In the midst of a pandemic, economic upheaval and needed societal change, businesses are struggling to navigate one of the most challenging times in modern history. Few, however, are looking to the nonprofit sector for inspiration—but they should, says Richard C. Shadyac Jr., president & CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Charitable organizations are dealing with considerable challenges, and Shadyac has seen peers in the nonprofit industry respond with tremendous creativity. “It has accelerated the imperative for nonprofits to innovate for the preservation of our industry, the well-being of our workforce—which employs one in 12 people in the U.S—and our world-changing missions,” he says.
St. Jude is no stranger to forging new trails. When it was founded in 1962, the premise was unheard of: a racially integrated facility in the segregated South, where children with cancer could receive treatment regardless of background or economic status—and families would never see a bill.
Founder Danny Thomas’ idea to create ALSAC—American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities—as a separate charitable organization to fund St. Jude was also unconventional, but it worked. Today, ALSAC is the world’s largest healthcare charity, and the work it funds at St. Jude has helped raise the U.S. childhood cancer survival rate from 20% to 80%. Now the aim is to raise cure rates worldwide.
Supporting the unique mission of St. Jude requires ALSAC to constantly stay ahead of trends. “Innovation must be constant—in all organizations—to keep pace with the rapidly changing consumer landscape,” Shadyac says. As a result of its innovative and disruptive approach to philanthropy, ALSAC has earned a spot on Fast Company‘s annual list of Best Workplaces for Innovators.
Storytelling that inspires new audiences to give is fundamental to ALSAC’s strategy. A critical part of that strategy is tapping the expertise of its Digital and Innovation Advisory Council, comprising executives from private-sector firms including Domino’s, Facebook, Hulu, Hilton, and more.
Their insights are key as ALSAC undertakes ambitious projects, such as the St. Jude Hall of Heroes. The award-winning virtual reality experience created by ALSAC, Facebook, BBDO, and Oculus lets viewers immerse themselves in another world to experience stories of patients who have faced life-threatening childhood diseases, brought to life as modern day heroes.
ANTICIPATING WHAT’S NEXT
Melanee Hannock, ALSAC’s chief digital and innovation officer, agrees with Shadyac: the future of philanthropy depends on innovation. “Technology is rapidly evolving and disrupting every category,” she says. “Any organization, especially one in philanthropy, should consider itself in the innovation and technology business.”
That’s why every employee at ALSAC is accountable for innovation and taught innovation methodologies. In addition to a dedicated innovation function and centers of excellence in data and analytics, the organization has two futurists to help predict trends in technology and demographics. And, employees participate in dedicated accelerator teams to fast-track solutions to pressing business challenges.
That work has helped ALSAC fulfill its immense commitments to patients— even in the midst of a pandemic. The organization created five major virtual events and countless other initiatives to replace more than 100 physical events postponed or canceled so far due to COVID-19. “We had to pivot on a dime to transform our approaches,” Hannock says. “It was a monumental effort enabled by years of investment and foresight in innovation.”