Bridge Over Troubled Water

Everybody has a CaringBridge story. Now its founder put together a book of some especially inspirational ones.

Sona Mehring
Portrait by Eliesa Johnson

You were living in Eagan at the time? I’ve been in Eagan for about 28 years. And one thing that happened within those first three years is I got half a dozen checks in the mail. People just sent me money. I call it the frying pan over the head: “Maybe this should be a nonprofit. Maybe this should be funded by charitable giving?” Because if you’re providing values that impact people’s lives, they’ll donate. It’s that self-fulfilling thing. If we’re not providing a value, we’re not going to get charitable contributions. And to me, it was the understanding that this needed to be a protected environment.

Protected from commercials. You’re doing them a service and you don’t want them to feel exploited. They’re vulnerable. CaringBridge should feel like a mortuary or a hospital. Correct. One of the other funding models I thought of was trying to sell this to hospitals and maybe that would work. But I didn’t want to do what the hospitals wanted; I wanted to be able to do what the families needed.

Did you have some serious conversations with health care providers? Absolutely. I actually had some early sponsorship. I would say Children’s Hospitals and Clinics was one of the earliest and more important supporters of CaringBridge. They still do a phenomenal job of making their patients and families know about CaringBridge. And they understand what a valuable part that is of their care journey.

The military seemed to be another early adopter. Yes, very early on. And that was why it was important to have Cory’s story in there. Because I wanted to have the flavor of the military in there.

There are a lot of Christians in there as well. I would say with CaringBridge there’s a lot of spirituality within the sites across the board.

Mom and Grandma.

Both Mehring’s 94-year-old grandmother Bessie and her mom, Bonnie, had CaringBridge sites. The site was helpful when Bonnie was recovering from stage IV breast cancer in 1998. In 2001, Bonnie developed liver cancer and Mehring reactivated her mother’s site. The cancer took Bonnie’s life later that year.

I would imagine when people are hurt or dying there’s always going to be that aspect. But was that a conscious effort to select Christians? It wasn’t a conscious effort.

Are you Christian? I was born Pres-byterian and I’m Catholic now. Married a Catholic. But I don’t have the cradle Catholic guilt, or so they tell me.

Good for you! I’m still working through mine. So you spurned the hospitals and ultimately decided you were going to do this on your own. I decided to have it be a nonprofit. That was an important decision. I had not run a nonprofit before, did not know much about nonprofits. And so I brought in people that did. A big part of a nonprofit is the governing board is basically your owner. You know, my kids every once in a while give me grief how we could be rich because I could’ve gone a different way with social networking.

Maybe. Yeah, maybe. A lot of things have to line up right. I’ve had a number of startup businesses. I really am for-profit minded. As I walked into the nonprofit sector, you have to be very financially sound. You have to make good business decisions. It’s important to run an efficient nonprofit. A business! Because people are donating their charitable dollars, you have a responsibility around stewardship of that money. It should be used to make an impact on people.

But how can you put a number on that? If you’re spending 50 cents on every dollar that you’re trying to raise, that’s horrible. You should be spending 80 percent of your revenue on investing and making an impact. Fundraising and admin is that other 20 percent.

Seems like the scrutiny would be constricting. I enjoy the transparency. It’s required and it’s needed. We do a yearly audit, and it’s important that we are spending people’s charitable dollars in the most effective, impactful way.

The Brain Injury.

Nancy Worthen’s daughter Margaret suffered a catastrophic brain stem stroke while writing her final paper during her final semester at college. In the book, Nancy tells her story about making decisions for her daughter and her struggle to find a new way of living for both of them.

How much do you make? I make about $180,000. That’s not outrageous, but you know, it’s not bottom shelf either. It may seem like a clich├ęd line, but you can still do good and do well. Someone said, “Oh, it’s so interesting that you have a for-profit brain and a nonprofit heart.” I do think that nonprofits need to be run smartly and have a very sound financial model.

Do you tap people who can write big checks? Most of our giving is people that have been using the service. In the last year, for example, 46 million people connected on CaringBridge; .3 percent of those help us with financial giving.

What’s the average size of a gift? $62. Our budget this year is around $9 million.

So .3 percent of 46 million people give $62, and that’s a $9 million budget? Wow, that’s amazing. That’s Internet math right there. [Laughs.] Hosting is not a trivial task. Security is a premium. We’re used around the world.

Security has to be at a premium because these people are at the most vulnerable places in their lives. For every voyeur like me who reads Hope, aren’t there a couple guys out there who are looking for lambs to separate from the pack? We haven’t had problems with that. But yes, we’ve had to deal with situations where things that are not to our terms of use are happening. And these communities become very self-policing. Early on, we actually used to do content monitoring and things like that, but we realize that it’s the power of the community itself that really provides it.

One of the things that’s beautiful about this book is that everybody finds ways of dealing with adversity, whether it’s seeing Jesus in the Star Tribune or cutting your hair off and buying a motorcycle. Wouldn’t that happen without CaringBridge? The idea of bringing people together in a time of need, or rallying around somebody in need, I’m sure that happened in the caves. That’s not a new human kind of relationship. But what CaringBridge is able to do is to use the technology of the day to make it anytime, anywhere, and even more powerful.

Are you still talking to Oprah? Getting there. I’m working on Ellen.