Starting a Charitable Foundation

Interview with Ken Vrana, President and CEO of The 1 in 8 Foundation

After making a breast-cancer documentary, Ken Vrana began a foundation providing mammograms to low-income women. His experiences in working in Sir Paul McCartney's foundation gave him valuable insights into founding a charity. He shares those insights in this interview.

Breast cancer charity founder Ken Vrana shares his experience starting a charitable foundation.

Interview with Ken Vrana President and CEO of The 1 in 8 Foundation

Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?

I started The 1 in 8 Foundation 16 years ago while working with Sir Paul McCartney's breast cancer charity and in 2007 we were named the fastest-growing breast cancer charity in the world. We differ from any other breast cancer charity in two significant ways. First, we are not looking for a cure. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on trying to find a cure and unfortunately we are no closer to that than we've ever been. Meanwhile we're losing women at the rate of one every fifteen minutes. That does not need to happen, however. If diagnosed early enough a person stands a 91% chance of living the rest of their lives cancer-free. As a result, we focus exclusively on early detection, purchasing mammograms for women who can't afford them. The second way we are very different is that we don't give 60%, 70% or 80% of the money we raise to breast cancer. We donate 100%.

Recently, a bill I authored passed the US Congress, naming the month of May as Early Detection Month for all cancers. That is now also happening in Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Mexico, France, Germany, the UK and France in our name.

What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?

I was a writer and producer in LA and also owned one of the most successful modeling agencies in the industry. At age 50 I left that behind and went to law school. Then I started the foundation.

How did you come up with your business idea?

I had produced and directed a documentary film that followed 3 women through a year of their lives, all of whom had breast cancer. Sir Paul McCartney heard about me and asked if I would like to work for his foundation. After working for him for 3 years I started the 1 in 8.

Did you write a business plan? Was it an effective tool for you?

No. My business plan was in my head and always has been with every business I've owned. I think having a business plan can be of value, but I also think many people spend way too much time and energy doing this. They often come up with a great looking plan but don't know how to pull it off.

Did you operate your business from your home?

What were the challenges and benefits to this strategy?

I operate this business out of my home in Cary, NC so that I can keep our overhead very low. That way we can give 100% of the money we raise to women who really need it.

Have you hired other staff? What is your greatest human resources challenge?

We believe in only hiring people on commission so that we keep out overhead down and if they don't produce they're gone. We are looking for at least 10 people in every state in the union and are hiring right now. Those who can do the job however can make a great deal of money. Our people make between $50,000 and $300,000 a year.

With such a large search area, how are you finding your employees?

Craig's List all over the US and word of mouth.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?

As much as I hate the expression you have to think out of the box. It is possible to do well, even in this economy.

Your foundation sounds like a great enterprise, Ken. Thanks for sharing your ideas with us.

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