive story. Only 19 hospitals throughout the United States offer Clown Care services, making it a relatively small but influential group of people. Pollan’s research will focus on the factors that allow non-profit organizations to expand into prosperous and respected institutions. For example, how did Clown Care begin? How closely is it affiliated with Big Apple Circus? How did it establish connections with hospitals?

Part of her study will focus on finances and how important it is for a non-profit organization to have a backbone like a supporting business or major donor. Clown Care not only has consistent donors but medical schools have also begun to associate with it. However, the programs’ Seattle branch recently shut down, which illustrates that maintaining such an organization is a complex undertaking.

To conduct her research, Pollan will investigate the infrastructure of Clown Care including board development, fundraising, program development, volunteer management, and partnership development. She will also read 990 tax forms, annual reports, articles, books, and websites. An interview with one of the founders, Michael Christensen, will touch on an alternative perspective. She will also talk to some of the clowns and their supporters.

“The only way I imagined myself helping my community was by ladling soup at a homeless shelter or asking my relatives to sponsor me for the March for Dimes walk,” Pollan said of her service experiences in high school. But when she came to Hamilton as a January admit, she became involved in the Hamilton Alliance for Nonprofit Strategic Advancement (HANSA) program. HANSA coordinates interaction between students and agencies in the Mohawk Valley area and provides an outlet for students interested in charitable projects that cater to their interests. Agencies receive help and guidance from the students, and the students are able to learn more about the history of the not-for-profit sector.

Last year, Pollan was selected as a student fellow for the program. She works alongside Directors of Foundation, Corporate and Government Relations William Billiter and Amy Lindner as an intern at Communications and Development. She also collaborates with Colleen Bennett, who is the staff assistant for that department.

Pollan has been assigned to facilitate fundraising for Bennett’s music therapy organization, KEYS. She teaches the sponsors ways to better their relationship with the organization. But not all groups can learn to thrive on the same terms. “You have to define success for each organization, because they are all very different,” Pollan said.

After Hamilton, Pollan wants to work for a non-profit organization like Clown Care. Through their jokes and bubble-blowing, the clowns integrate entertainment with medicine, a technique that Pollan appreciates. And unlike magicians, clowns often show the secrets behind their tricks.

“It puts the kids in control,” Pollan said. “They know that kids are usually afraid of doctors, but the clowns basically treat the kids as if they own the place and not as if they’re patients.” Clown doctors only enter a child’s hospital room if invited. That gives the family more say over what is right given the circumstances.

“These kids don’t know how sick they are,” said Pollan. But as far as they know, neither do the clowns. “The doctors love it – they really just want to see kids being kids.”

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