Inspiration4
ALSAC President and CEO Rick Shadyac speaks during the organization’s National Training Meeting in 2017.
Courtesy ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
Updated: August 10, 2021 9:25 AM EDT | Originally published: August 10, 2021 6:25 AM EDT

TIME Studios is producing the Netflix documentary series Countdown: Inspiration 4 Mission to Space, starting Sept. 6.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which looks after children with cancer while also researching how to eliminate the pediatric form of the disease, raised $2 billion in donations in its last fiscal year. It’s a record for an independent charity, and an impressive feat in a year when donors had more causes than ever vying for their attention and money.

Richard Shadyac, the President and CEO of the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (St. Jude’s fundraising organization), attributes that success to a nimble pivot to different fundraising strategies—one of which was a collaboration with Inspiration4, the first orbital space mission crewed entirely by civilian astronauts. That partnership brought in not only $100 million promised by Jared Issacman, the billionaire commander of the flight, but a further $16 million through such initiatives as a sweepstakes to win a chance at joining Issacman as part of his crew.

TIME recently spoke with Shadyac about the stratospheric challenges of the mission to raise money. The following is lightly edited for length and clarity.

Are there some ways in which solving the puzzle of childhood cancer is a little bit like sending a civilian astronaut to space?

St. Jude has always been about pushing boundaries and taking what seems like impossible and making it possible. Our founder [comedian Danny Thomas] determined that he was going to tackle an incurable disease called leukemia. It had a survival rate of 4% and it was the most common form of childhood cancer. Fast forward almost 60 years and the survival rate is now 94%. It seems impossible that four civilians could go into space and orbit the earth, right? And that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Now, the goal is tackling global cancer; the survival rates in low and middle income countries are 20% or less. So, that’s the current problem that we’re trying to solve, which I think is akin to four civilians being shot into space. (TIME Studios is producing a documentary series on the Inspiration4 mission.)

One way that you could raise the funds you’ll need, people might suggest, would be using the money that these billionaires are spending on going to space. What would you say to those people?

I would say that it’s a both-and. Jared Isaacman has made a $100 million commitment to us. So I would say that Jared is helping to solve this multi-trillion, multi-year problem that global cancer is. For us, it’s both a revenue strategy, and an awareness strategy. It has allowed us to get in front of different audiences. We know that many of the people who participated in this drawing tended to be on the younger side. So it brought some of those people who may not have gravitated toward our mission.

In April 2020, you said that, like nearly every nonprofit, you were being profoundly affected by lost financial support. But then 2021 was a record year. You raised $2 billion. How did that happen?

Whether you were a for-profit CEO or not-for-profit CEO, when we were all going into this pandemic, none of us had ever experienced a pandemic before. It looked like we were going to be taking a material hit from a revenue perspective. We couldn’t do in-person events, just to give you one example. We had been building up our digital fundraising capabilities, and then some very smart people that work for me talked about ways that we could reach our supporters where they were. We knew where they were; they were home. So we employed every method that we could possibly employ to reach them at home, to get our message across, to see if they wanted to support our mission. Those terrible kind of estimates that we were making for revenue actually turned out to be false and we did incredibly well.

You worked with places like Twitch and Strava, which people don’t really think of as networks where donors hang out. How did that work?

I actually am looking for different audiences that could support our mission. Up to 68% of our revenue comes from households with incomes of $75,000 or less. That would include young people and gamers. Our typical donation is in the neighborhood of about $43 to $45. We have 11 million donors. This wasn’t the first year that we had been working with influencers and gamers. Their audiences trust them. So when MattPat or DrLupo and his wife would speak, their audiences believed St. Jude is a cause you need to get behind.

What do you say to people who think that curing cancer is not a problem for charity, it’s a problem for the medical industry to solve?

Sadly, business hasn’t stepped up to solve the problem of pediatric cancer. There’s very little investment from Big Pharma in pediatric cancer. Why? Because kids are a “customer base” of zero to 18. Would you rather work on a problem with a population from 0 to 18 or from 18 to 88?

In 2020 we developed a vaccine for COVID-19, did enough testing on it that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would give it provisional approval, and we figured out how to manufacture it and distribute it within 16 months. I wondered if it leaves charities that deal with other diseases thinking, “um, could we not do this for the disease we’re fighting?”

I dream about that all the time and wonder why it’s taken us as long as it has. But as I talked to doctors and scientists around the world, this is just an incredibly complex problem. Through the work with our pediatric cancer Genome Project, we’ve now found out that there are many, many subtypes of these diseases, and they’re all very different, and where a child is in terms of its development can affect its ability to survive these diseases.

Apart from genomics, you are raising money for such research as proton therapy, immunotherapy and structural biology. Is there one that you find most compelling?

I think it’s attempting to solve the global childhood cancer problem. In the United States, St. Jude has helped take the overall childhood cancer survival rates from 20% to more than 80%. Why can’t we do that around the world?

But in developing nations, more kids are dying of diarrhea than cancer. Should we not address the easy one first?

We can do two things at one time. We take for granted in this country the access that we have to health care. That’s why the pandemic is so frustrating right now. There are therapeutics, there is a vaccine, but around the world they don’t even have access to the COVID vaccine. It’s very frustrating to listen to the debates here in the United States, when you take for granted the access that we have to this incredible health care here.

You’ve been in philanthropy in some way your entire life. What would you like to see and what has surprised you about the way philanthropy works now?

It doesn’t surprise me, but I’m disappointed that our industry hasn’t invested more in technology and digital fundraising. I think that there’s been some lost opportunities at some of our sibling charities. What helped us weather this pandemic was that we were able to reach many of our supporters [digitally], and to pivot to virtual events. I genuinely believe that the next frontier is going to involve artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality and virtual reality. I wish our industry would take more advantage of it. We cannot rely upon old legacy thinking; we really need to develop sustainable business models that constantly iterate and change to meet people where they are. We raise tens of millions of dollars on Facebook. We’re the number one charity of choice on AmazonSmile. We know people are going to use Amazon and Facebook. So why not give a little bit of money back or do a fundraiser for the charity of your choice?

As this generation of tech billionaires begin to enter their leave-a-legacy phase, do you worry or celebrate the outsized power they have to make change?

I worry about outsized influence and that we might not pursue the problems that are the most pressing. I worry about those very large investments in charities that might not have the ability to actually appropriately spend that money. But I also worry about this: those models are not sustainable. MacKenzie [Scott] is amazing. Absolutely incredible. But she can only do that for so long. It’s so much more important that you have 11 million donors; that’s sustainable. That’s going to be there when that big donation actually runs out, that’s how you can make an impact and make progress in your mission. We all have to make sure that we build organizations that are sustainable for the long haul, because solving these problems takes years.

TIME Studios is producing the Netflix documentary series Countdown: Inspiration 4 Mission to Space, starting Sept. 6.

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