BuckeyeThon creates a culture of philanthropy in others, long-term culture for itself

BuckeyeThon is the largest student-run philanthropy organization at The Ohio State University, and it got that way by more than just fundraising for a great cause — ending childhood cancer by supporting kids treated at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

It’s about creating a culture. A culture where students have a great experience, are personally tied to the cause and take a philosophy of charity with them when they graduate.

Felix Alonso, adviser for BuckeyeThon and associate director of student philanthropy, says their fundraising events, including the signature dance marathon, 5K and fashion show, are well attended, but that’s only a small part of the organization’s role on campus.

“It’s not just about raising dollars, it’s about how do we keep the culture of philanthropy and giving among our campus,” he says. “It’s more teaching them the importance of what do you stand for and how do you support that.”

BuckeyeThon happens to support pediatric cancer — and the organization is always looking for people to get involved — but giving students tools for supporting other causes is just as important, Alonso says.

Not only is BuckeyeThon well connected through wider university and corporate partnerships, Alonso says over the past several years, it has hosted a philanthropy speaker series for nonprofit leaders.

“We build a bigger branding to be able to build a bigger presence,” he says. “It isn’t just about our cause. It’s much more than that. It’s about how are we global citizens, how do we invest our time.”

Continuity, despite the turnover

Over the past 15 years, BuckeyeThon has raised about $5 million, which was generated by students at OSU and area high schools. This past year, the organization raised $1.3 million.

Vick Chhabria, the 2015-2016 president of BuckeyeThon, says more than 4,800 students raised $250 or more in order to register to attend one of the two 12-hour shifts at BuckeyeThon’s dance marathon. The fundraising minimum went up 150 percent from the year prior.

“At first impression, it’s definitely a bit more daunting than raising $100, but when we tell people why it’s important to raise more and why we’re increasing the minimum, I think people can come around and are more understanding of it,” he says.

Changes such as these are a result of BuckeyeThon shifting from a student organization to acting like a nonprofit. But in order to do that, it had to work around one of its biggest challenges of being a student-run organization — turnover.

“We’re essentially running a $1 million nonprofit, but we have to basically change our leadership every single year, which makes it really hard to focus on strategic plans and try to implement them and keep people engaged on why they need to happen,” Chhabria says. “You have a fresh, new set of ideas come in every year, which is a good thing, too, but I think it’s really tough to stay focused on your priorities.”

Alonso says BuckeyeThon has 120 members, but the role of the leadership team of 20 has evolved. For example, some of the programs have been scheduled out years in advance.

“In the past it may have been: I don’t want to plan your events and I’m taking away from that student’s activities,” he says. “But now, they understand when I come in as an officer in this role, my work may already be done for me. I’m implementing that piece and planning for next year.”

Guidance for decision-making

You can think of BuckeyeThon’s leadership team as a volunteer board who gets a crash course in student leadership, thanks to strong transition programs, Alonso says.

As soon as the new team is in place, the students go away for a weekend retreat where they not only learn more about how to do their roles, but also discuss the overall strategic goals. They examine how BuckeyeThon is doing at implementing those plans and what can be done better.

Chhabria, a senior who got involved with BuckeyeThon as a high school student, has taken those lessons in planning to heart.

“This sounds really cheesy and corny, but the most important way to think about the future of your organization is to start with your cause,” he says.

BuckeyeThon has five strategic pillars, so any decision that is made has to be filtered through those.

“There’s always a number of things you can do to grow your organization and help it become more prominent,” Chhabria says. “But if you don’t selectively choose what you want your organization to spend time on, it gets to a point where you’re just throwing a bunch of possible solutions at a problem and you’re not being the most effective with your time.

“Using your values to guide your decisions is one of the most impactful ways to figure out how you want to plan for the future,” he says.