Cancer Research UK: We’ve never needed people’s help like we do now

The charity is expecting a £150m funding shortfall this year, but is trying to see not just the risk but the opportunity that the coronavirus crisis offers.

Cancer Research UK has been forced to cancel its Race for Life events this year

The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on the charity sector. As Covid-19 has risen up the health agenda, other diseases have slipped down in importance.

Cancer Research UK now estimates that the coronavirus pandemic will impact up to 35% of its income this year – meaning that around £150m will not be spent on research. That is the equivalent of the total amount it would spend on clinical trials over the next 10 years.

While individual giving has held up, the charity has been impacted by the closure during the strictest part of lockdown of its 600 retail stores, as well as the cancellation of fundraising events such as Race for Life and Stand Up To Cancer.

CRUK initially postponed its Race for Life season, hoping it would be able to hold the events in September. But its executive director of fundraising and marketing, Philip Almond, believes that is now unlikely. Even if it were not, he believes the charity would have struggled to attract the numbers it usually does, with organic sign-ups running at around 10% of levels in previous years.

“On balance it is the right thing to do. We will come back as strong as we can next year and it will run again. But it is going to be a fallow year,” he admits.

£130m not coming into our coffers is £130m of life-saving research that won’t happen. The impact is real.

Philip Almond, CRUK

Almond only joined CRUK in December having previously worked at the BBC, as well as Diageo and Burger King. He is clear coronavirus has greatly affected the charity’s plans for this year, although he believes in many ways the pandemic has only accelerated trends that were already in evidence, such as online fundraising and virtual events.

That, he says, means Covid-19 can provide an opportunity for the charity to refocus its efforts, while admitting there are huge challenges. CRUK has already pulled £44m in research funding and that is “unlikely to be the last of it”, especially with a recession very likely.

“It does give an opportunity – the old saying never waste a crisis – to really look fundamentally at what is working, what is not,” he says. “We really have to focus on what’s working and getting costs down. It’s a chance to get to grips with these issues even more quickly.

“The first thing I had to do was spend a lot of time getting into the annual planning cycle because that kicked off shortly after I joined. And we literally started it about three days before Covid and then ended up tearing it all up and starting again because all the assumptions had changed.”

How CRUK is staying relevant during Covid-19

Despite the fundraising challenges, CRUK has seen a big uptick in traffic to its call centres and website as people hunt for information about the impact of Covid-19 on cancer. That led the charity to focus its comms around the pandemic, in particular about the risk of delaying diagnosis.

That, believes Almond, has helped CRUK stay relevant at a time when despite health being much more important to people, cancer has slipped down people’s list of concerns.

“Cancer has usually been the number one health concern for charitable giving in the UK and Covid has changed that. But people are starting to realise that the knock-on of Covid is also affecting cancer services,” he says.

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That realisation has prompted Cancer Research UK to launch a new campaign where it addresses the fact that the pandemic has slowed it down, but highlights that beating cancer still remains really important. While coronavirus is having an intense impact now, cancer is still likely to have a bigger impact over the long-term.

Almond describes the campaign as “brand response”, with it aiming to perform the dual task of improving understanding of CRUK’s core purpose of beating cancer through research, while also driving donations.

“It is basically saying Covid has slowed us down but we will never stop in our determination to beat cancer and we’ve never needed people’s help like we do now. £130m not coming into our coffers is £130m of life-saving research that won’t happen. The impact is real,” he says.

The role of marketing in a crisis

Almond feels the pandemic has given marketing a more “prominent” role at CRUK, in part because it has forced the charity to communicate about its overall brand rather than individual products. He admits that previously many of the different parts of the charity had been “going their own way”, but that coronavirus has refocused people on its overall purpose.

“When you are all hit by this crisis in one go, people want to hear about what CRUK is doing overall – you need an overall plan. It forces a more overall, portfolio marketing-led approach rather than a product-led approach to what is going on,” Almond explains.

“It increases the need for consumer focus, for a coordinated portfolio strategy to respond to those consumer needs. And that will stand us in good stead. That is another area where it is accelerating the change that was coming anyway.”

How we come back and stress the ongoing relevance of cancer research post-Covid is going to be critical, but we should have a very strong story to tell.

Philip Almond, CRUK

Donations are slowly rising again and with lockdown easing CRUK is considering what the future might look like. That will involve thinking about how it resets its plans given the tough economic situation and building in agility as the future trajectory of the virus remains unclear.

There will also be a focus on improving its capabilities in digital loyalty, an area the charity sector has been slow on but now provides a “major opportunity”. That has already started, with CRUK launching a digital version of Race for Life called Race at Home.

Almond also believes the pandemic may help CRUK’s cause over the longer term.

“Covid is a disease that has killed lots of people and the likely way out of it is going to be through healthcare professionals and scientists. The promise that CRUK offers is of hope against a deadly disease and the use of science and health to defeat that. We’ve moved from one in four to two in four now survive cancer and it is our mission to get it to three in four by 2034. That will be a very relevant cause going forward,” he concludes.

“How we come back and stress the ongoing relevance of cancer research post-Covid is going to be critical, but we should have a very strong story to tell.”