With November being Diabetes Awareness Month, all kinds of pitches and news releases about awareness and fundraising campaigns have been pouring into our inboxes. One that caught our eye came directly from the JDRF, which is now in its 10th year of partnership with the St. Louis-based stuffed toy maker Build-A-Bear Workshop to raise money (and hopefully awareness) for type 1 diabetes.
Basically this means they've set up a system for the month of November in which Build-A-Bear customers can add $1 (or more) on their purchase at check-out that will go to JDRF chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada. Apparently, this annual campaign has raised about $730,000 for JDRF since its kickoff in 2003. And the bear-maker also supports JDRF chapters with in-kind donations for special events and for the young delegates participating in the JDRF Children's Congress each year. So, that's cool!
But this got me wondering: just how exactly is this anything more than a straight-up fundraising tactic for the 43-year-old organization aimed at "researching, treating, and eventually curing" type 1? There's been an ongoing conversation in the Diabetes Community for years about how much, or how little, is being done in these kinds of partnerships to actually make a difference aside from just raising needed cash? Is "awareness" actually being raised for people inside and especially outside of the D-Community through this Build-A-Bear deal?
Take for example the whole international Blue for Diabetes push, attempting to unify awareness efforts under the Blue Circle as "the global symbol for diabetes." Can you get a blue diabetes bear in the interest of raising awareness while participating in this JDRF/Build-A-Bear initiative?
No, you cannot.
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Because they didn't make one -- unlike other causes, such as the non-profit Autism Speaks that got Build-A-Bear to agree to create a limited edition light blue bear during their awareness month in April. In the past, the same was done with a pink teddy bear for breast cancer, with money going to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. You could even snazz up your bear by purchasing some cause-specific clothing or accessories, and those proceeds sent even more money to the particular charity.
So how come diabetes doesn't get the same stuffed-toy treatment?
Believe it or not, the answers seem to lie somewhere between "we don't do that here" and "gee, that's an interesting idea."
Build-A-Bear, via their corporate "public affairs bear" Amy Pakett, tells us that really the only charity bear they offer now is their own Champ (a Champion Fur Kids) bear and the money goes to the Build-A-Bear Workshop Bear Hugs Foundation, which gives out various children's health and wellness grants each year and that includes some in the area of diabetes.
Packett says Champ was created several years ago to deal with the many requests for specialty bears; Champ supposedly "encompasses them all" and the money is divvied up to the various supported causes. There are also a few "giving animals" they offer in stores, including Bearemy's Kennel Pals dogs in which a portion of proceeds go to animal causes and Paperback Pup, whose sales support literacy and education. But there's really no way to customize any of those animals for the specific cause a customer might have in mind, Packett says.
Yet, since diabetes is already on the Build-A-Bear radar each November, doesn't it seem like more could be done? If not a Blue Awareness Bear, could we at least get a blue circle pin to add to a regular bear, or a symbol of some sort signifying diabetes?
When we reached out to JDRF's VP of Communications Peter Cleary on all this, he began by offering a vague comment about how the organization prides itself on "not only working with corporate partners to raise money toward our mission, but also being a collaborator with our partners. " We certainly hope that's the case.
When we asked him about the blue bear specifically, he said JRDF hadn't even mentioned it yet... ?!
"We have not specifically asked Build-A-Bear to consider creating a diabetes awareness Bear for retail sales. It's an interesting idea though, and we are exploring a number of different opportunities for expanding our relationship with Build-A-Bear and will pass this idea along to them." -- Peter Cleary, VP of Communications for JDRF
So maybe now that we've pointed it out, there's hope yet... ?
It is true that we've got no shortage of stuffed animals and toys in this diabetes community already -- there's Rufus, the Roche-produced D-teddy bear that comes in JDRF Bag of Hope kits, and also Medtronic's Lenny the Lion -- which you can only get from these organizations respectively, although ironically they're both produced by the Build-A-Bear company. There are some commercially sold plush pancreas toys. And of course, new on the scene is Jerry the Bear, an actual functioning diabetes teaching toy that originated as a DiabetesMine Design Challenge winner back in 2009. We do love our stuffed animals!
But a real-life stuffed blue bear that could be bought by "mainstream" customers in a prominent store like Build-A-Bear would do a whole lot towards moving "awareness" out of our little bubble, no?
We're not the first to suggest the idea... there was even an online petition back in 2009, when one Build-A-Bear Workshop employee asked the company to create a Jonas Bear to raise awareness in the name of pop star Nick Jonas who's living with type 1. That petition never got off the ground, meeting pretty much the same fate as the Google Doodle we'd all hoped might materialize for Diabetes Awareness Month (see one blogger's homemade version of that.)
It just seems like another opportunity lost for building major national public awareness and empathy with diabetes.
And we're just plain blue to think that Build-A-Bear Workshop, JDRF and big pharma companies like Medtronic and Roche can't pool their efforts here to help us get one recognizable, attention-grabbing diabetes awareness bear for this community. Boo.
Actually, in talking with Packett for Build-A-Bear, we suggested possible in-store promotions of both Rufus and Lenny -- and she said that might be something "the company could discuss internally"... so, that's something!
Of course, it would also be great if the Roche-made Rufus actually wore a Blue Circle -- or if he could be wearing a blue bracelet or something (he doesn't have spot of blue on him now). You know, just because we've been trying since 2005 to get some sort of unity and recognizable color/symbol for our collective advocacy efforts!
Donating money to charitable diabetes causes is great. We need that cash to help make research move forward. But when it comes to investing efforts and money into "raising awareness," there could be a lot more coordination and a lot more being done on the national level.
Maybe it starts with a bunch of us patient advocates prodding these organizatoins to make better use of their connections with Build-A-Bear? We are the D-Community: hear our roar!