Please tell us about yourself and your work at The Leukemia Research Foundation.
The Leukemia Research Foundation (LRF) was founded in 1946 when a 12-year-old was diagnosed with leukemia. At that time, there was no hope for a cure, and the family asked what they could do to help. Doctors suggested they raise money to fund research, and they raised $2,500 just by canning on the street. In many ways, 70 years later, we still operate with the same emotional spirit. We have 24 chapters and seven paid employees. The LRF has grown into a four-star charity. Our mission is dedicated to conquering all blood cancers by funding research into their causes and cures, and enriching the lives of those touched by this disease.
What is your marketing strategy and do you find you have enough resources to achieve your marketing goals?
The LRF has three major goals: to fund worldwide medical research; to provide a need-based patient financial assistance program; and to educate patients and families. From a marketing standpoint, the most difficult component of our organization is to raise money so we can continue to support the mission we serve.
We are trying to engage supporters from multiple demographic groups, with ages anywhere from their teens to 70 years old. Making medical research tangible to people is difficult, and relating to people at so many different life stages is equally tough. We rely heavily on graphics, research advances, and storytelling to get our message out there. For example, for all types of leukemia combined, the five-year survival rate is now about 50% and nearly 90% for childhood leukemia. In 1946, there was no hope for survival. This great progress is made possible, in part, because organizations like ours donate money to research. But, people don’t understand it is a long process and it takes time.
In the last five years, technology has changed the digital landscape. How has technology changed your outreach strategy?
Digital has changed everything we do. We recently maximized our website for digital and made it mobile-friendly. We used to send out a print newsletter; now, it’s completely online. We have a digital database of supporters and new technology is helping us create better relationships with them. We are also active with social media, posting a few times a week about survival stories and facts and research in the field.
Do you think non-profits and The Leukemia Research Foundation in particular need to adjust their strategies to stand out in today’s constantly changing environment? How?
There is absolutely a need for non-profits to change. The state of Illinois is home to more than 100,000 non-profit organizations. Shrinking government aid is a huge challenge that many non-profits have faced. Non-profits need to make their branding message clear and concise so it’s easy for supporters to find them. It would be great to find a PR agency who can help us on a pro bono basis! I think non-profits also need to be adaptable and ready to pounce on new opportunities.
What are the biggest challenges you face today that has been initiated by changes in your beneficiaries, technologies, resources, or other factors?
It’s a fast-paced world. The need for prompt attention to content marketing in our organization is an overwhelming task. We only have seven full-time people on staff, and everyone does a bit of marketing in their roles. We are always questioning the impact of the efforts. For example, acquiring, managing, and updating simple email addresses is a constant challenge. Then, we need to segment who is receiving what messages from us. A patient receives different communication than a donor would. Next, we need to carefully manage and juggle the frequency of our messaging so we don’t send too much that leads to fatigue and supporters opting out. There are a lot of things we would like to do, but both personnel and funding capacity is limited.
What would you recommend students interested in working in marketing communications for a non-profit pay attention to, today, that they maybe didn’t have to five years ago?
If students want to go into non-profit work, first and foremost they have to be passionate about whatever cause they get involved in. If you’re not, donors and supporters will see right through you. Non-profit is just a tax code, not a way of doing business – the same challenges that exist in the for-profit world exist here. You have to be ready and adaptive to change, wear many hats, and stay on top of ever-emerging changes on the digital landscape. If you don’t like change and can’t tolerate pressure, the non-profit world is not for you.
Interview by Kaitlyn Thompson & Mary Fox, Medill IMC Class Of 2017