In the wake of her son’s death, Liz Dawes had to reimagine her life without him. Seven years later she is having to reimagine the fundraising event established in his memory.

Just before he was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2011, Connor Dawes was looking forward to the rowing season and hoping to make the firsts team at his high school. Connor didn’t like running, but to prepare he went on a long training run. His determination to be the best he could be became the inspiration for Connor’s Run. In seven years, the event has raised $4.3 million to support research into paediatric brain cancer.

Last year, the day before more that 5,000 people embarked on Connor’s Run, Liz Dawes gave a TEDx Talk in Melbourne. Few people ask her why she and her family conceived Connor’s Run or founded a foundation in his name. But many people ask her how – how has she done it, how has she continued to do it after such a loss? She credits three powerful tools. “I’m reframing, reimaging and reaffirming my way forward,” she told the audience.

Six months later two things happened. Actor Tom Hanks announced he and his wife Rita Wilson had contracted COVID-19 while in Australia and the US NBA suspended its 2020 basketball season. With planning well underway and the launch of this year’s Connor’s Run set for 22 April, an emergency board meeting of the Robert Connor Dawes Foundation was called.

Even before Australian states began to go into lockdown, it was clear that the launch party would not happen as usual. Liz still held out hope that the run would go ahead as planned on 13 September. Some board members were not so sure. “I was probably in denial, but the board was quite clear and true: this was a year like no other,” says Liz. “My heart sank because we love our event, and it brings so much joy to people.”

At first Liz thought they should continue to plan for the event and cancel if need be, but as the conversation with the board continued it became clear to everyone that it would be better to change course immediately.

Once again Liz would bring out the three tools that had served her so well over the past seven years. This time she would be reframing the year 2020, reimagining Connor’s Run, and reaffirming that the Robert Connor Dawes Foundation could keep going despite all odds.

Prioritising in the face of COVID-19

Beyond ensuring Connor’s Run still took place in some shape or form, two other priorities loomed large. Meeting RCD Foundation’s funding obligations and retaining its staff.

“Last year we had almost $1 million of commitments, and that’s a lot considering what we raise, but we do that because we have really low overhead. Luckily, we can meet all those – we’re good, we can honour those obligations,” says Liz

Alongside Liz as CEO, the Foundation is staffed by seven permanent part-time employees, all of whom have been on staff long enough to really understand the event and its impact. While the RCD Foundation has always had a physical office, staff only ever met once a week so working remotely was not an issue. Even before the federal government’s JobKeeper kicked in, Liz called a staff meeting to reassure everyone that it was her priority to keep them employed. And to do that they had to figure out a way to transform Connor’s Run.

Reimaging the event

With other peer-to-peer fundraising events quickly transforming into virtual versions, an initial idea was to change the event to Connor’s Virtual Run. Liz’s two children were adamant that was the wrong call. “Mom, it’s not a virtual run,” they told her. “People are still running.”

“That’s when we came up with ‘your way any day’,” says Liz.

Connor’s Run has always had a tight but poignant structure. You could run (or walk) Connor’s original run which was 18.8 kms from Sandringham on Melbourne’s Bayside coast to the boatsheds on the Yarra. Or you could take a shorter 9.6 km route from St Kilda. The length of the first route is a heart-breaking coincidence – it was the length of Connor’s life. The second represents his birthday on 9 June. Even the mission of the Foundation is aligned to Connor’s initials, RCD: to support research, care and develop projects to fund the science to end brain cancer and help patients in the meantime.

But the spirit of the event has always been much looser and celebratory. “We always say our run is not about running really. It’s about you, celebrating your awesomeness,” says Liz. This ties directly back to the spirit of her son. A few months before Connor died his yoga teacher guided him through an affirmation and asked him to think of something positive that began with the words “I will…”. Connor replied, “I will be awesome.”

So, for Connor’s Run 2020, participants are encouraged to be awesome in their own way. They can do whatever they want – run, walk, skip, jump, bike, dance – during the month of September.

The big launch party was abandoned and instead took place in Liz’s living room with just her husband and kids, and was shared on social media. Liz was touched by the numerous emails from supporters worried about the fate of Connor’s Run and so happy that the event would go ahead.

@rcdfoundationHow to celebrate Connor’s Run Launch ##foryourpage ##fyp ##foryou @benjaminjohnston13♬ Nanana Remix – tiafuentes212

Reimagining means revising

Given the COVID-19 environment, registration fees were cut by 25% and the participant and fundraising targets were drastically reduced. “We brought our expectations way down,” says Liz. Last year, we raised $1.2 million, and the goal on the website is $500,000. Is that realistic? Is it optimistic? I don’t know. Much like this whole world, who knows?” Similarly, she’s hoping that half the normal 5,000 participants will take part.

Historically participants have received a t-shirt on the day, and they will still get one by 1 September if they register before 15 July – a nice pressure point to encourage registrations.

They were also given a bib on which they could complete their own “I will…” affirmation. This year participants are completing their affirmations upon registration. They can download the bib, personalise it, and then print it at home. As an added incentive, teams of 10 or more who have collectively fundraised more than $1,000 by 31 July will be supplied with a custom bib.

Liz is reading every single affirmation. “I will smile when I finish.” “I will try to do something every day in September.” “I will run for my life.” Bringing affirmations into the registration process has also helped the team better understand their participants and hopefully this will translate into higher engagement and fundraising.

Of course, the big party at the end of Connor’s Run also had to be abandoned but the organising committee has been kept intact and meets one a fortnight via Zoom. They still have great ideas, says Liz, and they will need them this year as supporter engagement is more important than ever.

One of those ideas is to develop an app to give participants a fun way to create their own route. Other ideas are being trialled to engage supporters in the cause rather than just the event. Gaining funding can be a precarious endeavour for medical researchers and, while current funding obligations have been met, Liz wants the researchers the Foundations funds to have some measure of security. “I want them to know that our funding is going to continue, that our passion for trying to help them do the jobs they’re doing is going to continue.”

Corporate sponsors stay the course

Corporate sponsorship can be hard acknowledges Liz, and in the current environment corporates can be much more regimented about who they support and how.

Key sponsors for Connor’s Run include Coles, Accenture, Brighton Grammar, Belle Property and QMS as well as a number of supporting partners and event suppliers. All of them have stayed the course. “We have been very blessed to have our sponsors. They’ve been with us for years. And I want them to continue to be with us for years,” says Liz.

“We had quite a high threshold of what we wanted for major sponsorship. This year, we’re being much more relaxed. I don’t want to be putting demands on companies, employees, when it’s such an uncertain year. My philosophy is let’s just work together and do the best we can and not worry too much about what we’re doing. We’re not bringing on any new sponsors, we’re just keeping the ones we’ve always had.”

A new role for volunteers

Mass participation events are highly dependent on the support of volunteers. In Connor Run’s case they numbered around 500.

This year, if they choose, those volunteers will get to experience the event from the other side. “We’re saying to them that this is a year they can actually do Connor’s Run. So, grab a friend, go for a walk, celebrate all the wonderful years you’ve helped us. And that’s how you can volunteer,” says Liz.

Down the track there may be more ways volunteers can contribute but for now this is one way to involve and engage an important sector of the Connor’s Run community.

How is Connor’s Run doing so far?

A couple of months out from the event, 1764 participants have signed up and 458 active fundraisers have raised 62% of the $500,000 target with average support at $130. This year, 26% of participants are fundraising compared to 22% last year, heading towards a goal of 33%.

It may not be the Connor’s Run of the past, but this year’s Connor’s Run is still making a difference to kids fighting the number one cancer killer of young Australians.

“Yes, things are hard, but it doesn’t mean it’s bad,” says Liz, reflecting on the fact that amid all the tumult she had her kids back home during lockdown, and that is something she will look back on with a smile. “So yeah, hard doesn’t have to be bad. And I’d rather do something positive than nothing at all, for sure.”

Liz Dawes spoke to Clare Joyce, the Editor-in-Chief of F&P.

Find out more about Connor’s Run.

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