How Game On Cancer Cracked the Code on Engaging Physicians and Cancer Survivors

Without the backing of a national organization’s flashy brand, sexy advertising campaign, or robust budget – engaging grateful patients at a local level can sometimes feel impossible.  A cancer survivor and their network of loved ones want to come together and do something meaningful and they often turn to a national organization. So, how do the local and regional health systems get in front of these patients (and physicians) to compete for their time, talent, and treasures without the same resources as our competitors? 

This fallGame On Cancer, a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign at Henry Ford Health System, finally cracked the code on engaging patients and physicians. Our Team MVPs campaign surprised physicians, brought in hundreds of new donors, and filled our major gifts pipeline. 


Game On Cancer was born five years ago to primarily address the financial toxicity that accompanies a cancer diagnosis and offer patients a bit of relief from every day stressors that often create a barrier to wellness – transportation to appointments, healthy groceries, rent and mortgage assistance, utility bills, home health care or prescription coverage – it all adds up. In partnership with the Detroit Lions and the Detroit Pistons, Game On Cancer is a year-round campaign that has successfully raised over $5 million in 5 years – 100% of which has been dedicated to that mission.   

Corporate teams, community groups, friends and families, and employee teams have rallied around the program contributing to incredible growth and impact for such a young initiative.  But the most obvious groups – the survivors and their physicians – aren’t participating.  How do we engage the thousands of grateful patients that have had life-saving treatment at the cancer institute and create a buzz and awareness around “paying it forward” for the next patient and their family? 

First Quarter 

After many failed attempts through special events, mailings, eblasts, and newsletters, Game On Cancer introduced a new campaign – “Team MVPs” – a sports-centered campaign that combined physicians, survivors and the Detroit Lions.  

Twelve nominated physicians competed for the title of Game On Cancer MVP – Most Valuable PhysicianThey each had a goal of raising $10,000.  

The physicians were nominated by leadership at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute and the Detroit Lions. We started with a nomination packet for each doc that included a personalized “MVP Trading Card.” Each physician registered with the campaign and created their Team MVP online fundraising page and were ready to start. 

Game on Cancer fundraising

We knew getting creative with exciting assets tied to player appearances and game day activation would be key to our success. Each MVP would be guest during an upcoming Lions game in the on-field fan tunnel and the winning MVP would have the opportunity to host a suite at that game and be featured during the pre-game sports desk interview.  

To keep them motivated, all MVPs would also be featured with a fullpage spread in a popular local business publication and each would have a dedicated feature on our social media channels. 

Second Quarter 

Launching the MVP campaign in conjunction with the NFL’s cancer awareness game, the Crucial Catchafforded a big win for everyone: the Lions were looking for an opportunity to host a meet & greet with patients and players and the health system had an opportunity to fill the field with Game On Cancer ambassadors as the Lions official partner in the fight against cancer. How could we best marry the assets offered to us by our favorite football team partners to the MVP program while still achieving the philanthropic priority of raising money and attracting new donors? 

Initially, our hope was quite simple – we wanted physicians to support their own health system, instead of an external non-profit. Physicians have friends, colleagues, neighbors that likely had capacity and would want to support their nominated friend in earning the title. But, that is not what happened at all. 

Third Quarter  

What happened next surprised all of us – especially our nominated physicians.   

The relationship between a doctor and their patient during such a vulnerable time in someone’s life is indescribable. It’s magic. One of the strategies to raise awareness for Game On Cancer through our MVPs was to send just one email to each physician’s past patient list (we pulled just two years back).  For many patients, supporting their favorite doctor is incentive enough – but first they had to take the time to open the email and understand the program. Breaking through the noise of a cluttered inbox required a bit of a flashier incentive – and because our Lions players wanted and needed to have an appearance opportunity with patients/survivors leading up to the Crucial Catch game, we found that flash and the physician email appeal read: 

“As a Henry Ford Cancer Institute physician, I am committed to helping my patients in every way I can as they fight cancer. That’s why I am honored and proud to report that I was recently nominated to be a Game On Cancer MVP—Most Valuable Physician. 

Game On Cancer raises money to support Henry Ford cancer patients and funds important research to find a cure. A cancer diagnosis can raise a host of worries—which include affording the costs of everyday life while undergoing treatment. That’s where Game On Cancer steps in to help pay for transportation to doctor’s appointments, important medications, water and heating bills, massage, exercise programs and much more. 

My goal as a Game On Cancer MVP is to raise $10,000, 100% of which will directly support cancer patients across Michigan. 

Like any MVP, I need a great team to cross the finish line. Would you consider joining me by making a donation to my fundraising page (click here) to help us reach our goal? 

Once you’ve made your gift, you will receive an invitation to a Game On Cancer Breakfast Celebration with The Detroit Lions on Tuesday, October 22 at West Bloomfield Hospital as they gear up for their Crucial Catch Cancer Awareness Game the following weekend!  
Join us as we cheer on our Lions, collect photos and autographs with the players, celebrate the work of Game On Cancer and network with fellow supporters and friends.

Your generosity would bring relief to our friends, neighbors and family members battling cancer. With your help, it’s Game On, Cancer!

Fourth Quarter

And here is where we were hit with a surprise! This one email generated over 350 responses from past patients – nearly all of whom were brand new donors to the system and raised over $75,000.  

It cost us nothing to send. The breakfast reception at the hospital was extremely low-cost and perhaps the best part – our physicians saw first-hand that patients DO want to give back, they are looking for an opportunity to express their gratitude and by partnering with the development office, we will strive to build relationships that not only fund our mission, but bring a community of survivors together for awesome experiences and time to network together. 

We were also able to build a rather significant pipeline for major gifts and already have another $100,000 pending as a result of our first MVP program. Thoughtful stewardship of these new donors will include personalized thank you notes from their physician, a campaign celebration card announcing our grand total, and shared impact stories. As we launch the 2020 campaign these survivors will be invited to join our survivorship team, “Team Tougher Together,” and become MVP fundraisers themselves! 

Game on Cancer grateful patient lunch

Post Game 

Finding an opportunity to make it easy for patients to engage in philanthropy and making that opportunity mutually beneficial doesn’t require much flash or a robust budget. This success was born from meaningful relationships and our desire to honor the physician-patient relationship.  

Don’t have a professional sports team at your disposal?  That’s okay! Look around and get creative – this type of partnership could work with a local radio or television station, college (or even high school!) sports teams, an annual community event (maybe your MVPs are featured in a local Fourth of July parade) or even partnering with a local government official of association.   

Whatever you have available – use it! With a focus on honoring physicians and creating a supportive survivorship community, grateful patients are excited to get involved and, in the end, we all walk away with an MVP title.