If you don’t know THON, in a snapshot, it is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world centered around an annual 46-hour, no-sitting, no-sleeping dance marathon consisting of 700 dancers and more than 3,000 student volunteers. Since 1977, THON has raised more than $101 million benefiting the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.
Five years ago, during my senior year at Penn State, I was selected as a captain for THON. It was one of the biggest honors of my life to work alongside my fellow Penn State students in the fight against pediatric cancer to raise $7.49 million. And going back to THON each year is like going home to 15,000 of your closest friends.
It is even more interesting now to view THON through my somewhat seasoned advertising/marketing/brand lens. It all predicated on THON’s more than 35-year-old Four Diamonds: Courage, Wisdom, Honesty, and Strength, and one common goal of eliminating pediatric cancer. The THON brand has created such an intense emotional connection for students and volunteers that it becomes more and more successful every year. So successful, in fact, that this year’s group of students raised $13.3 MILLION!
Walking into the Bryce Jordan Center this year, I immediately sensed how much the event had grown. There was a line to get into the arena…not to mention the line to access the actual dance floor. Coded wristbands were required. Almost every student captain had a headset. It was evident that the word was out—and stronger than ever thanks to the student’s passion and social media.
In 2009 THON used social channels like Facebook and Twitter, but social media hadn’t become as mainstream as it is today. Now social media does wonders for THON’s brand awareness. It is the perfect way to keep current students, their parents, family, friends, and alumni connected and, of course, donating.
This year during THON weekend, 40,000+ posts reached 22 million unique users “around the globe” (91% US) on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. When the grand total was revealed, THON trended worldwide with “$13,343,517.33 For The Kids” on Twitter. That truly blows my mind.
Even celebrities like Khloe Kardashian were tweeting their support. GMA Live did a segment with a few students demonstrating the line dancing and discussing the weekend. Diane Sawyer featured a dancer pair on World News.
For those who cannot physically attend THON, there is online coverage. The full 46 hours is streamed on Thon.org allowing people around the world to experience the magic of THON. Some Florence students studying abroad even threw a viewing party this year. I know my friends and I streamed the last four hours on our phones as we drove home that Sunday afternoon.
It is because of the Penn State students, their legacy and passion to help, that a social movement has been created. Now, families can post updates via social media, and in THON’s case, students and donors get to see exactly where their funds are going, how they are helping and what it means to the families benefiting. It is real-time, interactive, personal and powerful.
At the end of the day, it is pretty amazing that a student-run organization can raise $13.3 million dollars in one year. I am excited to see where THON goes in another 5 years. If it’s anything like the past, it will be nothing short of amazing.
Proud to be a Penn Stater. Proud to be a THONer. WE ARE.
Photo and Video Credit: Penn State Dance Marathon