What happened to Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day 2020, like so many philanthropic campaigns during the pandemic, was no laughing matter.
Back in February of last year, Alison Moore, the CEO of Comic Relief U.S., had said the charity was ready to do “amazing things” around its annual day of wearing bright red fake noses to raise money and awareness for needy American children. It had raised $240 million since 2015 and helped 25 million children.
Yet within weeks, COVID-19 had forced the charity into a diminished, mostly virtual event.
This year, Red Nose Day will rise again. And its mission will be more ambitious than before, with the nonprofit expanding its star-studded plans in partnership with NBC, Walgreens and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Most notably, perhaps, Red Nose Day will now become a year-round endeavor, with the idea of addressing children's needs and spotlighting their issues every day.
“How do we use the Red Nose as a symbol of hope," Moore said, “to remind people that the journey is still long for many? The work is not done and, in fact, it’s actually harder and deeper than it had been before.”
“There was a lot of messaging going on that COVID didn’t affect kids, so, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not a problem’,” she added. “Well, truthfully their entire infrastructure crumbled. Their caretakers and families were getting sick and losing jobs… It was crucial that we were out there talking about why children need to be at the center of this conversation.”
That mission will be on full display May 27, this year’s Red Nose Day, when NBC will air a fundraising edition of its game show “The Wall” to cap nearly two months of buildup for one day of fundraising. Yet it won't end then. The growing need for its grants and programs led Comic Relief US to decide that its campaign will run all year to ensure that children are safe, educated and healthy, including having enough to eat, said Lorelei Williams, Comic Relief US’ senior vice president of grants programs.
Success stories like Mason, a 5-year-old at Educare California at Silicon Valley who, having received a grant from Red Nose Day, was able to do distance learning to prepare for kindergarten, stick out to Williams. Beforehand, Mason had seemed shy and a little depressed. After working with his teachers and his mother, he connected more with his family and became more sociable.
“Those are the types of pivots our grantees have been making — and doing so with powerful, tangible impacts for young people,” Williams said.
Comic Relief US is hardly alone in fine-tuning its mission in the wake of the viral pandemic and its economic destruction as well as the protests for racial justice intensified by the police killing of George Floyd. A survey by the consulting firm Dalberg Advisors, the Council on Foundations and Philanthropy California found that more than 60% of U.S. foundations adjusted their plans and increased their donations by an average of 17% in 2020.
“We certainly saw a lot of foundations choosing to pivot to focus specifically on COVID-19 recovery,” said Marcus Haymon, associate partner at Dalberg and a co-author of the report. "We saw some choosing to make investments in racial equity — blending it and embedding it into existing programming, as well as standing up new racial equity initiatives.”
That shift is continuing in 2021, in part because foundations require time and additional information to revamp their priorities to make sure their hiring and funding practices, as well as their investments and business practices, support their new mission.
“We heard from foundations saying, ‘We are really interested in making these pivots. We are interested in changing our investment practices,' " Haymon said. "The modalities of how you do that and how you actually operationalize that are far more challenging.”
Given the urgency of their mission, organizers of Red Nose Day say they plan to embrace those challenges. Moore said last year’s Red Nose Day managed to raise around $37 million — less than in previous years but a solid showing considering the enormous uncertainties in those months.
“We were pleasantly surprised,” Moore said. “Then, we thought about how we keep that going.”
That’s when they hatched the idea of turning Red Nose Day into a year-round venture. The organization felt it needed to continue to inform its donors about children’s need for technology to take classes online as well as about the growing problem of food insecurity.
At the same time, Red Nose Day teamed with YouTube gaming creator Sean “Jacksepticeye” McLoughlin for his “Thankmas” fundraiser between Thanksgiving and Christmas, an annual must-see streaming event in which viewers observe him playing video games with other digital stars.
“It generated $4.7 million with him just really galvanizing young people and other influencers for $1, $5, $10 donations all around helping children at this time in December, which was unprecedented for us,” said Moore, adding that it helped the organization's fundraising reach $42.5 million for 2020.
Though this year’s Red Nose Day will still be a hybrid of virtual and in-person events, organizers hope to generate momentum for their new, year-round fundraising efforts.
Patrick McLean, Walgreens’ chief marketing officer, said the company has sold millions of Red Noses in the past six years. They've become a symbol, he said — even in its digital form – of “the optimism and importance of improving the lives of the next generation.”
While Red Nose itself will remain virtual this year, Walgreens employees starting this month will be wearing Red Nose masks to help generate interest in the campaign, along with signage in its stores.
Comic Relief US' Williams said she hopes people see Red Nose as “a beacon of hope.”
“There’s a real critical moment right now for a lot of nonprofits who are facing a lot of jeopardy in terms of their own finances,” she said. “For us, it was just a matter of really anchoring our commitment to serve children, regardless of the circumstances.”
Last year, Williams said, Comic Relief US accelerated its grant payments to give the nonprofits it partners with a better chance at weathering the turmoil. It also removed some restrictions, so nonprofits could use the grant money for personal protective equipment and other emergency needs.
On May 27, Red Nose Day will still gather celebrities and experts and affected families to remind people how children are suffering, Moore said. But she hopes the kid-friendly symbol of the Red Nose will start to be seen as a year-round reminder.
“There’s this entire element of Red Nose Day signaling not only hope but empathy and action,” Moore said. “It has to come with a call to action, a call to the community to do something.”
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