Penn State’s annual IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, commonly referred to as THON, broke its fundraising record this year by raising a total of $13.7 million in time for the student-run charity’s 50th anniversary.
The iconic fundraiser, founded in 1973, is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world and since its founding, THON has raised over $200 million for Hershey-based nonprofit Four Diamonds.
Through THON, Penn State students raise money during a year-long effort that culminates in a 46-hour, no-sitting, no-sleeping dance marathon. It is one of three programs that Four Diamonds relies on to support children and their families in the fight against childhood cancer through care, support and research.
In the last decade, Four Diamonds has grown exponentially by expanding its administration, updating how it communicates with students, finding ways to keep students invested in giving after they graduate and more.
That growth has resulted in the nonprofit bringing in 75% of its total fundraised money in the past 12 years—something that can be partially attributed to the leadership of Suzanne Graney, Four Diamond’s executive director since 2010.
Graney joined Four Diamonds with an established background in communications and marketing from a previous role as director of development and marketing at Harrisburg-based WITF. However, it was Graney’s experience as a volunteer in a youth leadership program that drew her to a position at Four Diamonds.
As a volunteer, Graney worked with young people to help them recognize and grasp their full potential, something that she does today with the student leader of THON.
“To get to see that spark of learning and growth through their time with Four Diamonds—whether it is through THON, Mini-THON or other opportunities, it’s rewarding to see how they are awakened to their skills,” said Graney.
Through THON, students learn best practices in fundraising, social media and digital fundraising along with lessons in leadership and teamwork—fostering future philanthropists.
Leading Four Diamonds
Leading an organization like Four Diamonds takes what Graney calls a combination of heart and smart.
“You can have a lot of heart and care and it is important to be rooted in the mission to truly care about the individuals who are making this work happen,” she said. “On the flip side, you have to approach it from a place of smart business principles. You have to have return on investment, and you have to manage the financial pieces of this well.”
Under Graney’s leadership, Four Diamonds has grown from three to 17 full-time staff members. Those staff changes have included the addition of a team dedicated to Mini-THON, a similar year-long fundraising effort modeled after THON but focused on K-12 students.
Another area of growth for the nonprofit has been how it communicates with the public, according to Graney. Four Diamonds has grown its social media presence, recognizing that it needs to meet students and donors at their preferred websites.
“We knew that Penn State University students were heavily on Twitter. We had to grow on Twitter as a response,” said Graney. “We know that our donors were on Facebook. So, we needed our stories on Facebook.”
In the spirit of meeting its community where it is, Four Diamonds announced a new program to stand beside THON and Mini-THON in July, called Play For The Kids.
Through Play For The Kids, Four Diamonds supporters can raise money by hosting a variety of events such as food eating contests or fitness challenges, during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September.
Graney said she sees the new program as a way to keep students and families invested in the THON and Mini-Thon mindset even after graduating college or high school.
“It is about bringing people together. Being part of a larger movement all focused on funding studies for childhood cancer,” she said. “It is an expansion of what we are doing and an opportunity for anyone at any age to be part of the solution.”
Looking back and forward
Along with breaking THON’s record annual donations, 2022 THON acted as a celebration of 50 years of THON.
It was also Four Diamonds’ first year without its co-founder, Charles Millard, who died in late 2021 at the age of 93.
Millard co-founded Four Diamonds with his wife, Irma, after the loss of their son Christopher to cancer in 1972. Four Diamonds became the beneficiary of Penn State’s THON in 1977 after Millard made a connection with a student involved in the organization.
During his time with Four Diamonds, a common phrase of Millard’s was: “Maybe Einstein was right and we are all energy and that energy never dies, it just takes another form.”
The energy of THON’s hours long dance party is hard to describe, according to Graney, who said she kept thinking of that quote during the weekend.
“It’s filled with hope, positivity and goodwill,” she said. “You feel that the minute you enter that building and you feel it the entire time.”
The anniversary was also an opportunity to look forward for Four Diamonds.
Last November Penn State Health named Dr. Yatin Vyas as chair of its Department of Pediatrics, Children’s Miracle Network and Four Diamonds Endowed Chair and pediatrician-in-chief at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and Penn State College of Medicine.
In this new role, one of Vyas’ first steps will be to put together a new strategic plan for pediatric oncology and hematology. Graney said that this new strategic plan is an opportunity for the hospital and its researchers to tell Four Diamonds what it needs from them.
“Once we know what that direction is, we will get to work and do everything we can to provide them with what they need to care for kids as best they can in the most modern, up to date and leading edge ways possible,” she said.