The Question: What’s behind Make-A-Wish®’s communications magic at Christmastime?

The holiday season is also known as the “season of giving” for mostly altruistic and a few tax-related reasons. This is when people and organizations tend to feel more generous than other times of the year, so they give to a broad range of charities, nonprofits and causes.

One organization that is at the top of many peoples’ lists during this season is Make-A-Wish®. Perhaps this is because Make-A-Wish is seen as one organization that gives more than it can possibly receive.  What it does is give hope to children facing life-threatening medical conditions.

How it fulfills its mission is the key ingredient. It grants “wishes” to young patients who otherwise could only dream about them.  As the organization says in its own mission statement: “A wish experience can be a game-changer for a child with a life-threatening medical condition.”

BluePositive_GreaterPAandWV_newTo be sure, Make-A-Wish may not be in the business of finding medical cures, but what it does is work to change the lives of the kids it serves.

The founding principle of the organization’s vision is to “grant the wish of every eligible child.”

Perhaps you’ve seen some news story about a child with leukemia having the chance to go to Disney World with her family. That’s a very popular wish. But wishes range in creativity with the imaginations of each kid and the can-do will of the Make-A-Wish team and their supporters who are legion.

I could throw some stats at you, but look at it this way. Make-A-Wish counts tens of thousands of “volunteers, donors and supporters.”  In the United States alone, the organization says a wish is granted every 37 minutes.  That’s a lot of hope.  And it means a lot of positive energy for kids who really need it.

Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia has been around for 31 years.  In its first year, it granted 13 wishes.

On May 5, 1983, the organization granted its first wish to a boy named Bryan who had cancer. All he wanted to do was enjoy another piggyback ride with his uncle who had moved to Texas.  Make-A-Wish made all that and more possible for the young boy on his 7th birthday.  Since then, the organization has completed over 16,000 wishes, each one as unique as the child and the family at the center of the effort.

Make-A-Wish’s Communications Philosophy

“Our primary communications philosophy is to keep the mission in focus in everything we do,” said Ann Hohn, Chief Operating Officer at Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia. “Obviously, that’s easy to do with a touching wish story. But even if we are promoting a special event, a giving campaign or a donor’s check presentation, we try to keep the communication very wish-centric. Even our thank you letters feature a wish story.”

And while the organization works to demonstrate the impact of a gift in quantitative and qualitative terms to donors, Hohn said that, “Nothing is quite so powerful as a quote from a child on their wish when they say ‘this was the best day of my life.’”

The Make-A-Wish Brand

Hohn said the Make-A-Wish brand is “very singular and grass-roots – in our mission and in our fundraising – and we feel this separates us from a number of other charities.”

She has worked for the organization for the past 25 years, and said that during that time the brand has been built through localized media relations, connecting with the community one wish at a time.

Nationally, the Make-A-Wish brand gets heightened visibility, especially during the holidays thanks to partnerships with brands like Macy’s and Subaru through its “Share the Love”  campaign. In the schools, teachers participate in the organization’s “Kids for Wish Kids” programs to create awareness at that grassroots level.

Hohn could not emphasize enough, however, that the brand is as strong as the ripple-effect of awareness that comes from granting over 16,000 wishes.

Then and Now

Some of Hohn’s most memorable stories are of the “then and now” type, she said.  These are stories of former wish kids and where they are now.

Kurt and the Fighting Irish Band

“I met a boy named Kurt in the early 90s when he wished to play with the Notre Dame Band at the Orange Bowl,” said Hohn. “He subsequently lost half his leg to bone cancer but survived to become a husband, father and orthopaedic oncologist at UPMC.  And he points to his wish as a catalyst of hope.”

Megan Meets First Dog Millie

Another notable memory is Megan, who is now 35 years old and has survived cystic fibrosis longer than many of the kids who were treated at the same time as her when she received her wish.

“It was to meet George H.W. Bush because she really wanted to meet his dog, Millie,” said Hohn. “Megan believes in Make-A-Wish so much she volunteers at our office and is here today helping with our holiday card project.”

Francesca Takes Fashion World by Storm

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Francesca sitting in front row at L.A. Style Fashion Week with Glamour Magazine’s entertainment writer Jessica Radloff. Photo credit: Make-A-Wish

More recently, Hohn thinks of Francesca, a “wish kid” diagnosed with a brain tumor at 17. She wanted to write a fashion blog “which she did two years ago at L.A. Fashion Week with Glamour magazine,” added Hohn.  “Francesca can clearly point to the plane ride home from Los Angeles, as she was trying to sort through everything that had happened with her wish, as the moment when she knew she was going to survive. Francesca is in her third semester here as an intern, a college student at CCAC and a terrific writer.”

Beetle Boy Saves Pittsburgh

Hohn’s favorite wish, however, was 14 years ago and involves a super hero. “Long before Bat Kid, there was Beetle Boy,  a wish granted to Michael in the late 90s,” she said.

Michael spent the day as ‘Beetle Boy,’ Pittsburgh’s very own villain-fighting superhero.

Today, Michael says that he still remembers the experience “pretty vividly.”

“I was watching cartoons like I usually did with my Dad,” Michael said.

Then on the television a “newscast” interrupted the cartoons.  Then Michael heard his own name mentioned by the newscaster, followed by a plea for help: “Pittsburgh needs you!”


Green Goblin, Spider Man, and Pittsburgh’s Beetle Boy. Photo credit: Make-A-Wish

That led to Michael being transformed into “Beetle Boy,” complete with super hero attire and a mission to save his hometown and defeat the Green Goblin.

His day involved saving a damsel in distress who was tied to the train tracks at the Zoo. He rescued the Pitt Panther at the University of Pittsburgh stadium.  He even restored the water supply of the fountain at Point State Park.  And in the end, Beetle Boy captured the Green Goblin with a net.

Michael is 20 now. He is engaged and working.  And he has those vivid memories of the day he saved Pittsburgh from the Green Goblin.

A “Giving” ROI as High as the Sky

What’s the price of hope? Or maybe better put, what is the value of hope?  That’s the work of Make-A-Wish, and the simple reason it has such a strong brand that helps shape the holidays as we know them across the country, but particularly in Pittsburgh.

For more information on Make-A-Wish, call (800) 676-9474, or visit


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