Will had always given to St. Jude during the Combined Federal Campaign. It was just something he felt good doing.
He never knew the generosity would be so important to his family four short years ago.
Serving in Pensacola, Florida, as a Marine Corps staff sergeant, Will — whose full name has been withheld — began to notice his daughter, Bailey, was developing health problems that were difficult to explain.
"She had a couple of emergency room visits to the Naval Hospital in Pensacola and they didn't check for much," he said. "After the second time, I just went ahead and took Bailey into the pediatrician at the Naval Hospital to get a full-on check. They found the tumor at that point."
Lessening the burden
At age 5, Bailey was diagnosed with a Wilms tumor, a kidney cancer that affects 500 children per year, according to the American Cancer Society. While treatable, battling the disease often requires radiation, chemotherapy or surgery. During her treatment, Bailey endured all three.
"We didn't have a whole lot of understanding of cancer," Will said. "It hasn't been in my family. I don't think it's been in my wife's family. So it was very, very new for us."
To get Bailey the best treatment, Will decided to take her to Memphis and the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
"When I was active duty, that was the one place I would always send my money," he said. "I honestly never really knew exactly what they did there. I just knew it was a really good children's hospital."
Bailey was initially slated to receive just a surgery to remove the tumor at St. Jude, but doctors quickly realized that further treatment would be needed and asked to the family to stay at the hospital.
It was the support from St. Jude, Will said, that helped the family navigate the process of both fighting the cancer and dramatically shifting their lives in its wake.
"They understand that when the families show up here, a lot of them don't know what's going on," he said. "Literally they bought our tickets, flew us up here, picked us up from the airport, took us straight to the hospital, gave us a tour and we met her doctor. It's a very scheduled and well-organized system that they have, and it makes you a lot more comfortable as a parent."
St. Jude provides cancer treatment for 7,800 children a year, at no cost to families. The medical nonprofit's ability to provide this level of care largely comes from private donations. St. Jude's 2016 financial report estimated that its program services — which include patient care — cost nearly $790 million.
As the largest workplace charity campaign, CFC plays a big role in providing support to nonprofits like St. Jude. The research hospital remains the largest benefactor of the federal campaign with more than $6 million in CFC pledges in 2015, according to the Workplace Giving Alliance's estimate.
"The CFC program allows St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to reach donors that we may not ordinarily reach," St. Jude officials said in an email statement. "This is important to our mission because unlike any other hospital, St. Jude must rely on the generous support of donors. Seventy-five percent of our funding comes from individual contributions, which help ensure families never receive a bill for treatment, travel, housing or food. It's one less burden for them to bear and they can focus on helping their child live."
But as with federal giving on the whole, contributions to St. Jude have seen declines in recent years. According to the Workplace Giving Alliance, the hospital's 2014 pledges were down slightly more than 10 percent from 2013. Declines in St. Jude's 2015 CFC donations leveled off somewhat, dropping only 1 percent, while overall giving fell around 8 percent.
Since reaching a decade-best result of $282.6 million in pledges in 2009, CFC contributions have fallen for six consecutive campaigns. Overall, pledges in 2015 were estimated to be $177.8 million, a 37 percent drop from 2009.
Local Federal Coordination Committee chairman Vince Micone said that federal pay freezes and the 2013 government shutdown impacted CFC contributions, but the way people engage with charities has also changed and requires the campaign to meet new challenges.
"We are moving forward into using new ways to reach folks and get contributions," he said. "Frankly, giving has changed overall in the last couple of years. A lot more people are giving directly to organizations they care about online.
"We've been seeing that and we're working closely with [the Office of Personnel Management] on some of the things they are doing to modernize the campaign and it's pretty exciting. We're not there yet, but we are taking good steps to make sure we create a platform for federal employees that allows them to give to the charities that they care about at a really low cost."
To help build that platform, OPM has enlisted the help of GiveBack.org, a 501(c)(3) donor-advised fund run by Stephen Paletta, to design a backend system that centralizes CFC giving through individual donations.
"[Paletta's] whole goal, his whole passion is to revolutionize how we pivot toward individual donors," said Keith Willingham, OPM's director of CFC, at the National Capital Area CFC kickoff on Sept. 1.
"There are a lot of folks that are really focused on large donors, corporate donors, folks who have all of the money to try and make a difference," Willingham said. "That's important, but what's really inspiring about a workplace giving program like this is that you empower individual donors to make a difference in their community, and Stephen Paletta has committed his resources and his life to doing that."
Micone said this year's CFC campaign is also focused on new forms of outreach, such as social media engagement, to bring more awareness to federal employees.
"This year, we decided to sort of whiteboard it," Micone said. "We went outside of the federal sector to get some ideas on how we could be most effective."
Officials reached out to public relations firm FleishmanHillard to devise the "Show Some Love" campaign to bring more engagement to CFC.
Micone said that CFC is sitting on a kind of sea change moment as a result of economic challenges, sequestration and budget realities that requires it to develop new strategies of outreach and "Show Some Love." The 2017 individual giving platform embodies that.
"All of that impacted the Combined Federal Campaign," he said. "I believe that payroll deduction, which is our prime method of giving, is a real solid way, but people also like to give by credit card. They like to give by e-check. So we are being aggressive within the CFC construct to start doing those things."
'One step at a time'
Officials at St. Jude said in an email the support they've seen from CFC is important because of its access to the large base of federal employees and the ease in which charities can work within the campaign.
"The CFC program is easy to operate and is one of our most cost effective. The application process is thorough, but not cumbersome. And the financial benefit that we receive from participating in the campaign far outweighs the associated costs. In fact, the CFC program has one of the lowest cost ratios within the organization."
CFC support is also important to Will, who said Bailey's treatment costs alone were well over $1 million, all of which were provided by St. Jude. The family also had to split time between Pensacola and Memphis, with Bailey and her mother staying at St. Jude's housing facility for families, the Target House, at no cost.
"At the time, Bailey was 5, and I had a 7-year-old boy and a 1-year-old boy," he said. "We wanted to make it as stress-free as possible for Bailey as she went through treatment, so I went back to Florida with the two boys.
"We wouldn't have been able to have two households [without St. Jude]. We would have go back to Florida or me get out of [the Marine Corps] and move up here."
After going through treatment in 2012, Bailey suffered relapses in 2013 and again in 2014. It took a stem cell transplant in December 2014 before doctors began to see progress, and scans in summer 2015 were clear, Will said.
Bailey was declared cancer-free in 2015. St. Jude officials said she is now in fourth grade and enjoys percussion, art and baking. Bailey still returns to St. Jude for regular checkups.
Will separated from the Marine Corps in October 2013, and he and his family moved to Memphis permanently. He said the process of battling childhood cancer is different for every family and they have to tackle the process just like they tackle the treatment, as a unique case.
"I think the only thing I can say is take it one step at a time. Try not to overwhelm yourself and try to stay as positive as you can."
No matter how federal employees embrace "Show Some Love" or next year's new platform, Micone said the goal is to engage them and provide an easy avenue to reach the causes they care about.
"We want employees to understand, the Combined Federal Campaign is not about meeting a dollar goal," he said. "It's about federal employees being connected to those organizations and to those things they believe in through the Combined Federal Campaign."