Engaging Conversations with… Heather Wajer

October 1, 2014

In recent years, September and November have been dedicated to raising awareness and funds for men’s cancer research via Septembeard and Movember, respectively. However, for nearly 30 years, October has been designated Breast Cancer Awareness month. This prompted us to think about how digital and marketing trends are shaping the ways organizations are evolving their approach to combatting diseases. We spoke with Heather Wajer, VP of marketing for the LIVESTRONG Foundation, to get her insights about the complex and competitive world of philanthropic marketing. 

In our latest Engaging Conversation, Heather, a three-time Ironman triathlete, shares her thoughts about competition among social causes, changes in donor behavior and the value of mentorship. 

Name: Heather Wajer
Employer: LIVESTRONG Foundation
Location: Austin, TX
Twitter: @heatherwajer

What is your job title?
Vice President of Marketing

What do you really do?
I joined the Foundation at the end of 2012 when the organization was going through a period of significant transformation. As a member of the executive team, much of my first 12 months was spent deeply engaged in strategic planning. Although the organization had been in existence for over 16 years, we were essentially a start-up all over again.

I lead a diverse team that includes marketing, product and business development. Much of my team’s work over the past 18 months has been dedicated to driving awareness and engagement around our mission to improve the lives of people affected by cancer. This takes the form of partnerships, the development of tools and products for survivors, and campaigns to activate our global community of people affected by cancer.

What trends are you seeing in your industry right now?
The ALS #IceBucketChallenge is a testament to the power of social media to drive awareness and dollars for nonprofits. It is incredible that in just over a month, more than $100 million was raised for ALS nonprofits. Compare that to LIVESTRONG’s yellow wristband, which was a huge viral success when it launched in 2004, but still took 12 months to raise $50 million, just half of what has been raised for ALS in one month. Nonprofits that can successfully harness the power of social amplification will see it pay huge dividends.

Another trend is that traditional models of philanthropy are changing. Donors really want to see the impact of their dollar. This isn’t just true for major donors, but even people giving $25 want to understand that the dollars are having an impact. Donors are in essence investors in the mission of the organization and, as an investor, they want to understand what the return on their dollar is. This movement toward investment means that nonprofits need to continually and clearly communicate the impact that donors’ dollars are having. The more transparency a nonprofit provides to its investors, the more likely reinvestment will occur.

Another big trend is the impact that technology is having on giving. Technology has made it easier than ever to get involved with a cause you care about. Text to donate, apps that integrate giving into everyday activities like running and cycling are just a few of the ways technology is transforming philanthropy.

In the next few years what’s going to change the most in your industry?
The good news is, there are new nonprofits and for-profits being created every day trying to solve the same social issues. But the bad news is there are new nonprofits and for-profits being created every day trying to solve the same social issues. This proliferation of organizations means that it’s more important than ever that nonprofits develop innovative partnership models in order to create the greatest social change. Through high-impact partnerships, nonprofits will be able to create more impact than they could have achieved alone.

This partnership model is core to LIVESTRONG’s approach. We know that as an organization of 90 people in a building in Austin, Texas, we can’t singlehandedly improve the lives of the 32.5 million people living with cancer across the globe. That’s why we partner with organizations like the YMCA, Patient Advocate Foundation, and CureLauncher and Rallyhood to scale our impact.

Where do you or did you get your best business advice?
I’m a firm believer in the power of mentorship. While it’s important to have mentors that are experts in your functional area, I find that the most impactful mentors are often ones that work in different areas of the business. One of the most amazing mentors I’ve had in my career was actually a Chief Technology Officer. He looks at things from a very different perspective, which is helpful to me as I’m working through tough business issues. I also stay in touch with past colleagues and tap into their various skills and expertise quite often.

What business advice would you pass on?
1. Be authentic: The most successful leaders I’ve worked with have shared the trait of authenticity. They show their real selves, emotions and all. They don’t have one persona at work and one in their personal life. They aren’t afraid to make mistakes.
2. Surround yourself with a great team: This is critical. Find people who are the best at what they do. In addition to making sure the person has the requisite skills to do their job, it’s important to make sure they are a cultural fit too. It’s not just the individuals on the team, but the way they work together that will determine success.
3. Take risks and celebrate failure: Greatness never comes from following the pack. In order to have great success you need to take risks. They won’t always work out, but that’s ok if you create a culture where you can learn something from every failure and use it to propel you to future success.

Who do you follow on Twitter?
One of my favorite people to follow is Simon Mainwaring (@simonmainwaring). He’s an incredible brand and social media powerhouse. He tweets great content on how to build brand communities and create impact.

Other favorites are:
Ann Handley (@MarketingProfs)
Ted Talks (@tedtalks)
Richard Ting (@flytip).

I also get my daily dose of inspiration from @upworthy and @tinybuddha.

What’s on your daily must-read list?
The Skimm is on the top of my reading list for news. I love that I can get all the content quickly. I also get a lot of news from my Twitter feed.


“Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t.”


If you had a Pinterest-style motivational quote on your wall, what would it say?
I do, and it says “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t.” To me, this quote really speaks to the small and often unnoticed daily effort that leads to the big noticeable achievement. I think this is so true in both business and sport. You don’t just wake up one day and complete an Ironman. You need to have a plan and work every day toward achieving that goal. By putting in the daily effort, anatomic adaption happens and that is what allows you to complete a seemingly insurmountable event. The same is true for accomplishing a goal like changing the perception of your brand. A goal like that requires a steady drumbeat of daily effort. It’s the combined impact of all of the small changes that leads to the attainment of the goal.