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Putting away alcohol and raising money for cancer

6 July 2020 at 8:08 am
Maggie Coggan
Brett Macdonald is the CEO and founder of the Dry July Foundation, which runs an annual campaign challenging people to put down the booze and raise money for cancer support. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 6 July 2020 at 8:08 am


Putting away alcohol and raising money for cancer
6 July 2020 at 8:08 am

Brett Macdonald is the CEO and founder of the Dry July Foundation, which runs an annual campaign challenging people to put down the booze and raise money for cancer support. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

When Macdonald and a few friends challenged themselves to cut out alcohol for a month over 10 years ago, it never occurred to them that their own personal Dry July would evolve into the wildly successful international campaign it is today. 

Using his skills in marketing and graphic design, Macdonald worked with a small team to create a clever campaign that not only raises awareness of the health impacts of excessive drinking, but raises millions of dollars for charities such as The McGrath Foundation, the Cancer Council, and Look Good Feel Better, to support the needs of people with cancer and their families. 

The event has gone from strength to strength, with 2019’s campaign raising $11 million – it’s most successful year to date. 

While the back-to-back crises of 2020 have been a blow to fundraising campaigns Macdonald and his team are continuing to find innovative ways around it. 

In this week’s Changemaker, he explains the lightbulb moment behind the movement, his tips on starting a fundraiser and how to manage growth with impact. 

What was the idea behind the campaign?

The idea for Dry July came about from a challenge that was set between myself and a couple of friends to see which one of us lasted the longest without drinking a beer. The next milestone date on the horizon was the 1st July at that time. And so we embarked on this challenge from the 1st July. We were still going out with friends and going out to bars and restaurants, but there just never seemed to be an excuse for us not to have a drink. So it created this great conversation around alcohol and consumption of alcohol and at that exact time I had a close family member diagnosed with cancer. So on the one hand, I had friends buying me drinks and trying to get me to drink them, and it was a bit of a light bulb moment of wondering why the money you spend on a drink couldn’t just be a donation to a cancer organisation. 

How have you managed the growth of the campaign?

We never actually intended it to grow as big as it has. Our goal was just to get 10 mates involved, to try and raise $300 to buy a new TV for the hospital waiting room.

I think it has been a steep learning curve, going from sitting in the corner of a very large office, designing logos and brochures to heading up a national not for profit. 

I’ve had a mentor and had a lot of guidance, as well as having a real passion for the cause. I think the key is staying relevant and cutting through the market, which has been an  ongoing challenge for us. Every year we try to reinvent the campaign, reposition it, make it exciting and enticing for new people to come on board and take on the challenge. Funnily enough, we haven’t strayed really that far away from the very original concept of giving up alcohol and raising funds for local cancer organisations. The calendar year of the foundation is also really well mapped out, so we know when we are raising the funds, when we are distributing the funds, and when we’re reporting back on the impact those funds are having. So that’s a goal for us, just constantly showing funds in action and the difference it’s making to people going through the toughest battle of their lives.

What does your day look like as head of the Dry July Foundation?

I guess that depends on what time of year it is. Campaign time is very exciting. Checking the numbers, benchmarking them year on year, looking at how we can make improvements in comms journeys that we’re sending out. A lot of team catch ups, particularly this year as normally we are all in a small office and very aware of everyone, what everyone’s up to and it’s very easy to talk through issues and ideas. But when everyone’s remote, it’s a lot harder to get in touch with each other and understand some of the difficulties people might be having. A lot of planning, a few media interviews here and there, regular contact with all key beneficiaries to make sure that they are activating and engaging in the campaign as well as they possibly can. And obviously, I’m responding and keeping across customer support [needs] that are coming through, and responding to any inquiries. I’m making sure that we’re servicing and fulfilling the needs of the participants and donors. So it’s very active and lively.

Taking from your own experiences, what advice can you offer a young person wanting to make a difference in the world?

I’d like to think that it might be easier to get involved in a cause or to get a new idea off the ground now than when we started 10 years ago. It is a big endeavor and I think it’s really important to look around at what’s already out there and see how you can collaborate with them to deliver an initiative as opposed to trying to go on your own and establish your own foundation. There’s a lot of people in this sector who are ready and willing to provide that support, backing for new ideas and initiatives. So certainly, I guess, knock on many, many doors. Don’t be afraid to hear the word no. I think I heard one yes out of 100 nos when we were getting Dry July off the ground.

How has the experience of running a foundation like this changed the way you look at the world and your outlook?

It certainly gave me direction and meaning. Compared with when I was working in a large corporation, I’m so much more fulfilled coming into work every day, knowing that everything we’re doing is having an impact on people going through a really tough journey, as well as impacting people’s health. 

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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