Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Cultural Check List

My wife recently participated in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Race for the Cure (of breast cancer). The popularity and success of this event, which is staged at different times in different cities across the country, can be attributed to way it taps into the deep roots of American philanthropic culture. In particular, the event works because it:

1. Defines common cause ("race" underscores the urgency while "cure" defines the purpose; an audacious goal stated in clear and simple terms);

2. Promotes community (the event attracts thousands of walkers who trek together over three days, ultimately traversing 60 miles, bonding with each other as they go and with the many well-wishers who line the route and offer their encouragements);

3. Encourages individual expression (with walkers donning all sorts of costumes and get-ups, and coming up with names that incorporate or pun on "breast" or its more colorful synonyms, and, yet, it is e pluribus unum -- "out of many, one" at its best);

4. Requires a significant investment of time and effort (walkers are required to raise a minimum of $2300 and walk 60 miles but they get so much out of it precisely because they put so much in);

5. Makes effective use of symbol and ritual (there's an opening and closing ceremony for the walkers, a ritual beginning and end; in the closing ceremony the walkers enter a large circular enclosure while the "inner circle" is reserved for the cancer survivors; for many of those survivors, crossing the finish line brings closure to their struggle; they "made it" with the help of family and friends);

6. Combines solemnity with celebration (many walkers carry "in memorium" messages of love ones they have lost, as do the well-wishers along the way but they also celebrate those who survived; the celebration of life exists side by side with the sorrow of loss).

These six success factors serve as a check list for all philanthropy-seeking organizations who wish to find the way to strike the most resonant cultural chords. As you evaluate your messages, events and other channels of communication, ask yourself how well you stack up against this criteria.

1 comment:

Mike McCabe said...


I'm a long time reader, but first time "commenter."

I believe that this is an excellent analysis of the Susan Koman "Race for the Cure." We are currently beginning a MG campaign for Bricks and Mortar for a big, fancy new pool at a 6-12 Independent Day School in Miami. It's hard to compare an actual "object" to a such a noble cause as Breast Cancer research.

However, after reading this it reaffirms that we cannot focus on the need of the pool just because the old one is falling apart, but rather on it's service to the community and long-lasting health benefits that it's use provides.

Great article.