Tennys Hanson, (L), and Miyo Yamashita, Chief Executive Officer of UHN Foundation and The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, respectively, write that "the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated our own commitment to continual innovation and necessitated us to challenge long-established practices and beliefs of how to best engage with our community of supporters and work more closely with our hospital colleagues." (Photo: UHN)

By Ms. Tennys Hanson and Dr. Miyo Yamashita

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not something our charitable sector, or others, could have predicted. Across Canada, the charitable sector faced unprecedented challenges. With public safety regulations limiting and restricting in-person gatherings, we had to reimagine the primary fundraising activities we rely on such as peer-to-peer fundraising events and in-person donor meetings. All of this, while our healthcare sector was under growing pressure to find answers quickly in a rapidly-changing world. Understanding the coronavirus and its transmission, developing new therapies to treat it, and deploying vaccines all require an immense amount of resources – and much of this work is fuelled by philanthropy. We knew TeamUHN was counting on us.

At both Foundations, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated our own commitment to continual innovation and necessitated us to challenge long-established practices and beliefs of how to best engage with our community of supporters and work more closely with our hospital colleagues. COVID-19 put our hospitals under immense pressure, and continues to do so, and so we needed to adapt and expand our funding priorities to support urgent needs of TeamUHN. We worked shoulder-to-shoulder with them to understand where help was needed most, so we could help them deliver care to an increasing - and increasingly sick - number of patients.

pandemic perspectives

UHN Foundation staff and Board volunteers responded to the call by raising more than $15 million for COVID-19 initiatives, including over 96,000 meals, 50,000 face shields and 15,000 hotel stays for hospital staff. The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation also raised over $2 million for COVID-19 relief, contributing to hotel stays, meal vouchers and parking costs for TeamUHN. In the spring of 2021, UHN Foundation launched our first signature, entirely digital fundraising event called "Give a Shift." At a time when many Canadians were motivated to support the frontline healthcare workers of COVID-19, this virtual fundraising event offered them a means to do so. More than 400 people and 40 teams from across the province participated in the initiative, raising more than $250,000 to ensure TeamUHN could care for themselves while caring for others.

COVID-19 funding also supported UHN researchers as they worked tirelessly to develop COVID-19 study protocols, executing more than 50 COVID-related research projects and clinical trials. This research included the world-first randomized control trial showing that a third booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in transplant patients results in a substantial increase in protection.

In addition to research, these critical donor funds also enabled our hospitals to pivot and offer new ways of keeping our communities healthy. Within weeks of the pandemic being declared, our hospital colleagues rapidly established virtual care clinics to limit exposure to COVID-19 for our patients and staff. At the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, donor dollars enable the "Smart Cancer Care" initiative, which resulted in over 22,000 virtual visits in the first two months of the pandemic. Devised out of necessity, these innovations are here to stay. Of those 22,000 virtual visits, 85 per cent of patients surveyed indicated virtual care was comparable or better than the in-person model.

'In the face of adversity and uncertainty, it was a special privilege to be at the leadership table and experience the incredible courage and resiliency of TeamUHN.' – Tennys Hanson

Out of a crisis emerged incredible generosity and opportunities.

To support urgent needs of TeamUHN, we also had to rapidly change our fundraising practices. One of our earliest pivots was to adapt in-person events and corresponding content to virtual settings. As this was largely unproven territory, we wondered if donors would respond. We were grateful to learn that compelling and impactful content could be delivered via new modes such as Zoom and resonated with our audience. 

At The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, we worked swiftly to transition some of the country's largest peer-to-peer events into meaningful virtual experiences. Through harnessing social media and new digital technologies such as Strava, a social run and cycling-tracking app, we were able to maintain a level of social connectivity that contributes so greatly to the magic of our events and we were able to expand our reach by engaging supporters beyond our traditional geographic boundaries. The 2021 Ride to Conquer Cancer, for example, saw participants from the Netherlands, the United States and Australia all ride virtually to raise critical funds for cancer research. In the midst of a pandemic, and without any in-person activations, our supporters still managed to raise more than $13 million through our peer-to-peer events – a fact that underscores the long held view that giving is truly "the Canadian way."

'The commitment, courage and innovation of TeamUHN through the enduring pandemic remain a deep source of pride and inspiration for everyone at The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation.' – Miyo Yamashita

All of this is because our donors continually enable us to deliver. In the early stages of the pandemic, we had many supporters reach out proactively to ask what they could do to help. The relentless backing of our donor community gave us the means and confidence required for innovation and change. We were able to push forward with modified versions of our programs, provide our hospital colleagues with the support they needed and try new approaches to engagement. Thank you, and please know that we are eternally grateful.

It is clear to us that these past few years have caused a wave of change both in the charitable and healthcare sectors that will not subside. As we continue to adapt to the ongoing pandemic we must carry forward what we have learned and sustain this spirit of innovation and generosity that has sprung from necessity.

Both our healthcare and philanthropic sectors will be stronger for it.

Ms. Tennys Hanson is Chief Executive Officer of UHN Foundation.

Dr. Miyo Yamashita is Chief Executive Officer of The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation.

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