St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which cares for children with cancer while also investigating how to eliminate the pediatric form of the disease, has raised $2 billion in donations in the past fiscal year. It’s a record for an independent charity and an impressive achievement in a year when donors compete more than ever for their attention and money.
Richard Shadyac, the CEO of the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (St. Jude’s fundraising organization), attributes that success to a deft pivot in several fundraising strategies — one of which was a collaboration with Inspiration4, the first orbital space mission to be fully crewed. by civilian astronauts. That partnership raised not only $100 million promised by Jared Issacman, the flight’s billionaire commander, but another $16 million through initiatives like sweepstakes to win a chance to join Issacman as part of his crew. .
TIME recently spoke to Shadyac about the stratospheric challenges of the fundraising mission. The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Are there ways that solving the childhood cancer puzzle is a bit like sending a civilian astronaut into space?
St. Jude has always been about pushing the boundaries and taking what seems impossible and making it possible. Our founder [comedian Danny Thomas] determined that he was going to tackle an incurable disease called leukemia. It had a 4% survival rate and it was the most common form of childhood cancer. Fast forward almost 60 years and the survival rate is now 94%. It seems impossible that four citizens could go into space and orbit the Earth, right? And that’s exactly what’s going to happen. The goal now is to tackle global cancer; survival rates in low- and middle-income countries are 20% or less. So that’s the current problem we’re trying to solve, which I think is comparable to four civilians being shot into space. (TIME Studios is producing a documentary series about the Inspiration4 mission.)
One way you could raise needed money, people might suggest, would be to use the money these billionaires are spending to go to space. What would you say to those people?
I’d say it’s a both-and. Jared Isaacman has made a $100 million pledge to us. So I’d say Jared is helping solve this multi-trillion, multi-year problem that is global cancer. For us, it’s both a revenue strategy and an awareness strategy. It has enabled us to reach different audiences. We know that many of the people who worked on this drawing were generally on the younger side. So it brought in some of those people who may not have been drawn to our mission.
In April 2020, you said that, like almost every nonprofit, you were hit hard by lost financial support. But then 2021 was a record year. You raised $2 billion. How did that happen?
Whether you were a for-profit CEO or a non-profit CEO, when we all entered this pandemic, none of us had ever experienced a pandemic before. It looked like we were going to take a material hit from a revenue perspective. We wouldn’t be able to do any personal events, just to give you an example. We were building our digital fundraising capabilities, and then some very smart people who work for me talked about ways we could reach our supporters where they were. We knew where they were; they were home. So we used every method we could to reach them at home, to get our message across, to see if they would support our mission. Those terrible estimates we made for the revenue actually turned out to be wrong, and we did incredibly well.
You worked with places like Twitch and Strava, which don’t really see people as networks where donors hang out. How did that work?
I’m actually looking for different target groups that can support our mission. Up to 68% of our income comes from households with incomes of $75,000 or less. These include young people and gamers. Our typical donation is around $43 to $45. We have 11 million donors. This wasn’t the first year we worked with influencers and gamers. Their audience trusts them. So when Matt Pat or Dr. Lupo and his wife were to speak, their audience believed that St. Jude is a cause to stand behind.
What do you say to people who think that curing cancer is not a problem for charity, but a problem for the medical industry to solve?
Unfortunately, business has not stepped up to solve the problem of childhood cancer. There is very little investment from Big Pharma in childhood cancer. Why? Because kids are a “customer base” from zero to 18. Would you rather work on a problem with a population from 0 to 18 or from 18 to 88?
In 2020, we developed a vaccine for COVID-19, tested it enough for the US Food and Drug Administration to pre-approve it, and figured out how to manufacture and distribute it within 16 months. I wondered if it makes charities dealing with other diseases think, “uh, can’t we do this for the disease we’re fighting?”
I dream about that all the time and wonder why it took us so long. But as I’ve talked to doctors and scientists around the world, this is just an incredibly complex problem. Through work with our pediatric cancer genome project, we have now found that there are many, many subtypes of these diseases, and they are all very different, and where a child is in terms of their development, their ability to cope with these diseases to survive.
In addition to genomics, you collect money for, among other things, proton therapy, immunotherapy and structural biology. Is there one that you find most convincing?
I think it’s an attempt to solve the global childhood cancer problem. In the United States, St. Jude has helped increase childhood cancer survival rates from 20% to 80%. Why can’t we do that all over the world?
But in developing countries, more children die from diarrhea than from cancer. Shouldn’t we tackle the easy ones first?
We can do two things at once. We take access to health care for granted in this country. That’s why the pandemic is so frustrating right now. There are therapies, there is a vaccine, but all over the world they don’t even have access to the COVID vaccine. It’s very frustrating to listen to the debates here in the United States, when you take for granted the access we have to this incredible healthcare system.
You’ve been involved in philanthropy all your life. What would you like to see and what has surprised you about the way philanthropy works now?
I’m not surprised, but I’m disappointed that our industry hasn’t invested more in technology and digital fundraising. I think there are some missed opportunities with some of our sibling charities. What helped us get through this pandemic was that we were able to reach many of our supporters [digitally], and to turn to virtual events. I sincerely believe that artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality and virtual reality will be the next frontier. I wish our industry would benefit more from it. We cannot rely on the old legacy thinking; we really need to develop sustainable business models that are constantly iterating and changing to meet people where they are. We are raising tens of millions of dollars on Facebook. We are the number one charity on Amazon Smiles. We know that people are going to use Amazon and Facebook. So why not give back a little bit or start a fundraiser for the charity of your choice?
Are you concerned or celebrating the tremendous power they have to effect change as this generation of tech billionaires enter their abandoned-a-legacy phase?
I’m concerned about undue influence and that we may not be addressing the issues that are most pressing. I worry about those very large investments in charities that may not be able to spend that money properly. But that also worries me: those models are not sustainable. MacKenzie [Scott] is amazing. Absolutely unbelievable. But she can only do that for so long. It’s so much more important that you have 11 million donors; that is sustainable. That will be there when that big donation really runs out, so you can make an impact and make progress in your mission. We all need to make sure that we build organizations that are sustainable for the long term, because solving these problems takes years.
Read more about the Inspiration4 mission:
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