Innovation (Courtesy of a 100-Year-Old Hero)

Since the pandemic began, nonprofit fundraisers have been wringing their hands, worrying about the impact of not having their regular annual fundraising activities. While that handwringing was going on, though, some people recognized the opportunity at the moment, and a whole lot of innovation happened. I wrote about a number of these innovations in my December article “Staying Alive”, and then I heard about the amazing story of Captain Tom Moore.

This was a man who captivated and brought together an entire country during this 100-year pandemic, and he did it with a simple idea and a desire to help his country.

Not having been in Britain during this past year, I wasn’t aware of this phenomenon until Captain Moore passed away — just a few weeks ago — so I asked my friend Rory Traynor, Capital Campaign Manager of Ayrshire Hospice in Scotland, to tell the story…

“Captain Tom Moore passed away on 2nd February 2021, after being treated for Covid-19 and pneumonia. Many of you in the United States may not have heard of him, but during 2020, a year full of challenges and struggles for us all, he brought joy and hope to the nation, here in the UK.

On 6 April 2020, as lockdown in the UK began, Captain Tom, a WWII army veteran, and retired businessman set himself a challenge of walking 100 laps of his care home’s garden before his 100th birthday on 30th April. He aimed for a modest fundraising target of £1,000 to benefit the UK’s NHS Charities Together (a group of 250 non-profits who support the National Health Service – the public health system in the UK) at a time when the NHS was under immense strain due to Covid-19.

Following a local press release issued by his daughter, Captain Tom began to get media attention, and then his fundraising total grew. And grew. And grew!

The £1,000 target was reached in days, increasing to £5,000 only a few days later, and before long he was aiming for half a million pounds. 10 days after beginning, as Captain Tom was completing his 100th lap of the garden (which was broadcast live to the nation on BBC Breakfast), £12 million had been raised. Captain Tom decided to keep walking until his 100th birthday to raise even more money, and when the website donation page finally closed at midnight on his 100th birthday, Captain Tom had raised a grand total of £38.9 million, or, in US Dollars, about $53 Million.

As a fundraiser, I was in awe of Captain Tom’s fundraising achievements. Every charity dreams of a fundraiser or donor who can raise amounts of money like this, but never believe they could actually happen. Not only did Captain Tom’s fundraiser break all sorts of charity records, his story broke the monotony of lockdown life and brought a smile to everyone’s face at a time when we really needed it.

Captain Tom was suddenly everywhere in the media but he remained modest throughout, which just made him even more likeable. The UK Government recognized his efforts by inviting him to open a new hospital for Covid patients and the Queen knighted him in a lovely outdoor ceremony at Windsor Castle. Thereafter, he was officially Captain Sir Tom Moore.

There was a special television program made about his life, a front cover of British GQ dedicated to him as ‘Inspiration of the Year’, an entry into the Guinness World Records, and he even became the oldest person to have a UK number 1 single when he released a cover of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” with singer Michael Ball. His autobiography, ‘Tomorrow Will Be A Good Day’ was published in September 2020. A film about his life is reported to be in the pipeline.

On this 100th birthday, it was reported that 150,000 birthday cards had been sent to Captain Sir Tom from people right across the world. He also received a special fly-by from the Royal Air Force.

So, what started as a walk in the garden to raise £1,000 went on to raise nearly £39 million and inspire a nation. Captain Sir Tom never took credit for what he achieved. He did it for his country and the NHS that he loved so much. His death has been felt across the UK, but there is no doubt that he leaves a huge legacy, not just in the money he raised for charity, but also in the joy he spread during the pandemic. He will remain an inspiration to many of us for years to come.”

No real planning, no fancy dinners, no collateral — just will, a desire to help, and a fun idea to raise some money for a charity he loved. It reminded me a bit of the Ice Bucket Challenge here in the US, which raised $115M in 2014 to fund ALS research (which dramatically accelerated the fight against ALS).

This is not to say that there’s always going to be a Captain Sir Tom or an ALS Challenge, but there are certainly different ways to “skin a cat” -- and raise money for your nonprofit. Some of them haven’t even been thought of yet, but if we keep innovating and embracing change, our nonprofits will continue to grow and prosper.

I’m thrilled to share my first book, Philanthropy Revolution, with the world. I’m lifting the lid on our charitable sector with an authentic account that describes exactly how outdated the sector has become and why it’s at risk of collapse. Get your copy here.

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- Lisa