“Recognize the disruptions we all face, and act — don’t simply observe.”
This advice from Rick Shadyac, President of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, speaks not only to how Shadyac has led the organization through the pandemic, but also to how ALSAC has evolved over its 60 year history to meet the moment and expand its footprint.
St. Jude was born out of founder Danny Thomas’ vision that no child should be denied treatment based on race, religion or a family’s ability to pay. Today, their impact is felt far and wide — St. Jude has treated children from all 50 states and from around the world, while ensuring that families never receive a bill from St. Jude. Treatments invented at St. Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20% to more than 80% since it opened more than 60 years ago.
The commitment to innovation also runs deep in the organization’s fundraising enterprise, which reached an incredible $2 billion fundraising milestone in the last fiscal year. This would not have been possible without new fundraising strategies, including a collaboration with Inspiration4, the world’s first all-civilian mission to orbit the Earth that is going into space September 15.
We asked Shadyac to share his learnings and advice for other nonprofit organizations to accelerate their fundraising efforts and investments in innovation.
Salesforce: You recently hit an incredible milestone of $2 billion in donations in the last fiscal year, a record for a single-mission charity. What has the journey looked like to reach this goal?
Rick Shadyac: It’s been a bold 60-year journey, one that foundationally is rooted for us in inclusion, agility, and innovation. But at the heart of it all are our donors — 11 million currently — who are absolutely essential in delivering on our mission: finding cures and saving children.
Engaging supporters is core to driving success for our mission. Even more, during this challenging time, we must ensure that our supporters understand that cancer and other catastrophic childhood diseases don’t and won’t stop during a pandemic — and that we need their compassion and generosity to advance cures and give children a chance to grow up.
Also, it’s important to note that while we are so grateful to our supporters for reaching the $2 billion milestone, so much more still needs to be done. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital this year announced a six-year, $11.5 billion strategic plan to have an impact on kids here and around the world who face cancer and other catastrophic diseases. This new plan represents a three-fold investment in impact yearly for the 400,000 children with cancer around the world, as well as growth and acceleration of research into the deadliest childhood cancers for which there still are no cures. Childhood cancer is a global, multi-trillion dollar, multi-year problem. Thankfully — and thanks to our amazing supporters — St. Jude is able to rise and attempt to meet the challenge.
What is your number one piece of advice for other nonprofit leaders who are looking to reach new donors and grow their revenue?
RS: Recognize the disruptions we all face, and act — don’t simply observe. You may realize some short-term savings by not acting, but my advice would be to take some savings and invest in what you believe in. I can speak from recent experience on this. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve had to distance ourselves from many of the traditional ways we have conducted face-to-face, in-person fundraising events and intentionally step into the realm of digital fundraising.
Our annual St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend is an example of reaching new audiences. Historically, it is our largest single-day fundraising event. Most recently, given the pandemic, it had to go virtual, which also allowed for iteration on the campaign, including featuring multiple race options leading up to the ultimate race.
The result was this: for the first time ever, we had participants from all 50 states and 72 countries, a six-fold increase in global representation. This success confirms for us an audience desire — as well our capacity — to expand this race virtually and beyond an exclusively regional event. Additionally, partnering with gamers and participating in livestreams across sectors, from gaming to yoga and music, has helped us capture younger audiences who are looking to have impact and express purpose.
What advice do you have for those in the nonprofit sector who are looking to accelerate their technology adoption or make the case for change within their organizations or to their boards?
RS: I categorically believe that we wouldn’t have reached the $2 billion milestone without the investments we made years ago in our digital transformation, and then the acceleration of our digital strategies this year. Operationalized initiatives like creating accelerator cohorts for employees interested in incubating new ideas have proved crucial to making inroads in the e-commerce and gaming realms, for example.
Also, we have been proactive in reaching out to the tech sector with our establishment of digital advisory councils, which are populated with supporters who are sector experts. Their advice and insights have been invaluable to me and our team. They share from their world valid learnings, best practices, and forward-facing developments, and I always leave our meetings with a new perspective. It’s exciting to share and learn new technologies alongside our employees, especially knowing that these advancements impact how we navigate donor ecosystems and build for tomorrow.
St. Jude is the charitable beneficiary of Inspiration4, the world’s first all-civilian mission to orbit the Earth that will launch in just two days. How did that partnership come about? How has partnering across sectors led to success in your fundraising efforts?
RS: St. Jude was chosen to partner on this historic project by Jared Isaacman, the commander of Inspiration4 and Chief Executive Officer of Shift4 Payments, a St. Jude partner. What makes this partnership so special is that it brings together two disparate yet crucially important missions — eradication of cancer and citizen exploration into orbit — to create one incredible moment in time, while launching an unprecedented fundraising initiative. Think about it: the year we were founded, 1962, is also the year John Glenn first orbited the Earth on Mercury 6. So while we were pioneering a new kind of research hospital with St. Jude, scientists and innovators were at the same time pushing the limits of a different type of exploration.
This mission represents a culmination of work and vision that was set in motion more than half a century ago, and yet couldn’t have happened before this very moment in time. As to partnering across sectors, we do it all the time and encourage it for the benefit of all parties. We partner with restaurant chains, logistics companies, sports leagues, and so many other entities. We bring mutual value to each of those relationships in the form of demonstrable purpose for those entities and impact through our mission. This unique partnership with the Inspiration4 mission is no different. It demonstrates that it’s important to think audaciously and without limitations. The sky is no longer the limit when it comes to finding a cure for childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
Inspiration4, the world’s first all-civilian mission to orbit the Earth, is going into space on September 15.
How do you plan to build on the Inspiration4 momentum to engage supporters in the long-term?
RS: The impact of the Inspiration4 mission on St. Jude has been immeasurable so far and we absolutely plan for further, sustained engagement. It has been inspiring to share the story and work of St. Jude with entirely new audiences and connect with them via new channels, while helping them understand the need for funds for the unrelenting pursuit of cures and treatments.
And personally, it’s important to me that through Inspiration4, we can and have inspired our patient and survivor community to believe that anything is possible. That hope-filled spirit will continue as long as the story of this experience persists. But childhood cancer does not stop and neither will St. Jude. The generosity of supporters around the globe will help ensure that St. Jude can complete this mission.
Read more about the fundraising pivots ALSAC made during the pandemic.
About the Author
President and Chief Executive Officer of ALSAC