St. Jude Taps TikTok as Social Media Becomes a Focus of Fundraising Efforts

St. Jude and More Raise Funds on TikTok
@ashleytisdale/tiktok; Courtesy of St. Jude’s

Left: Ashley Tisdale’s TikTok dance duet with Jordyn — a gymnast who was successfully treated for cancer at St. Jude — has 2 million views. Right: TikTok and YouTube star Sam Hurley, a St. Jude supporter, visited the hospital last year with his mom, Kristy.

The children's hospital is one of several groups (like Elton John's AIDS Foundation) tapping into the huge platform to meet "young people where they are."

With an estimated 850 million active users worldwide, it's no surprise that philanthropies with strong ties to Hollywood like St. Jude Children's Research Hospital are turning to the social media app TikTok for the next generation of fundraising. "This is all about meeting people where they are, and younger people are on TikTok," says Rick Shadyac, president and CEO of ALSAC, St. Jude's fundraising and awareness organization. "We've been very engaged on social media for a long time but TikTok is the latest platform that we’ve chosen to engage with in an effort to try to reach a younger audience."

They certainly are. Social media agency Wallaroo reports that 60 percent of TikTok users are Gen Zers, which next year will become the largest generational group with 74 million members. And TikTok users average 52 minutes per day on the video-sharing app. Looking even further ahead, kids aged four to 15 now spend about 80 minutes per day on TikTok, which has doubled the time each day they were spending on social media with YouTube, according to industry publication TechCrunch.

Since connecting with the platform in April, Shadyac lauds the "immediacy and authentic storytelling" of the shortform video format to relate the journeys of young patients at St. Jude, which treats children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases and does not charge for their care. "Some of our kids have incredible personalities, and they really shine through," he adds. A video with one young leukemia patient, 4-year-old Keegan, was posted in early July and by August had 2.4 million organic views. The TikTok video then jumped to nearly 9 million views during a live-stream music event, Music Gives: Together #forStJude, on Aug. 13.

Similar numbers for other charitable groups show the pull of the platform. When Best Friends Animal Society partnered with Charli D'Amelio, the app's No. 1 star, on a visibility campaign, BFAS saw followership on the app grow 74 percent. TikTok also teamed up with the American Cancer Society and the NFL to increase early detection awareness and raise funds to support health equity. The campaign eventually garnered 2.6 billion video views. And on Dec. 1, Elton John's AIDS Foundation and TikTok partnered on a World AIDS Day campaign.

For the holidays, TikTok is launching #GivingSzn, a monthlong program that connects creators with nonprofit organizations, following up on a $3 million matching donation announced on Dec. 1's Giving Tuesday. Scheduled activities include a Cyndi Lauper variety show in support of youth homelessness nonprofit True Colors United on Dec. 11. The platform also has launched Donation Stickers that can be embedded in videos and live streams. Tapping on the sticker, the user is guided to a pop-up window where they can submit a donation without having to leave the app. (St. Jude debuted their sticker this month.)

"There's certainly an energy on the platform that lends itself really well to activism and cause-oriented campaigns, from conservation to animal welfare to LGBTQ+," says TikTok's Robbie Levin, senior manager of media publisher partnerships. Earlier this year, TikTok hired Brett Peters from It Gets Better Project to lead its education and philanthropy partnerships.

Ashley Tisdale —  a St. Jude supporter for more than 10 years ("It started when I released a single back in the day and donated my proceeds to the St. Jude kids," she says) — joined TikTok in January and has amassed a following of 6 million. "I joined TikTok because I find it so fun. Dance battles, anything food-related or puppies — sign me up! It's such a great little escape, and I just love how St. Jude is using the platform to highlight amazing and heartfelt patient moments," says Tisdale, who took part in a dance duet with Jordyn, a St. Jude patient, in May.

"Part of the rich legacy of St. Jude is its connection to the Hollywood community," says Marlo Thomas, daughter of founder Danny Thomas and national outreach director. "Even before the hospital was built, my father turned to his good pals Frank Sinatra, George Burns, Bob Hope — even a young Elvis — to perform in concerts all over the country to raise the first crucial funds. And we're now tapping into a growing army of younger influencers who have introduced their millions of followers to St. Jude’s lifesaving mission."

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.