When Regina Ellis’s five-year-old daughter Alexandra died tragically of cancer 25 years ago in Portland, Oregon, the tiny girl left a vast legacy. Throughout her grueling hospital treatments, Alexandra’s family marveled at her instinctual ability to ask for things that could produce joy and relieve anxiety—music, art, friendship, laughter.
In her grief, Ellis vowed to help other kids navigate often scary and life-upending cancer treatments. Inspired by the lessons she learned from Alexandra’s outsized emotional intelligence, she started the Children’s Cancer Association (CCA) in 1995. The organization has since raised tens of millions through a fundraising effort that’s cultivated multiple revenue paths and offers a compelling case study of how to mobilize resources for health work that evokes powerful emotions among prospects and donors.
A Focus on Joy and More
“The ability to access joy when you are scared is critical,” Ellis says. “With Alexandra, we saw a correlation between these things and her ability to thrive during chemo, surgery, and radiation. It was a lifeline for her during her struggle. We wanted to create an organization that would help other sick kids access joyful things to create wellness.”
CCA has concentrated on three areas that would have the most significant “joy” impact for youngsters coping with scary medical protocols in big, impersonal hospital settings—music, friendship, and nature. These became CCA’s highly successful MyMusicRx, NatureRx , and Chemo Pal mentor programs, which “prescribe joy” to young cancer patients with engaging musical experiences, group nature experiences, and volunteer friends to help them through chemotherapy.
Another Link Program enlists the help of people and organizations to provide families with essential needs such as home renovations for wheelchair access, gas cards, car maintenance, holiday gift giving, school backpacks, and meal preparations. The charity’s Community Outreach and Education program offers educational resources and volunteer opportunities.
“In hospitals, primary care for cancer patients is around surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation,” Ellis says. “We want to transform health care with new standards and ways to provide treatments that are integrated in each health system. CCA provides these programs in hospitals for free.”
“Joy-based programs like CCA should be a new standard of care in children’s hospitals, Ellis says, “and right now CCA is the only organization of our kind in the nation, with the only 24/7 online digital music program for music medicine.”
CCA’s MyMusicRx bedside program in which volunteer musicians visit patients with a box of musical instruments that the children can play along with them is currently offered in hospitals in Portland, Ore.; Boston; Hartford, Conn.; and Austin, Tex. A CCA digital music program is in 20 hospitals across the country.
“Our goal is to be in 250 children’s hospital in five years, “ Ellis says. “To extend our program we deliver staff to the new hospital and they, in turn, manage volunteers. Children and families evaluate their experiences with our programs, and we have learned that it lowers stress and anxiety levels as well as perceived pain.”
Grassroots Fundraising, Loyal Donors
“We have raised over $65 million,” says Ellis, “with 70 cents of every dollar going back into the programs, keeping them free and accessible for all children. Donor loyalty and one-to-one fundraising has been at the heart of our success.” Last year alone, CCA’s fundraising returns topped $5.9 million.
Jenny O’Brien, CCA’s senior vice president of revenue and development, says that “a key ingredient in raising money at CCA is that we know what families need when they are thrown into this chaos of their medical journey. We have no membership program. We raise every dollar through people’s generosity.”
Children’s Cancer Association began with the generosity and talents of Ellis’s close friends, family, and advisors. It was a grassroots effort with events like the Joy Drive and Winter Car Raffle and Wonderball Gala that allowed CCA to raise revenue and grow its database.
“Events have been our biggest successes,” O’Brien says, “including the Celebration of Courage Event, Golf for Joy, and Summer Joy Games. Our Wonderball Gala raises $1.3 million annually. We created a gala that has a lot of musical surprises—with incredible live music and an auction full of tickets to music concerts. Nike, the Oregon-based company, has been an instrumental fundraiser since CCA’s beginning. On Valentine’s Day Nike employees put on a fundraiser that raises about $350,000.”
Online fundraising and peer-to-peer campaigns include the Dawn to Dusk fundraiser hosted by the Bridge City Paddling Club, whose members host fundraising pages to support their efforts to paddle dragon boats for 12 hours in a single day. This annual fundraiser has been supporting CCA for 10 years, raising more than $250,000. The Walk for Joy campaign rallies over 500 local high school students to leverage their personal networks to help kids with cancer. They create fundraising pages to solicit donations online, and then come together on Walk for Joy Day. Walk for Joy has been supporting CCA for more than five years, raising a collective $225,000.
The most prominent online campaign is the fun “Bedstock.” Musicians, as CCA says, “play from their beds for kids stuck in theirs.” Some of the nearly 350 musicians featured include Death Cab for Cutie, Weird Al, Elle King, TV on the Radio, Jack Johnson, Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, and Norah Jones. The popular event began in 2013 and brought consistent, quality content to the kids and families CCA serves, while raising $225,000.
Creating and retaining successful relationships with donors and leaders is a priority at CCA. “Our leaders and donors have been with us since the beginning, and we strive to focus on their interests and philanthropic goals by scheduling one-on-one conversations, providing regular impact reports on what their investments make possible, and inviting them on tours to see the programs in action, meetings with our program teams, and to our events. We lead with joy and want that same joy for our events and galas,“ O’Brien says.
A Diverse Funding Base
“Because of our research strategy into the health benefits of our programs, we expect federal and state grant opportunities,” O’Brien says. “Over the next 18 to 24 months, CCA will focus on aligning resources and capital to start seeking new federal, national, and regional foundation partners. One goal: driving more research into non-invasive, integrated care treatments for pediatric cancer patients.
CCA currently receives funds from more than 65 private, corporate, and community foundations annually. Its largest grants have come from the MJ Murdock Trust, which has contributed more than $1 million in the past two decades. Most recently, Murdock supported a new position—a vice president of programs to lead the charity’s national expansion efforts.
“CCA has also seen a significant increase in donor-advised funds in the past two years, and some of our most generous individual donors give through their DAFs,” O’Brien says. Those gifts, she notes, are all outright donations with none of that money going toward buying tickets or supporting CCA events in other ways.
CCA’s board has always been extremely active in fundraising. Each board member is responsible for helping recruit corporate partners, including CCA in third-party events, and bringing new potential donors to the charity’s annual gala.
Of course, no nonprofit can escape the current momentous effect of the coronavirus crisis. “The virus will touch every fundraising effort for the foreseeable future,” says Ellis, “especially in our supper clubs and the Wonderball Gala. That’s $500,000 we need to replace. And unfortunately, it will lead to even more isolation for children in hospitals, which is why delivering MyMusicRx and Chemo Pal programs through social and digital channels will be so important.”
Like all nonprofits that rely on public support in this time of crisis,” O’Brien says, “we have to diversify and connect with donors in new and different and meaningful ways.” CCA has a MyMusicRx Champions Board in New York consisting of leaders and executives from media companies, global consumer brands, and the music industry who provide strategic insights and connections that make the charity’s flagship music medicine program possible. CCA convenes other groups from around the country who advise it on growth strategies, including people from the music industry, creative agencies, and others with a variety of technical expertise.
“CCA has a great opportunity to create programs,” says Ellis, “but our biggest challenge lies in how we can continue to be innovative. We need to diversify our revenue sources, sharpen our mass marketing skills, and break into new markets.”
“Cancer is the leading cause of death in children in the United States,” Ellis concludes. “They are the most vulnerable and they are more isolated. Kids need more—we want to change the course of care in every hospital and not stop until we do.”