Cancer Council: Finding the physical-virtual engagement balance post-COVID

Marketing leader of not-for-profit shares the learnings and experiences of pivoting fundraising campaigns in 2020 and the lessons she's applying to 2021 activities

Physical health and wellness challenges and virtual gamification have proven the unexpected wins for Cancer Council in what has been a disruptive and difficult year for fundraising in the not-for-profit sector.  

“From a fundraising and marketing perspective, we were hit very hard and forced to make very difficult decisions around our fundraising,” Cancer Council campaign unit manager, Jennifer Birks, told CMO. “Most face-to-face community events for fundraising had to be cancelled, which led to a significant decrease in our income.”  

In the first three months, fundraising was down by half. Cancer Council is also looking at a drop of $20 million over the year due to the pandemic.  

Yet with a resilient community supporter base and a commitment to continue to be there for people affected by cancer, the charity’s team responded to the difficult conditions with varying offers to what was available pre-COVID.  

“Thanks to our portfolio of campaigns, we are one of the luckier not-for-profits big enough to have a series of different campaigns in market at various times throughout the year,” Birks said.  “We had good portfolio of campaigns that had an ability to turn virtual or were part-virtual, and we could create some sustainability.”    

And it’s these learnings and difficulties experienced in the pandemic year now guiding the NFP’s 2021 campaign strategy, activities and ambitions in this bridging year and beyond.  

2020 wins and learnings  

At a strategic level, Birks said the trick in 2021 is balancing physical and virtual engagement. “There is a fine line between fully virtual and having engagement on the ground, which we know with our supporter base has been incredibly important to them and brings them closer to the cause,” she said.  

This decision arguably takes its cues from Cancer Council’s 2020 experience around The Longest Day, a marathon golf challenge where participants play four rounds in one day. During COVID, many golf clubs remained open and were minimally impacted by restrictions. At the same time, physical challenges grew in popularity across consumer bases.  

More than 100 clubs offered to open to the public for Cancer Council, allowing it to offer free admission for the challenge. The result was 2000 participants and $3.1 million raised. “That was an unexpected win for us,” Birks said.    

The March Charge, meanwhile, which encourages consumers to run or walk as far as they can within the month of March to raise funds, is virtual in its essence. It again proved a strong performer both in 2020 as well as this year. Birks said 11,000 participants are involved this month, and have walked or run 500,000 kms so far, generating nearly $2 million nationally.  

“The nature of its being virtual and over the course of a month means people can do it in their own time and space,” she explained.    

“What stood out for me was the story of one of our chargers who were struggling. We created a virtual hug and added this as a donation badge. As COVID continued, and as people were feeling struggling, people were able to donate to each other and create engagement within the community.”  

That increased gamification within the campaign has seen 246 people donate to another individual participant through the virtual platform. “That was an unexpected touch,” Birks said.    

In recent years, The March Charge campaign has also shifted from branding geared towards the elite to being open to anyone. “We’re seeing real uptake from just about anyone participating to charge for a person going through cancer or to empower themselves and keep healthy and well,” Birks said. “It’s a broad group participating and it’s gaining traction.”  

The March Charge is ultimately about promoting health and wellness. As Birks explained, fitness is one of the positive ways of decreasing your chances of cancer and an important prevention tactic.  

“In the last 12 months, we have certainly seen an increase in the popularity of physical challenges participation. That, teamed with opportunity to do a challenge in your own area, makes it a good opportunity for people to do what they were going to be doing anyway but add further purpose,” Birks continued.  

One of biggest shifts for Cancer Council was its 7 Bridges Walk, which had to pivot to a completely virtual event in October 2020. Instead of signing up to walk the seven bridges of Sydney, participants engaged virtually.  

“That still raised significant funds for us, and we still saw over 5000 participants get involved,” Birks said.  

A more surprising aspect in 2020 was that the ingrained physical event for the Sydney community attracted significant interest from regional NSW participants. “We hadn’t expected that, but they saw opportunity to get involved in the reoriented 7 Bridges challenge, which was to do 28km in a day or week,” Birks said.    

Against this, traditional community events in regions particularly, such as Realise the Life, saw huge declines and were unable to move to a virtual environment given the nature of these kinds of events. It was a similar story for the iconic Biggest Morning Tea, hosted each May.  

“We tried to turn that completely virtual. What we found, however, was many hosts involved every year are workplaces, and that usual getting around the kitchen table, sharing morning tea and creating a team building experience was hard as people were working at home,” Birks said.  

“We did see an uptake of people getting involved digitally but it wasn’t the same. In 2020, some people who have never participated before embraced the virtual opportunity to connect teams across the country.  

“But most longstanding hosts and workplaces missed the physical engagement. There were some big learnings for us from that.”  

Read more: Cancer Council on the call to host the Biggest Virtual Morning Tea

This year, the Morning Tea takes a deliberately hybrid approach, with a big push to encourage people to come together physically on 27 May to share morning tea and try and bring that physical engagement back.  

Building the 2021 plan

Of course, investments made into digital capability in 2020 are going to important more broadly in 2021. It’s a list that includes QR codes, gamification tools, virtual remembrance walls, information seminars and more for Cancer Council.  

“With the March Charge, we could use those lessons around running a virtual event to enhance pivoting our physical events like the 7 Bridges. And we created personal QR codes for The Longest Day participants, so when they logged into online dashboard, they could download poster with their QR code so they could donate directly to them,” Birks said.  

This year is about looking broadly at new products, areas of the product mix and audiences not necessarily covered. “Those are the gaps for us to create new opportunities and encourage different areas of the community to get involved,” Birks said.     

Another important lesson Birks cited from 2020 is the need for consistent innovation and ideation.  

“This disruption made us realise we always need new ideas and opportunity of connecting through consistently, and we need opportunities to speak to different markets that are adaptable,” she said. “Especially in my role, it’s clear we just can’t have our eggs in one basket.”    

The other big learning is knowing when it’s time to pivot and pursue something different. To do this, Birks stressed the importance of listening to customer feedback and acting on it.  

“It’s apparent to us that there is a lifecycle involved in campaigns. What might be meaningful to an audience for a couple of years might not be in the next 5-10 years,” she said.    

“We’re just making sure we’re listening to our communities, what they want to do and then give them the platform to do that. We want to get better at listening to fundraisers, participants, taking on feedback and giving them the platforms to leverage what they want to do.”    

As to consumer behaviours Birks expected to stick around beyond the pandemic, health and wellness trend is a big one. “The physical events aspect is a real surprise in terms of how many people still involved themselves virtually in these activities so we will look across other areas in the next 12 months,” she said.    

Birks also spied more opportunity to highlight prevention messaging through messaging across donor journeys and communities.  

“We have also started looking at other ways to build messaging, such as our information support line – 13 11 20 – for those going through cancer at the moment. More we let them know that exists for friends, family and themselves is something we’re looking to embed in messaging more and more as we realise that the more integrated messaging is better for supporters,” she said.    

But the biggest cultural lesson for Birks is one of resilience. “It’s about challenging myself and the team on how to be innovative, what is the most effective way to be innovative and to grow and learn from what we have done over the 12 months. It’s not all going to be perfect when you have a year like we’ve had in 2020,” she said.  

“What really impacted my team and supporters was to celebrate all the wins, recognise our community is very resilient, and always remember why we work in this industry. If we keep that at the heart of what we do, we really can’t go wrong.”

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