Cancer Council on the call to host the Biggest Virtual Morning Tea

Campaign unit manager shares the steps the not-for-profit has had to take in order to pivot to a digital-only social environment


Getting Australians to meet over a cup of tea or coffee and raise funds for cancer patients has become a virtual undertaking this year as the Cancer Council pivots to an online campaign.

Cancer Council’s annual Biggest Morning Tea on 28 May sees hundreds of thousands of individuals and organisations participating in live gatherings across the country to raise money. Last year, nearly 28,000 Australians hosted a morning tea event, attended by an estimated 895,000 people, consuming more than 1 million teas and coffees.

But in a COVID-19 climate when most are now bunkered down at home, Cancer Council campaign unit manager, Adelaide Thompson, told CMO it was clear this year’s initiative would have to be radically rethought.

“We could see the landscape was changing rapidly,” she said, noting the turning point of gatherings of more than 500 being banned. “We knew we had to start reassessing the Morning Tea campaign program. This is our biggest fundraising campaign of the year, and is highly important to us as a charity. It’s a big contributor to helping us carry out our mission of reducing the impact of cancer.

“We started thinking about how we pivot to what will be the issues in this environment and undertake this from the new perspective of our supporter needs base.”

Thompson said the team needed a proposition that addressed the challenges of feeling isolated, and be positioned as a solution to what all of us are experiencing through social distancing and at-home isolation.

“This environment is challenging in terms of that sense of togetherness and connecting. Our morning tea brings communities together, and is about doing something good while having a bit of fun,” she continued. “We felt confident the campaign can do that, it’s about how to execute it in a way that inspires people and brings them on the journey together.”

What Cancer Council came up with was Australia’s Biggest Virtual Morning Tea. Thompson said from a usual nine-month planning window, the team had to create a whole new campaign within a couple of weeks. That meant evaluating all creative, adapting or creating new assets.

“We homed in on the new environment and how to get people interested and onto this journey to have a morning tea in their way in this environment,” she explained. “Then it was about how we create inspiring ideas and how to guides of fundraising in this way. We are creating resources to host a morning tea virtually. People need that team bond, so this is a way to have important social interaction with colleagues and communities.”

Among the fresh suggestions Cancer Council has come up include undertaking a virtual bake-off, where all participants cook and everyone scores their creations. Another is getting colleagues to donate what they would have spent on commuting or coffee for a week.

With so many parents looking after kids at home and striving to find things for them to do, Thompson suggested kids having a tea party with dolls and teddies. Online auctions are another activity on Cancer Council’s list.

With workplaces the biggest audience, much focus has been placed on ideas for that audience, Thompson said. She referred to her own team as a case study.

“In managing my team, I’ve been thinking about how to keep sense of team culture, motivation and ways to do that in these new times,” she commented.  

Thompson said Cancer Council’s role inspiring hosts to hold a morning tea in their own way will also see it showcasing and encouraging more case study sharing.

Channel and asset rethink

Behind the scenes, Cancer Council has pivoted and adapted existing resources to support the new campaign focus. “We had to look at every bit of creative, and redo that. Some could be adapted, some we had to start from scratch,” Thompson said.

“We had to evaluate all our channels as well. We are a charity, so our job is to raise as much money as we can from our marketing spend. So we scrutinised our channels to see what are the most applicable.”

The emphasis now is largely social and digital. “For example, we were due to send out direct mail to key workplaces, but clearly there’s no one there in those offices, so we stopped that,” Thompson said.

“We had to make quick decisions on channels, and some we have stopped, while others are being monitored and we’re optimising as we see them performing.”

With hosts registered before the COVID-19 crisis, Cancer Council enacted a communications plan to inform them of the new proposition. These are what the not-for-profit calls its ‘VIP’ morning tea supporters, who’ve been doing it for 10+ years and put on substantial events.

Thompson cited positive feedback but noted several of the more established events are postponing. “They have very set ways of doing it. But we have had a good response to our virtual offering. See how it goes for the next month,” she said.  

Thompson saluted her team at Cancer Council, who have worked long hours to pull this together.

“We knew we had to get it out to market as soon as possible. Our team has put in the hours to get it out, but also had amazing responses from across our organisation. The whole organisation knows how important this campaign is to the charity, and they’re supporting where they can with resourcing,” she said.  

“We are an innovative bunch, and you have to be creative as we don’t have big budgets. So that culture was already there. We knew there could be a lot of opportunity and that helped focus us to think differently. Options are clear when you are just forced to do it.”

The hardest thing for Cancer Council is just having to execute, and Thompson said she’s watching out for burn out and ensuring teams focus on their health and wellbeing in this challenging environment.

In terms of ROI and outcomes, clearly it’s hard to predict but Thompson said Cancer Council has reforecast down in 2020.

“We know several VIP supporters that will postpone. With this economy, this won’t be for everyone, so less people will do it,” she said. The group is also looking at further ways to fundraise in the new crisis environment.

“Cancer patients need us more than ever, and we need to raise money to continue to run critical services,” Thompson said.  

“But we are a community organisation, and we want to support the community as much as they support people with cancer. We need to be sensitive to that – people give if they are able to and it’s right for them to do so.”  

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