The Utah-based Children's Miracle Network — which will air its annual telethon this weekend — is now 25 years old. While it aims to bring miracles to sick children, it saw an additional wonder in that time: its own survival and growth.

"We were well into our first year not knowing if we were going to make it, if there were going to be a second year," says co-founder Mick Shannon. He adds he worked without pay most of that first year because the organization simply could not afford it.

He was thrilled when finally, after what he said were miracles that paid for and allowed the first telethon, it surpassed expectations by raising $4.7 million for 22 hospitals.

Now 25 years later, the network says it has raised $3.2 billion through those years.

It now serves 170 hospitals and raises about $237 million a year for them through the telethon, radiothons, dance marathons, corporate fundraising and other events. It has expanded to Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom — and soon hopes to operate in Australia and Puerto Rico.

It has become one of the largest charities for hospitals and children in the world. "And I'm proud that it has Utah roots, and Utah people made it happen," Shannon says. "Utah has talent beyond David Archuleta, a lot of talent that has made this country a better place."

The network is also unique in how it raises and handles its money. It never touches most of it, allowing partner hospitals to collect it directly and spend it without restrictions.

Shannon says it started with an idea he developed as he had worked for the March of Dimes as a young man. "We would collect and send a lot of money back to headquarters. But only a little bit of it would come back to Primary" Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City, he says.

He dreamed of a charity that would conduct fundraising events that would allow 100 percent of what local people donate to stay with their local children's hospital. He and partner Joe Lake approached entertainer Marie Osmond and actor John Schneider, who bought into that.

Together they formed the Osmond Foundation for the Children of the World in 1983, and it would soon do business under the name of the Children's Miracle Network.

Shannon said he persuaded Marriott hotels to donate some hotel rooms and the old Western Airlines to donate free flights, which allowed him to travel and try to sell his idea to hospitals and potential sponsors.

"The Osmonds had two concerts," Shannon said. "That raised about $120,000. That was just enough to pay bills and keep us going," as long as it didn't pay him a salary at first. "A lot of people told us it could not be done. They said it would fail."

But the chairman of the Duff's restaurant chain in the Midwest volunteered to pay the production costs of the first two telethons, which were produced at the old Osmond studios in Orem. The first show had a "network" of just 30 TV stations. It benefited 22 hospitals and raised $4.7 million.

The network has grown to help 170 hospitals a year now. The telethon is now produced from Disney World. Besides big-name entertainers who help, the network has scores of big sponsors — from Disney to Wal-Mart, Costco, Coca-Cola, Kroger (the grocery chain that owns Smith's locally), Delta Air Lines and more.

While the foundation produces the telethon, people who call to donate talk to local representatives of their local hospital. That hospital is then responsible to collect the money itself and may spend it without restrictions.

Scott Burt, chief operating officer for the network, said many of the hospitals had no fundraising or development offices until they joined the network and had its help to form them. They now use them to raise money far beyond network activities.

Jim Hall, current president and CEO of the network, who replaced Shannon in 2006, says the telethon itself now generates only about a quarter of the money that the network raises for hospitals.

About as much comes through local radiothons nationwide. And more than twice as much comes through corporate drives (including many retailers that allow patrons to buy paper "balloons" for a $1 donation at 30,000 outlets nationwide).

The network generates its own money to operate and conduct fundraisers in two main ways, Hall said. About half comes from donations from corporations. "It has to be a gift from a company" specifically for foundation operations, he said, "because one of our models is that everything raised locally stays local."

Also, about 37 percent of the foundations' operating money comes from fees paid by hospitals to participate in the network.

Written responses from the network to Deseret News questions say hospitals pay fees based on their market size. Typically, one member hospital is in each market. Fees range from $25,392 in Topeka, Kan., to $329,991 in Chicago. (New York's fee is divided among four hospitals, and the fee in Los Angeles is divided between two.)

The network says a typical member hospital receives eight to 10 times the cost of its fees in donations.

"For example: In Salt Lake City, Primary Children's Medical Center's 2008 membership fee was $115,085 and in return, Children's Miracle Network programs generated $1.7 million in fundraising for the hospital," the network statement said.

Shannon said the amount of money raised and growth seen would be great for any charity, but especially one from Utah.

"We had a lot of people who said it couldn't be done from Utah. They wanted us to move to Chicago, or to move to Los Angeles," he said.

"Not only have we done it from Salt Lake City, but for the most part we have done it with a lot of local talent. We went to Disneyland and produced our show, and they were so impressed with our crew that they hired them to do the Christmas parade," Shannon said.

"The interesting thing is as we went to Coke, Marriott, Disney and Wal-Mart, they wound up using Utah people in other aspects of their business. We created a lot of nice jobs," he said.

The network, in fact, has outgrown its current offices in Holladay. It says it added more than 40 jobs in the past two years as part of a five-year strategic plan calling for doubling its annual fundraising for hospitals.

Salt Lake City recently gave the network a low-cost $2.5 million loan to help renovate the old Alpine Bank building at 710 S. 200 West to serve as its new national headquarters. It has also applied for a $2 million grant through the Brownfields Economic Development initiative, and a $4 million loan to be secured by Salt Lake County's future Community Development Block Grant funds.

Shannon said the network's board almost moved it from Utah to Chicago when he retired in 2006. He said it chose to stay, however, when Hall was chosen to succeed him. Hall is a Utahn who had worked in the insurance industry, and who had served on the foundation's board of governors.

"I'm proud of what we have done here," Shannon said.

Marie Osmond, a co-founder, also said in a press release that when the network was formed, "We had no idea the impact it would have and the many lives we would touch with our work. We look forward to another 25 years of saving children's lives."


E-mail: lee@desnews.com