The month of September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Each day, 42 families in the United States will receive the devastating news that their child or teen has cancer. To help amplify the message we are featuring Audra Brennan, Director of Strategic Philanthropy at Northwestern Mutual, a company working to accelerate the search for cures for childhood cancer and to provide support for families fighting the disease.
Since 2012, Northwestern Mutual has committed to spearheading fundraising events nationwide – like lemonade stands, golf outings and run/walk events – to raise awareness and funds for childhood cancer research and provide support to their nonprofit partners such as Alex’s Lemonade Stand. Let’s Take 5 with Audra to learn more about Northwestern Mutual’s innovative partnerships, how they foster consumer engagement, and what app helps her juggle her busy schedule.
Northwestern Mutual’s Childhood Cancer Program is entering its 5th year. What are the key elements you attribute to its success?I attribute our success to leadership, partnership, and, of course, a great team. Our CEO and Foundation Board selected a cause that was severely underfunded where our resources and thought leadership could have an impact. Their ongoing commitment inspires our employees and network offices across the country and as a result we have collectively contributed over $15 million to the cause. Northwestern Mutual made the right choice five years ago to partner with Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF). Not only is the story of a young girl holding lemonade stands to raise funds for research hopeful and inspiring, ALSF’s prestigious scientific advisory board identifies and invests in the most promising research.
How do you keep the program fresh and relevant internally year after year? We listen. To our partners in the medical community, parents, patients, and survivors to understand where the greatest needs are. And to our network offices seeking opportunities to engage.
And we find innovative ways to act. The topic of the 2017 NM sponsored symposium at our local Children’s Hospital was the novel CAR-T cell therapy, which just became the first ever gene therapy approved by the FDA. We fund a child life therapist at the Northwestern Mutual Day Hospital in Milwaukee and tools such as Virtual Reality (VR) to help mitigate procedural fear and discomfort. This December we are launching a scholarship program for survivors in recognition of the developmental and financial impact of their treatments. We added partners like Beads of Courage, Chemo Duck and camps for kids with cancer to give our field offices new ways to engage with their local hospitals.
What do you wish people knew about Northwestern Mutual and its Childhood Cancer Program? I wish people knew both the depth and breadth of our impact. While people may know we fund research through ALSF, they may not know that there are children who are cancer-free today because of those research dollars. One young survivor, Edie Gilger, inspired our 2017 Rose Bowl float and rode in the parade along with the ALSF researcher who saved her life.
People also may not be aware that research is only one of three pillars of our Childhood Cancer Program. We are also deeply committed to supporting families during their treatment journey and to continuing to assist survivors to be aware of and address the potential lasting effects of their treatment.
Looking into your crystal ball, what’s the next big thing in corporate philanthropy? A deeper appreciation of the link between doing good and being good. Having a corporate philanthropic program that is genuine, successful, emotionally compelling and simple for employees and consumers to engage in can be a critical way to differentiate from competitors. I am excited about the opportunities that this link creates for both the cause and a company like NM that already places such great value on relationships.
What’s an inspiring part of your job? It may be trite to say it is the people I get to work with, but those who are committed to this cause take “inspiring” to another level. It is humbling to work with researchers in any medical field, but we have a chance to work with researchers who are uniquely motivated by wanting to give kids a chance to just be kids. Each doctor we partner with has the talent and opportunity to pursue more lucrative careers. There is little that energizes my work more than attending a research symposium. While admittedly, the scientific details are beyond my comprehension, the passion and promise being conveyed needs no translation.
And, of course the kids and families who share their stories of courage, hope, survival and sometime loss, are a constant source of inspiration. We are making a difference, but there is so much more to be done. I look to the day when we can choose a new cause because children are no longer being threatened by this horrible disease.
Fun Facts about Audra:
- Favorite App: Cozi, a shared scheduling app that allows my husband and I to attempt to maintain sanity juggling the schedules of our 10 and 11- year old children
- Hobby: Traveling, running –both of which I practice a little less frequently post–kids.
- Favorite Place to Unwind: Watching an old classic movie
- Guilty Pleasure: Starbucks Chai latte