High school and college students have raised more than $300 million “For the Kids” at 170 children’s hospitals across North America since 1991. They achieved this one dance step at a time, often standing and dancing up to 36 hours at a stretch, raising funds primarily through P2P requests (peer-to-peer). This two-minute video encapsulates the energy and power of the dance marathon movement.
Credit students at Penn State University in 1973 for reviving the Depression-era entertainment of dance marathon competitions, which they learned about from the 1969 film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Rather than competing for prize money as in the movie, the students raised funds for the local children’s hospital.
The first year they raised $2,000 and in 2020 they raised $11,696,942.38. The Penn State dance marathon claims to be the largest student-run organization in the world with 16,500 student volunteers and more than $180 million raised since inception.
Credit the students at Indiana University in 1991, spurred by the death of Ryan White from AIDS, to turn dance marathons into a national fundraising powerhouse. IU Dance Marathon invited students from other colleges and universities to attend their annual marathon and encouraged them to create similar programs at their campus. IU Dance Marathon and its sister programs across Indiana high schools and colleges have raised more than $50 million for the Riley Children’s Hospital since 1991.
The movement grew and today, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals coordinates efforts of more than 200,000 students at 400 colleges, universities, and high schools across North America.
In addition to the dollars raised, dance marathons change participants’ lives, opening doors to new careers and providing strong foundations of leadership and collaboration. Some dance marathon alumni gravitate to careers in the helping professions such as health care and philanthropy. What drives these choices?
The “special sauce” seems to be a mix of three ingredients: personal experience, empathy, and engagement.
For Audrey Aitelli (Bowdoin, ’20), personal health issues for which she received life-saving treatment at a children’s hospital, prompted her to volunteer at camps for kids with medical conditions. There, she learned that paying for needed health care can challenge some families. She started the dance marathon at Bowdoin as a freshman so “every child has access to quality health care.” Audrey is applying to med school this year.
Molly Coletta (Syracuse, ’20) lost a childhood friend to pediatric cancer, which prompted her involvement in the dance marathon at Syracuse. After her experience with the event she said, “Dance Marathon is about changing lives and the ability to embrace the change needed to do so.” Molly originally planned to become a doctor to honor her friend but is now pursuing a career in photography.
Many of the recipients of the 2020 Miracle Network Dance Marathon Distinguished Leadership Award cited personal experience as motivation for their passion and commitment to the dance marathon.
Empathic messages permeate the Children’s Miracle Network platform. “For The Kids” and “this generation fighting for the next” appear consistently in dance marathon photos and other material.
Jenna Stoker (Utah State, ’20) was motivated to become involved with dance marathon at Utah State for her nieces and her friend Ellie. She said, “There is power in bringing a community together to be part of something much bigger than ourselves.” Jenna is on her way to become a dietician with the ultimate goal of specializing in pediatric oncology or cystic fibrosis.
Rachel Ballback (Stephen F. Austin, ’20), advocated for students to become involved with dance marathon because “you learn about empathy, leadership, kindness, and have fun while doing it.” Rachel’s dance marathon experience prompted her to change majors. Now her plan is to become an occupational therapist “to make a positive impact on kids’ lives.”
The marathons create connections between the dance marathon participants and the children for whom they raise funds. “Miracle kids,” sometimes with their families, attend the marathons and share their stories, breaking down barriers, creating understanding about the challenges they face, and building empathy.
Dance marathon student leaders are often involved with the organization throughout their college experience and beyond. Allie Stutting (Iowa, ’20) leveraged her dance marathon leadership experience to create Iowa City Errand-ers, a service that connects volunteers with elderly and at-risk populations for grocery shopping and other errands during the COVID pandemic. She had been planning to teach but is considering a career in fundraising or philanthropy as a result of her experiences with dance marathon and the Errand-ers.
A fundraiser at the Riley Children’s Foundation in Indianapolis attributes her career to her experience with the IU Dance Marathon. An IU alum, she is thrilled to raise funds professionally for the hospital that the IU Dance Marathon supports.
Megan Hillier-Geisler, a Ph.D. student at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, has been involved with dance marathons for more than half her life. She became engaged at her high school because “a friend asked me to do it.”
At Indiana University, she immediately joined the dance marathon because her high school experience was so positive. When she moved to Washington, DC following college and knew no one, she contacted the local children’s hospital and asked to volunteer with the dance marathon team.
Along the way she learned that, amazingly, “you can be paid to do this” and eventually joined the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals where she worked for eight years. For Megan, the deep engagement created a community. She says she learned to network because of her experiences with dance marathons.
COVID interrupted the on-site running of many dance marathons but students did not miss a beat. With creativity and innovation, they moved fundraising online. For example, the University of Mississippi is hosting a 12 days of dance marathon during winter break – all virtual.
Build a virtual snowman comes with fundraising challenges for each part of the snowman. CMN Hospitals helped their partner colleges and universities to adjust the tag line to “Kids Can’t Wait” and have partnered with Facebook on Facebook Fundraisers. They encouraged use of this message: “Though this holiday season might look a little different than years past, kids need your help more than ever.”
The Dance Marathon “special sauce” is fostering a group of young leaders who are changing the world one kid at a time.
Andrea Pactor retired in spring 2020 after 15 years with the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. She has been interested in dance marathons since receiving a dance marathon fundraising letter from an IU student nearly 20 years ago. Yes, an actual letter! Lilly Family School of Philanthropy Ph.D. student Megan Hillier-Geisler contributed her vast knowledge of dance marathons to this post.