Betting on a Good Cause

Sick Boy Wins When Make-a-Wish of N.J. Takes on Facebook Challenge

By Published on .

What started out as a bet at a holiday party turned into a win-win situation for a sick child and the Make-a-Wish Foundation of New Jersey.

Tom Weatherall, CEO of the foundation, was chatting with MAW chapter board member Joseph Berardo Jr., CEO-president of MagnaCare, a health plan management company in the New York-New Jersey area, when the topic of social media came up. The foundation, which grants about 500 wishes a year to children with life-threatening medical conditions, had launched a Facebook page last fall but hadn't done a lot with it.

"Social media for us is a whole new world, and there's so much for us to learn," Mr. Weatherall says. "We watched from the sidelines at first to try to understand what it was, to try to get our arms around the culture of Facebook and see where it would fit."

Not so Mr. Berardo. He immediately issued a challenge: If the foundation could boost its Facebook fans from 1,076 to 5,000 in 14 days -- Jan. 1 -- MagnaCare would make a child's wish come true.

"I was talking to Tom ... about social media," Mr. Berardo says. "One of the things we started talking about is we really don't have that many fans. So I just threw out that we'd fund a wish if they built their fan base to 5,000 in 14 days."

But Mr. Berardo didn't just make a bet -- the next morning, he asked Alyssa Truppelli, president of social media agency Social Digs, New York, which works with MagnaCare, to get the fan drive started. Ms. Truppelli quickly launched the 5,000 Fans Challenge. She set up advertising on Facebook that led to a customized landing page and urged users to spread the word. She also used MagnaCare and MAW databases to spread the word through internal networks, and created a grassroots social media effort locating related groups and organizations and using Facebook, Twitter and Digg.

Despite Mr. Weatherall's initial trepidation, within 72 hours, the foundation's Facebook page reached its 5,000 members, and by mid-January hit 7,000. "This experience really blew it out of the water for [the foundation]," says Ms. Truppelli, who handled the campaign on a pro bono basis. "Harnessing social media -- it just really brought it to life for them, how to best use it for their purposes."

Mr. Weatherall agrees: "With help from Alyssa, we saw it explode. And we far exceeded the goal."

As a result, MagnaCare granted the next wish on the organization's waiting list: Hasan, a 10 year-old diagnosed with leukemia, got to go to Bangladesh with his family to meet his maternal grandparents for the first time.

"What started out as an innocent chat at a holiday function and an innocent bet became this exciting opportunity to expand our fan base," Mr. Weatherall says. "To be honest, we didn't know what would happen. We didn't know if we could do it."

One secret to the organization's online success, the executives agree, is that Facebook gives it an effective medium for telling stories.

"You hear some of these stories and you realize how blessed you are to have a healthy family," Mr. Berardo says. [You want to] motivate people to become more involved in the charity."

Says Mr. Weatherall: "We believe people are hungering for stories. ... We grant, here in New Jersey, more wishes than there are days in the year. Although the stories can be very different, at the end of it, you know it's going to be a powerful experience; and people like to share powerful experiences. Facebook allows us to share with more people."

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