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Lifesaving Commerce

Katharina Harf’s management savvy and some celebrity assists help her nonprofit donor center perform like a business.
December 21, 2010
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/217752
Katharina Harf
Katharina Harf
Photo© Natalie Brasington
Number of DKMS-registered donors internationally since 1991: 2.2 million

Number of DKMS-facilitated transplants internationally since 1991: 22,000

Katharina Harf's biggest heartbreak occurred when she was a 14-year-old living in Frankfurt, Germany. Her mother, Mechtild, had been diagnosed the previous year with acute leukemia. Despite Mechtild's six siblings and the roughly 3,000 registered bone marrow donors in Germany at the time, none was a match for a transplant. Harf's mother died in 1991.

Harf's father, Peter Harf, chairman of cosmetics giant Coty Inc., started a donor recruitment center after his wife's diagnosis. The center, DKMS--which stands for Deutsche Knochenmarkspenderdatei, meaning German bone marrow donor center--attracted 68,000 donors within a year.

Harf didn't want to be part of DKMS initially because it was too painful. She graduated from Harvard University, did a stint as a consultant, held management jobs at Louis Vuitton and Hugo Boss and started on an MBA from Columbia University.

Then a call from her father set her in a new direction: He wanted to start a donor registry nonprofit organization in the U.S., and he wanted Harf to run it. In 2004, she launched DKMS Americas in New York City.

"When I was in the business world, I would say, 'I want to do something more meaningful,' and my father would say that when you reach a position of power, you can always do good," Harf says. "But I didn't want to wait for that."

Harf recruited managers that put financial, operations, human resources, data management and other systems in place. Today, the organization employs approximately 30 people, has registered more than 160,000 U.S. donors and has facilitated more than 300 bone marrow transplants. She attributes that success to running the nonprofit according to the solid management principles her father taught her.

She also recognizes the promotional power of celebrities. DKMS holds an annual star-studded fundraising gala that has raised more than $4 million during the past three years. Halle Berry, Rihanna, Benicio Del Toro, Kylie Minogue, Vera Wang and 50 Cent are among those who have responded to Harf's call for support. When 50 Cent videotaped a public service announcement last year, it generated more than 200,000 hits on YouTube and almost 4,000 new registrations at getswabbed.org within two days. That kind of direct effect goes a long way toward getting other celebs to support the cause, Harf says.

She plans to continue building a huge database of prospective donors and informing people about bone marrow transplants.

"We're constantly looking at how we can operate better, just like any business," she says. "But we measure our bottom line in lives saved, instead of profits."