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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 4

Concert against Cancer: A success story

by Caroline Rodgers / December 1, 2011

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The Concert contre le Cancer (Concert Against Cancer), the primary source of funding for the Institut du cancer de Montréal, celebrates its fifth anniversary this February. In five years, the dedication of its volunteers and its director-general, Maral Tersakian, as well as its shock advertising campaign showing composers with bald heads, has made it a success.

The last two editions have raised between $550,000 and $570,000 each.

“We found a winning formula,” says Maral Tersakian. “It draws as many business heads and classical music lovers as it does members of the general public who have never gone to a symphonic concert, and may never otherwise have, but are motivated by the fight against cancer.”

This is one charity event that is accessible to all budgets; ticket prices run from $35 . . . up to $2,500!

“We didn’t want to make it an elitist soirée,” says Mrs. Tersakian. “To thank our diamond and silver partners for their more generous donations, we organize a VIP cocktail before the concert.”

This annual event has also helped bring the Institute to the greater public. “I often speak to people who call to purchase tickets, and many of them have been intimately affected by the disease,” explains the director. “ Four sisters and their spouses bought tickets because their sister had died of cancer the year before. This was their way of commemorating a tragic anniversary.”

How it all got started
Walks, balls, bike rallies – there is already a host of activities and events dedicated to raising funds to fight cancer. Those at the Institute asked themselves what they could do to raise money that would stand out. Why not a classical music concert? It was also an excellent way to celebrate the organization’s 60th anniversary

“Looking at a profile of our donors, we found that they are educated, well established, and of a certain age,” says Mrs. Tersakian. “We thought a symphony concert corresponded well to this profile.”

Ambitious from the start, the first concert was held in Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. “We had the chance to pair Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Louis Lortie, who played together for the first time. It was a success,” she recalls.

It wasn’t until the second year that the event took its current name of “Concert contre le cancer”. Marketing firm kbs+p had the ingenious idea of putting Mozart with a bald head on the ads. “It had an extraordinary media impact,” adds the director. Since then, Verdi and Strauss (and for the next campaign, Bizet) have had their heads shaved to support the cause.

The Institut du cancer de Montréal was founded in 1947, making it the first francophone cancer research institute in North America. But with the creation of the CHUM (the University of Montreal Hospital Centre), its mission changed and the foundation’s aim changed to supporting the CHUM research centre.

“It’s a relatively small foundation,” says Maral Tersakian. “We addressed the need to target our efforts, and we decided to create the program Rapatriement de cerveaux (Repatriating Brains). As a society, we lose a lot of scientists trained in our universities. They go elsewhere to do postdoctoral studies and never come back to Quebec because there isn’t as much funding and start-up capital for research here as in other countries.”

The program has made good on its promise; in the last four years, five top-level researchers have come back to settle here.

The concept of bringing scientists back into the fold has been very well received in the business community. The Institute easily recruited prestigious members of the business community to be part of the campaign’s office and donate, sign letters, and open doors.

“The businesspeople who get involved with or donate money to a cause want to know what is done with the money to ensure that it’s used effectively,” explains Mrs. Tersakian. “A researcher who settles here becomes like an SME over time. He or she receives funding and hires staff. This means in addition to advancing scientific research, we’re stimulating economic activity as well. By adding a classical music concert to finance the program, we find ourselves with many ingredients that contribute to success. When you have an interesting and well-organized project, people want to participate.”

Furthermore, the organization reduced its operating costs to a minimum by soliciting sponsorships for the material necessary to the ad campaign. “Everything that we’ve gotten for free from the media and from suppliers is a key to success,” she adds. “I spend six months of the year negotiating all that.”

[Translation: Rebecca Anne Clark]

The upcoming Concert Against Cancer will take place February 3, 2012, at 8 p.m. and will be held for the first time at Montreal’s Maison Symphonique. The audience will hear the Metropolitan Orchestra, under the baton of Stéphane Laforest, soprano Marie-Josée Lord, and violinist Marie-Ève Poupart playing a program of works by Bizet, Puccini, Gershwin, Gilles Vigneault, and Starmania’s Le monde est stone.

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