Reprinted from the April 12 edition of The Weekend Briefing.
You and your team have planned a massive, complex fundraising effort for nearly a year. At the absolute last minute, catastrophe strikes.
What do you do?
The Northwestern University Student Dance Marathon is one of the largest student-run philanthropies in the country. The 2020 event, scheduled for March 6-8, was cancelled by the University due to health concerns.
Undaunted, the Co-Chairs and their Executive Committee reshaped the event in 48 hours into a virtual event – and raised $1,029,366, the 10th year in a row the event has raised more than $1 million. There were more than 10,000 unique donors.
It is a privilege for me to introduce you to two remarkable women.
Can you give us a little background?
We’re both seniors and just graduated in March. Rachel Cantor is from Glencoe, IL; I majored in Communication Studies, and minored in French. Eliana Scobey is from Washington Township, NJ; I majored in Learning and Organizational Change, and Political Science.
There are 20 other Executive Board members. The Dance Marathon has 10 committees, each with 2 co-chairs; Community Engagement, Corporate Relations, Development and Alumni Relations, Dancer Accessibility and Experience, Finance, Food, Marketing & Media, Productions, Special Events, Tech & Analytics.
When you were told by the University that the Dance Marathon was cancelled, did you expect it?
We were shocked that they made the decision to cancel our Dance Marathon. It is a cherished tradition at Northwestern and our Executive Board had been working on it for 10 months. We dedicated so much to this effort and it was devastating, especially for the seniors, as this would be our last time together “in the tent.”
From the moment you were told of the cancellation until the Dance Marathon was due to start, how much time did you have?
We knew there was a possibility of cancellation, but we provided the University with many alternatives. We thought they would never cancel our event 2 days prior. They told us Wednesday morning. Our Dance Marathon was supposed to start on Friday around 6pm.
How did you get the word out about the shift to a viral event?
The University notified students and University partners about the decision, but NUDM emailed all our dancers and committee members with a more personalized, tailored message. We crafted our own statement and posted that on our social media accounts (Facebook and Instagram).
What constituted the viral event? How in the world did you fill 30 hours?
We started posting content we had already created, on our social media accounts throughout the weekend when the Dance Marathon would’ve taken place. Our videos perform really well and we had those videos ready to play in the tent, so we just posted those on our platform. Some of those videos included past beneficiary updates, celebrity videos, etc.
We also reached out to past dance marathon executive board members to start a “Dancing Around the World” campaign. We had alums send us videos of support from all over the world. We also sent all of our email campaigns that we planned on sending out during the Dance Marathon.
How did you fundraise?
We fundraise on Classy (an online fundraising platform). Each dancer has their own fundraising page, and dancers can also be a part of teams, which have their own fundraising pages. We’ve had Classy set up for the entire year. During the weekend of the Dance Marathon, in collaboration with our primary beneficiary, we were able to secure a $35,000 matching gift, which motivated our dancers to continue to fundraise!
Describe what you and your Executive Committee were doing in those 30 hours. Were you all able to be together?
We couldn’t be together during the 30 Hours. We were all reposting dance marathon content on our social media accounts. We also created a dance marathon Instagram BINGO board for each hour of the Dance Marathon. Some people were emailing donors.
Our Marketing team was reworking our entire 30 Hour social media plan. Some dancers were emailing their donor networks and posting “Donation Dares” on social media. Our Executive Board all came together Saturday night for a dinner and mini celebration.
The two organizations that would be the recipients of the funds raised; did you have a sense of the impact to them when the Dance Marathon was cancelled?
We did have a sense of the potential impact on our beneficiaries. They reached out to us and offered their support. They were more disappointed FOR US.
One of our beneficiaries, Children’s Home & Aid, sent us a really heartwarming message, “You have done SO MUCH for us already. It is an honor to be the beneficiary and the cancellation of the actual Marathon has no bearing at all on that—our team wants to express our utmost gratitude to all of you, and every single dancer, and every single donor.
“You have done immeasurable good for our children, our families, and our community. The money matters, but what the children have gained through the relationships you have formed with them, and simply through knowing that incredible adults care about them, is never going away.
“You have already given our kids something that will last far longer than any dollars raised or event held.”
Last thoughts? Lessons learned? Any words to offer to fundraisers who really feel “up against it” right now?
It was all a whirlwind. We learned so much. We could’ve given up, but instead we chose to fulfill our mission. This experience taught us the true power of community. Although we were all isolated in our homes, this was a time to come together virtually and unite around a common purpose. Even though our event was cancelled, the entire Dance Marathon community rallied to our side and supported us through their kind thoughts, donations and love.
It taught us that sometimes things are out of your control, and the best thing you can do is accept that, normalize it, keep your heads held high, and stay positive.
Yours is one of the most significant fundraising achievements of the last decade and an inspiration to advancement professionals everywhere.
You never gave up.
You are my heroes.
Have a good week, my friends.