ALSAC/St. Jude CMO Raises Marketing Bar For Nonprofits

Imagine being the CMO of an organization that costs nearly $1 billion a year to operate, but more than 75% of that cost must be raised from individual donations. Plus, your customers have no obligation to pay for the products and services they receive. Welcome to Emily Callahan’s world.

ALSAC/St. Jude CMO Raises Marketing Bar For Nonprofits

Imagine being the CMO of an organization that costs nearly $1 billion a year to operate, but more than 75% of that cost must be raised from individual donations. Plus, your customers have no obligation to pay for the products and services they receive.

Well, this is the business Emily Callahan is in as the first CMO at ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, in Memphis. The hospital’s mission is to find cures and save children battling pediatric cancer and other life-threatening diseases. talked with Callahan to understand how she leads marketing in this very successful nonprofit business model, and what learnings might be applicable in the for-profit sector. What is the history of ALSAC and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital?

Callahan: The history of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital starts in 1962 where the late entertainer Danny Thomas established a simple but a profound premise–to save kids from cancer no matter who they were. He boldly insisted that no family would ever have to pay nor would they ever be turned away due to race, religion, or income. St. Jude is the only hospital where families never pay for treatment, travel, housing, or food because St. Jude believes all a family should worry about is helping their child live.

Danny’s legacy continues today. St. Jude is leading the way the world understands, treats, and defeats childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Since its opening, St. Jude has helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rates from 20% to more than 80%, and St. Jude won’t stop until no child dies from cancer. Children from all 50 states and around the world come through the doors of St. Jude for treatment and follow-up. St. Jude freely shares the breakthroughs it makes through a number of channels, including, St. Jude Cure4Kids, published research, and more. That way doctors and scientists worldwide can use that knowledge to save thousands more children. When you arrived at St. Jude five years ago, it was already one of the largest nonprofit brands in the world. What did you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities when you arrived, and what did you do to get your management and team to buy in to what needed to be done?

Callahan: ALSAC was already an incredibly successful organization when I joined, but it did not have a formal marketing division. It was a unique and exciting honor to serve as the first CMO for the organization and build the marketing function by pulling together existing teams and adding new talents and functionality across brand marketing, creative, communications, and interactive marketing. Through the CMO role and in partnership with the president and CEO of ALSAC, Rick Shadyac, who has been the champion for this effort from day one, we have been able to build a brand-centric culture where everyone in the organization is responsible for the stewardship of the brand, as well as the funds raised to support our mission.

Our long-term vision is to move the St. Jude brand to iconic status, which we measure through a proprietary scorecard methodology and annual research to help us understand how our brand is perceived, understood, and supported. That information is absolutely critical to helping us increase the prominence of St. Jude on a national and international scale and helping a global audience better understand our relevance to help raise dollars needed to support our work.

To chart the path to becoming an iconic brand, we follow the best practices of for-profits and nonprofits: engage in research and use data and analytics to understand our audiences; carefully follow trends [social, economic, political, etc.]; and seek advice from experts and maximize every marketing tool, including video, email, mail, social, mobile, and experiential marketing. [We also] leverage partnerships with corporate and community partners, celebrities, media, and others.

As a global organization, it is important that we expand the reach of the St. Jude brand and message so people everywhere are aware of this resource as we work to help the world’s most vulnerable. Prior to joining St. Jude, you were the SVP of global marketing and networks at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world’s largest breast cancer organization. What learnings did you bring into St. Jude from this other nonprofit leadership brand and movement?

Callahan: At Komen, I first understood the power of a global movement and the ability of one person to make a difference in the world. I also learned the influence that a nonprofit brand can have on both the public and private sector in the U.S. and beyond.

The Komen role, a first for me in the nonprofit space, also solidified my desire to have a career focused on nonprofits and mission-based causes. Continuing my career at ALSAC and becoming a mother have only furthered my deep passion for working for a cause—in this case, children—alongside one of the one world’s most talented teams, devoted volunteers, generous donors, and hardworking, caring people who gladly make sacrifices, knowing their work is impactful and saves lives. I believe that to be successful in any way, you must surround yourself with incredible people who are smarter than you so you can learn each day as you lead. At ALSAC, I am surrounded by remarkable people who represent the best of humanity.

I have found that I am most fulfilled when I have the chance to make a difference. I try to live my life by my funeral principle: reflecting on what people would say at my funeral as motivation to be the best I can be. I hope they would say I was a great mother, wife, partner, and friend who made a difference by helping those in need. What stage is the St. Jude brand at today? What’s next?

Callahan: We are making tremendous progress with brand marketing. Since joining ALSAC, St. Jude was named the Health Nonprofit Brand of the Year based on the 2015 Harris Poll EquiTrend Equity Score for the second year in a row. St. Jude also received the highest quality ranking of all 1,400 brands surveyed through 38,000 consumers. St. Jude continues to receive top scores in favorability and engagement as the most trusted nonprofit brand. Additionally, St. Jude is most likely to be recommended by others based on its Net Promoter Score, which also measures brand loyalty.

While the brand may be highly recognizable, it is critical that we continue to find new ways to communicate how St. Jude is unique and different, so people continue to understand how much we need their support to ensure St. Jude is always here as a global resource for children.

We are also closely monitoring trends and changing demographics, looking for ways to introduce the brand to new audiences. The emergence of millennials, the variety of multicultural influences, and technology are having an impact on how information is processed and how we innovate and evolve our work. This requires a laser focus on messaging and content and sophisticated marketing to ensure people get contacted in the right place, right way, and right time with information they find motivating and engaging. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was cited as the No. 1 most-trusted nonprofit brand, according to Harris Interactive, and has a Charity Navigator rating of 100 out of 100 for accountability and transparency. In an age where people expect authenticity from brands, and where it is difficult to earn consumer trust, what is St. Jude’s formula to achieve this high level?

Callahan: Authenticity is critical. It is a key ingredient for world-class brands, and it is something we take very seriously. Our mission has been the same from day one and is highly focused: to find the cures and help save children everywhere. Everyone who works here knows what is at stake in our efforts and is committed to working together to achieve our founder’s vision that “no child die in the dawn of life.” We believe that children deserve a chance to grow up and enjoy the special milestones in life. As such, we put the mission at the center of everything we do and empower our employees and millions of supporters and partners to work together. St. Jude has an impressive on-the-ground, online, on-air marketing and in-community portfolio that any for-profit brand would relish. What is your strategy for selecting and integrating this complex mix of platforms to grow the St. Jude brand and raise funds?

Callahan: ALSAC’s marketing mix and fundraising components are vast and varied, including traditional media, social media, using and promoting and engaging people with an extensive array of properties.

In all, ALSAC and its volunteers coordinate about 31,000 fundraising activities annually to provide the funds to operate and maintain St. Jude. Participants include millions of Americans from all backgrounds who support the hospital through a variety of campaigns, programs, and events in collaboration with various national partners and organizations, such as Kmart, Best Buy, KAY Jewelers, Domino’s, and Tri Delta.

We focus on engaging our more than 9 million supporters at every age and stage of life in the mission of St. Jude. We are fortunate to have a diverse portfolio of fundraising programs and initiatives that engage people where they live, work, and play.

We have a three-year strategic plan that guides our organization and outlines areas for innovation and evolution. We also use a matrix-marketing approach, focused on integrated marketing and development efforts on a rolling 18-month calendar. This allows us to maximize current programs with target audiences and identify areas for innovation and improvement to maximize every dollar raised.

Research and regular testing ensures our strategies for awareness and engagement through creative, messaging, and fundraising are consistent, motivating, and thoroughly integrated across all touch points. How do you use social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to tell the St. Jude story and engage a variety of audiences?

Callahan: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc., are fundamental, essential marketing-mix tools for our St. Jude storytelling strategy. We continually test new and emerging social platforms to reach and engage new audiences. Social media allows people from across the country and around the world to connect and engage as a community of supporters and deepen their relationship with St. Jude. To facilitate this, we partner directly with today’s largest social networks to leverage trends and best practices and regularly share rich, engaging content about St. Jude patients with beautiful images and video.

We ensure consistency in our message while tailoring content to each unique social community, and we encourage our social followers to share our mission through their social networks. We continuously monitor our communities and leverage opportunities to join the conversations that take place within them. What are the top three lessons you’ve learned leading marketing in two successful nonprofit organizations that you think CMOs in for-profit companies should apply?

Callahan: First, purpose matters. Find your purpose–the “why” behind your work–and dream big. Be visionary, bold, strategic, and innovative to achieve meaningful success around that “why,” and your team will dream along with you. We spend much of our lives at work; make it count for something bigger than the bottom line.

Second, authenticity is critical. Be authentic, be real, be purposeful, and do not take any opportunity for granted. Your reputation is your currency. I try to treat every day as if it is the day I am interviewing for my job. I never forget that my work is only made possible by the generous sacrifices of others.

Third, you are only as good as your people. Hire great people with drive and energy who are smarter than you and will challenge you. Be compassionate and caring about the people you have the privilege of leading and help them reach their potential. Nothing makes me happier than helping people experience career fulfillment and growth.