The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) is one of the busiest emergency departments for children in Canada, caring for half a million kids from across Ontario, Quebec and Northern Canada each year. CHEO is also known for its pediatric research, pioneering breakthrough research in areas like genetics of rare disease, mental health, oncology and emergency medicine. CHEO prides itself on innovation—not just that which improves care at CHEO itself, but innovation that improves pediatric healthcare around the world.
But for CHEO, patient care goes beyond cutting-edge research and equipment. Recognizing the toll illness takes on its patients (from infants to 17-year-olds) and their families, CHEO offers a number of social supports to make life as normal as possible for the children in its care, as well as their parents and siblings. Whether it’s the clown making children laugh, the therapy dogs offering cuddles, or the social workers that offer consultations and financial guidance to parents, CHEO is thoroughly dedicated to providing the best possible care for the children and youth of its community.
In order to fund this level of patient care and support, CHEO – like many pediatric institutes – faces a unique obstacle.
“One of the challenges for a children’s hospital is that we can’t rely on our patients to be donors—they’re children,” explains Alex Munter, CHEO’s President and Chief Executive Officer.
“And their parents are at an age and stage in life when they don’t have a lot of disposable income to make big donations to a hospital.”
So how does CHEO generate the level of funding required to power its leading-edge treatment, research and support programs? It turns out, CHEO’s story is an excellent example for any healthcare or non-profit organization.
An early history of crowdsourcing
CHEO’s very existence can be credited to the power of a community coming together and raising funds to support an important cause. In the early 1960s, citizens in the Ottawa community recognized the need for a specialized children’s hospital. Forming a committee, they began a campaign that raised four million dollars and overcame numerous obstacles to garner the attention of local government. In 1974, CHEO opened its doors. This fundraising initiative later evolved into the CHEO Foundation, a group with the sole purpose of gathering donations to support the work of the hospital.
“From those humble beginnings of young moms around a kitchen table organizing a fundraising event, has come one of the leading children’s hospitals [in] the world.” —Alex Munter, President and CEO, CHEO
Today, the CHEO Foundation is part of the North-America wide Children’s Miracle Network and organizes more than 300 events each year that spread the word about CHEO’s work and unite the community it serves.
A community tradition is born
One of CHEO’s most well-known and cherished events is its annual CHEO Telethon. Started in 1983, the Telethon is “a community tradition,” according to Jacqueline Belsito, CHEO’s Vice President Philanthropy and Community Engagement.
The 24-hour event, which is televised on a major network and available for streaming online, provides a unique platform for CHEO to engage with community members. The Telethon gives CHEO an opportunity to share heartwarming patient stories, introduce viewers to the hospital’s tireless staff and showcase the impact donations have on CHEO’s patient care.
“This is our opportunity to introduce the community to doctors and patients.” — Jacqueline Belsito, Vice President Philanthropy and Community Engagement, CHEO
“We become part of their living rooms and part of their conversations. It’s an important platform for us and [viewers] learn something about their children’s hospital so they’re comfortable with the work that we’re doing and they’re inspired by the families that are overcoming so much.” The Telethon doesn’t only engage members of the community from their living rooms; each year, roughly 1,500 volunteers donate their time to answer donor phone calls and collect donations throughout the weekend.
“We’ve had volunteers that have volunteered for every telethon and we have donors that have donated to every telethon,” says Belsito.
Twenty-four hours of fundraising frenzy
Of course, hosting a 24-hour fundraiser with a multimillion dollar goal is no simple feat—and certainly not a passive one. In fact, to those involved in the organization of the Telethon, the “24-hour” label is highly misleading. Each year’s Telethon requires months of planning and days of setup. While the live event begins on a Saturday night, CHEO and Mitel begin building the actual set the Wednesday before the Telethon. “The first part of that is all our setup—the most critical part,” says Belsito.
CHEO’s goal of generating as many calls and donations as possible creates some critical requirements for the communications system that powers the event.
For example, CHEO requires a platform to route all donor calls to available volunteers, minimizing wait time that might frustrate donors and cause them to hang up before their calls are taken. Additionally, with only 24 hours of live call-in time, CHEO needs a highly reliable system that can handle the pressure.
“It’s an absolute frenzy,” says Belsito. “[We have] 80 phones active all the time and, of course, our objective is to have every phone busy. We even have ten backup phones in case the volumes get so high—we want to make sure we’re answering those donor calls. So, in fact, we actually have 90 phones for the 24 hours, active every minute of the Telethon.”
Since CHEO relies on volunteers to take calls, the Telethon must have intuitive, user-friendly phones that require minimal training.
And, in case anything were to go wrong, CHEO ensures it’s covered by having Mitel staff on hand throughout the event, ready to provide any necessary IT support.
People + technology = powerful results
The reward is worth the effort for CHEO. The 2016 Telethon, which sported a light-hearted superhero theme, raised a record-breaking eight million dollars. For a children’s hospital, this impact cannot be underestimated.
“The actual weekend and people calling in to donate is critical to our business.” Belsito says. “To give you a sense for the impact that makes, a portable x-ray machine is about $220,000, so you can draw the direct relation to the impact of the Telethon and our ability to buy equipment.”
Kevin Keohane, President and Chief Executive Officer of the CHEO Foundation, stresses the breadth of services each donation contributes to:
“The funds are used to support the needs of families within CHEO. That’s supporting everything from equipment purchases to some of the social supports that they require. It’s the staff training, it’s programs like the Child Life program where people work with kids and make as normal of an environment as possible for children. It’s from the very serious things, [like] the expensive pieces of equipment, right down to boxes of crayons.”
“We really rely on the telethon,” Munter says. “We really rely on the mobilization of individuals, of corporations, of non-profit groups, to really support our hospital and this telethon, which generates a significant proportion of the funds that will be raised this year. The dollars from the Telethon will go directly into buying equipment, funding research and enhancing patient care.”
How to be a superhero
It’s clear that CHEO is not only a leader in pediatric treatment and research, but a shining example for any non-profit or healthcare organization that requires outside support to carry out its mission. Through its community engagement, CHEO has created a powerful bond that unites members of the area it serves—much like the grassroots effort from which the hospital spawned fifty-some years ago.
As for why CHEO’s vision evokes such a response from the community? That shines through in Keohane’s explanation of the Telethon’s superhero theme:
“The superheroes for us are the kids. The superheroes for us are the staff at CHEO that serve them, the medical staff that support them, and the superheroes from our fundraising standpoint are donors and our supporters. Without the donors’ support, the kind of care that’s available at CHEO currently would not be available.”