My family and friends will tell you that I’m a data dork, learn-a-holic and question queen. I guess that is a compliment? 😉 Since taking the helm at the foundation, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about whether raising funds for a rare disease is more difficult than a mainstream one. I find it mysterious that total private philanthropy for sarcoma is paltry in the US. Why is that? What’s the downfall of our disease space, and how can we do markedly better? Aren’t there enough donors out there who care about sarcoma sufferers?
Trust me and keep reading, because 30 seconds from now you’ll agree that we can feel encouraged by the whopping success of another rare disease’s playbook…
Sarcoma’s public relations hurdle #1: What the heck is it?
It is a common nonprofit mantra that the key to raising funds for any cause is rooted in awareness. But what the heck does that truly mean? How does teaching the name of a disease name translate into donations down the line? Does imparting basic facts and statistics move people to open their hearts and their wallets? And, is fundraising success tied to disease incidence?
Just my opinion, but from my vantage point I think sarcoma may have a significant PR problem. Most people have never heard of it, have no clue what parts of the body it strikes, or understand how often it takes lives. Try finding a decent “What is sarcoma?” YouTube video. Maybe 3 in the world? Search Twitter for “#sarcoma” and see how many there are posts with that hashtag. Good luck. You can count on one hand most days.
Sarcoma is diagnosed only about 15,000 times per year. Do you find people have heard of it? Do you think the awareness issue is magnified due to the name of this cancer? After all, sarcoma is not named after a single body part, like breast, lung, colon, prostate, or pancreas. Its name does not give a hint that it is indeed a cancer, nor does the word help anyone visualize a body strike zone.
So have you heard of CF? Know what it is? I made a donation last year to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation because my friend was fundraising for this cause. I knew that CF was a progressive, deadly genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time. And so, I opted to donate. In other words, I had heard of it and had some basic understanding of it. That certainly weighed into my decision to give the gift towards funding research, without having substantial knowledge of CF or knowing anyone suffering from CF.
I decided to look further out of curiosity, and was stunned to learn that CF is diagnosed only 1,000 times per year in the U.S.! And, only 30,000 are living with CF at any given time. (Under 200,000 diagnoses per year is considered a rare disease.) How did I come to be familiar with the name of this exceedingly rare disease? How did I have any knowledge about it? I have no idea!! Did my familiarity, as weak as it was, impact my desire to donate? Yes, absolutely!
Cause awareness – meaning familiarity of name and a basic definition – really matters in the world of fundraising.
Sarcoma public relations hurdle #2: Not enough awareness events means not enough public exposure
There are only a handful of organizations in the entire country devoted to sarcoma awareness and research, and only a short list of fundraising events. The national sarcoma organization is expanding from 5 walks to 9 this year (plus a few galas and patient education conferences), and was only formed in the year 2000. It is young!
Now look for cystic fibrosis organizations and you get tons, including the main CF Foundation, formed in 1955. So how big is CF Foundation given that the disease strikes only 1,000 times per year? The Foundation’s chapters hosted more than 1,000 events from coast to coast in 2015, netting $91 million. This includes more than 125,000 Great Strides walkers gathering in nearly 500 locations across the United and raising nearly $42 million. Mind officially blown.
I know that CF Foundation has a much longer history, but how has a disease that has an incidence of only 1,000 persons per year become so widely known and supported?? The very abbreviated answer is that they funded research extensively and eventually began their own affiliate to develop and test drugs. Some of these drugs became FDA approved and have extended life considerably for CF sufferers. It is truly an AMAZING nonprofit story which we can all learn from.
So, bottom line?
I think that this huge awareness deficit for sarcoma in the U.S. is costly in terms our collective ability to privately fund research, advance science, and ultimately improve survival rates. So how can we make a difference here in Charlotte, NC over the next few decades? Quite frankly, we’ve got to work hard, dream big and raise our voices. Can we continue to spread the word and become the largest run/walk for sarcoma in the US? Should we take the Sarcoma Stomp to other cities? Can our foundation one day raise millions per year and become one of the largest private funders of sarcoma clinical trials and research in this country? Can we become the gold standard? Can we become the role model?
Yes we can.
I want to read this blog post at my retirement gathering (lol) many years from now and hear the crowd audibly cheer as we celebrate our reach, our many milestones and the many curative treatments for sarcomas we have funded. Until then, we should not hide behind a rare disease pity party as a reason for not being able to raise substantial monies for research funding. Victim mentality always backfires. Let’s be more like Cystic Fibrosis in the decades to come. Think big, act big, be big!
So, tap the keys NOW to register for the April 29 Sarcoma Stomp, and let’s get that non pity party started… www.sarcomastomp.org