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Unlocking Growth for Organizations and Idealists Like You

Going Bald: St. Baldrick's Fundraising Success Story

When you think about childhood cancer, what images come to mind? What acts of selflessness or empowerment resonate? Chances are, head shaving is one of them.

St. Baldrick’s Foundation, the “world’s largest volunteer organization for childhood cancer” has captured the power of head shaving, packaged it for communities, and unleashed its full potential to mobilize networks through peer-to-peer. What began as a challenge between a few colleagues in 2000 has exploded into a scalable social DIY fundraising program mobilizing nearly 58,000 “shavees” to raise a whopping $38,988,526 in 2014.

The jist of the program is simple. A shavee-to-be hops onto the website, finds a shaving event in their area (or creates one if none are nearby), signs-up, sets up their personal fundraising page, and attends a community shave-a-thon on a specific date to have their head shaved.

At any given event, approximately 60% of volunteers will choose to come back the following year; these repeaters are powering the majority of the program’s growth. This can be attributed in large part to St. Baldrick’s League of Legendary Heroes Program, which recognizes repeat volunteers through knighting ceremonies. (Note: “volunteer” is a broadly defined term in this case that includes fundraisers, event hosts, barbers, and donors.) An impressive 2,600 volunteers have earned the Knight of the Bald Table title (seven years of service). Think about that for a second. 2,600 people have taken an inventory of their lives, considered their cause affiliations and responsibilities, and have chosen – seven times over – to shave their heads in support of St. Baldrick’s. 

We have been following the dynamics behind the program’s steady ascent to number 16 on the Peer-to-Peer Top Thirty index for some time now, and were psyched when the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum featured Chief Development Officer Vickie Lobello and Director of Family Relations Jane Hoppen in their July Webinar: “Bringing Back Your Best Fundraisers.”

During the sixty-minute session, we gleaned some insider information on the “why” behind St. Baldrick’s impressive $38 million dollar fundraising program and high retention rates. 

The “Why”: The Participant Gears
The team at St. Baldrick’s attributes the program’s growth and fundraising success to “connecting people, purpose, and profit.” Translated into Plenty jargon, that means that the program has successfully harnessed the Participant Gears to generate momentum and revenue growth. The League of Legendary Heroes plays a role in powering participation, but it isn’t the whole picture.   

Here’s a behind-the-numbers look at St. Baldrick’s Head Shaving program through the lens of cause, community and activity: 

Cause: Creating Real Connections to Childhood Cancer
Childhood cancer charities and hospitals operate in a serious and sad realm; St.Baldrick’s understands that, for that reason, “people often shy away from the issue because they don’t want to think about it.” But they refuse to let connections between their volunteers and the cause fade, and strive to connect their fundraisers to childhood cancer in palatable ways, from sign-up to the big day.

One example of this is the program’s “Brave the Shave” video, which, in less than 90 seconds, seamlessly weaves the exhilaration of head shaving with images of patients, a voice recording describing the critical need for funding, and images of researchers fighting a cure in the laboratory. Yet another can be found on the head shaving sign-up page, which is graced with the photo of a cancer patient named Zoe, diagnosed at age four, and the tagline “Meet Zoe. You Can Help Save Her Life.” Through one image and a few seconds, St. Baldrick’s has empowered, inspired, and grounded visitors to the page. It’s impossible to ignore Zoe. And, as a result, it’s almost impossible not to get involved – especially when children like Zoe are present on event day. 

Team-10-Strong-Color-After-St-Baldricks-headerOnce in the door, shavees and other volunteers are kept apprised of the impact they’re making in the fight against childhood cancer. Through conferences, multimedia, and phone calls, the organization shares its wins. For example, top event organizers are notified when a new grant is procured, and are often sent videos of the magical moment when people are told they’re approved with funding. Similarly, volunteers are thanked with handwritten notes, phone calls, or online communications and informed of the impact generated by the program at different touch points.

The key is not to over think your communications. St. Baldrick’s is careful to only leverage “organic” messaging at touch-points that “make sense with the cause.” Doing so ensures that their support base feels genuinely connected to the cause, and not advertised to. 

Community: Creating Relationships To Incentivize Fundraising
This program is, by definition and history, a community event. The organization wisely looked to the field for inspiration when it found that three businessmen raised over $100,000 for the Children’s Oncology Group by organizing a head-shaving event on St. Patrick’s Day fifteen years ago. St.Baldrick’s didn’t have to guess at the perfect experiential formula, because it harnessed an existing spark to fire up fundraisers in communities across the nation.    

The League of Legendary Heroes is the beating heart of the head-shaving community: it’s exclusive, it’s tribal, and people want to belong. As soon as you qualify for one of the League’s titles, you’re publicly recognized at a head-shaving event by high-fundraising peers in a formal ceremony, complete with wand and script. Outside of barging into a castle in Europe, where else can you not only witness a knighting ceremony, but also be knighted in public? Building an exclusive community for top fundraisers is powerful because it incentivizes repeat fundraising, converting one-time participants into multi-year participants, while also strengthening the connections between your core base of support.

St. Baldrick’s understands that robust communities must be supplemented by online activities, both via social media and the web. On social, head-shaving events have private (exclusivity is important!) Facebook groups where volunteers can connect with others in their area, ask questions, and learn more about the cause. The program also leverages Twitter and Instagram – channels that allow for shorter, more visual communications. The organization also knows that fostering a two-way street of communication is a critical component of a successful communications strategy, which is why responses and questions from volunteers are promptly addressed and dialogues are enthusiastically encouraged.

So what can you take away from St. Baldrick’s success? Strengthen your community of supporters through exclusive, public, and meaningful recognition ceremonies, use digital channels to support your communications strategy when you can’t interact in person, and foster open and ongoing conversations with your constituent base.

Activity: Infuse Fun Into Your Experience
The power of experiential fundraising lies in the coming together of your community. Through experiential programs, your organization has a captive, fundraising audience at your fingertips. It’s what you do with these critical moments that matters most. St.Baldrick’s understands this well, and the Head Shaving program works diligently to “create experiences, not host events.”

For this program, infusing fun into the event is an important part of creating an unforgettable experience. An event can bring “serious fun to a serious cause and engages people to see the people they’re helping directly…You can’t emphasize enough how fun the event needs to be. Even though this is serious work.”

Knowing that fun events can lead to successful events, St. Baldrick’s holds their events at pubs, stadiums, parks, or other exciting locations, and ensures that each one is a celebration of life, community, laughter, and a future without cancer. And because head-shaving events are volunteer-produced (and supported by a lean crew of full-time staff), the staff makes sure to provide the resources, tools, and support necessary to take the pressure off of the volunteer during the event planning process. Everything from choosing venue locations to securing supplies and t-shirts is managed with the help of staff. The support the staff provides guarantees that volunteers will have energy left over on event day that they can spend making connections, strengthening their community, and having fun.

Remember, a $38 million dollar fundraising program like the Head Shaving program doesn’t emerge overnight – success takes investment, time, and a cohesive strategy.

St. Baldrick’s Head Shaving program has grown like gangbusters precisely because senior leaders such as Ms. Lobello are tuned in to creating an experience that caters to their supporters. Rather than designing an experience from the top down, the program looked to the field for inspiration, harnessing the momentum that grew organically from a few passionate people, and then invested in creative ways to leverage cause, community, and activity to end childhood cancer.


Learn more about how you can harness the power of cause, community, and activity to drive your fundraising program to new levels of success in our e-book "The Participant Gears." Download your free copy below!

Ebook call to action for Participant Gears E-book

Topics: Funding