NEW YORK (AP) — For St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, even the sky is no longer the limit.
At a time when similar institutions face fundraising shortages as donors shifted their priorities in response to the pandemic, the Memphis-based hospital has just completed its biggest fundraising year. The hospital attributes its success to online donations and publicity campaigns, such as a raffle to send someone to space that it hopes will raise $200 million.
The $2 billion raised in their fiscal year 2021, St. Jude officials say, marks the first time a single-mission charity has reached that milestone. The officials plan to do it again — in fact, at least five more times — to fund the six-year $11.5 billion strategic plan to accelerate research and treatment worldwide for children with catastrophic diseases, especially cancer.
Rick Shadyac, the CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, noted that even with an 80% overall survival rate, cancer remains the leading cause of disease death for American children. In many other countries, he said, the childhood cancer survival rate is only about 20%.
“Solving childhood cancer is a global problem — a multi-trillion, multi-year problem,” Shadyac said in an interview. “The way we look at it is, if not St. Jude, then who?”
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has always held a special place in the world of healthcare. Since opening in 1962, it has not charged its patients or their families any treatment fees. With the bulk of its funding — about 87% — coming from individuals rather than major donors or companies, it faced a fundraising threat during the pandemic.
But the hospital said its response to the crisis may have strengthened its financial position.
“The pandemic has completely changed our business model,” Shadyac said. “We were an organization that hosted or benefited from over 30,000 fundraising events, many of them in person. We had to run fast to make it virtual or digital.”
That pivot appears to have separated St. Jude from most other health-related charities by 2020. Donations to health-related organizations are down 3% in 2020 compared to 2019, according to Giving USA, The Giving Institute’s annual philanthropy report.
Una Osili, an associate dean at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University who led the research and production of the report, said the decline in donations to health-related organizations was primarily due to the reduction in personal fundraising events due to COVID-19 and other pandemic-related factors, such as the “Grateful Patient Effect”: As hospitals had to reduce their face-to-face interactions, the pool of patients who may have donated to the hospital after seeing it in action in person had shrunk.
“The organizations that did well in health were the ones that had the power to turn – the ones that quickly moved into digital fundraising and online events,” Osili said. “St. Jude, in particular, already had a lot of those online fundraisers and the different types of online engagements that they do specifically around cancer and children.
After the pandemic broke out in March last year, Shadyac said, St. Jude significantly increased its investments in digital fundraising and new technologies. The hospital not only outreached on major social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, but also on the practice platform Strava and the gamer haven Twitch.
“We wanted to reach our audiences where they were,” he said.
Consider “Smirky,” the online persona of Michael Mairs of Denton, Texas, who has built a community of nearly 16,000 followers on Twitch, where people watch him play the video game Toontown. Mairs, a 22-year-old senior communications scientist at the University of North Texas, has raised nearly $50,000 for St. Jude since 2018, when he first recognized that his hobby could be used to raise money for charity.
“They just always do their best to make sure the patients are okay,” said Mairs, who learned about St. Jude after his 10-year-old cousin, Faith, was treated there for stage 2 Ewing sarcoma, a rare cancer. where a tumor grows in bones or the cartilage around them.
According to St. Jude, Mairs raised more than $20,000 last year and another $15,000 in the first half of 2021 by playing video games and soliciting donations. Among other things, he takes $10 donations to play Bean Boozled, a favorite of his younger viewers, in which he eats a mysterious jellybean that could taste like chocolate or dog food.
Sarah Thomas Pilcher, a public health advocate from Little Rock, Arkansas, started raising money for St. Jude by teaching yoga classes online because she said she believed in the hospital’s mission.
“St. Jude is helping these families and these children through something that is very traumatic,” Pilcher said. “I have a father who survived cancer and I have friends whose children have survived cancer and it was a big help to them.”
The hospital is providing the kind of help Pilcher wished she had had when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 11 years ago. She said she had to figure everything out on her own, including buying her own walker.
St. Jude plans to continue increasing its investment in technology to try to capitalize on the energy and support of such volunteers and its donor base of 11 million.
“When 11 million people come together and rally behind a mission,” Shadyac said, “unbelievable things can happen.”
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