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Nurses at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. Twenty-two per cent of The Princess Margaret patients treated are in clinical trials, one of the reasons the facility is counted among the top five cancer research centres in the world.Supplied

Two years ago, researchers at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre announced an early breakthrough in the fight against cancer with a blood test that can detect the disease at its earliest stages, long before symptoms appear.

The researchers, led by Dr. Daniel De Carvalho, made this discovery thanks to research funded in part by donations and fundraising from The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation.

“That’s what donations enable us to do – to have research breakthroughs like this. And they’re happening all the time,” says Alyssa Huggins, vice-president of brand and integrated marketing for the foundation.

Twenty-two per cent of Princess Margaret patients treated are in clinical trials, one of the reasons the facility is counted among the top five cancer research centres in the world.

“It’s a real gem for Canada,” Ms. Huggins says. “It really is something that people should be quite proud is here in our country.”

Like most charitable organizations, though, the foundation has been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, forced to curtail face-to-face fundraising and donor events for most of this year.

“The impact of COVID on our peer-to-peer fundraising events has been pretty significant,” Ms. Huggins says.

While the foundation has a diverse portfolio of revenue sources and a committed base of generous donors, she points out that donations make up 70 per cent of the foundation’s overall revenues, excluding the annual lottery.

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Giving Tuesday, on Dec. 1, marks the start of the final push of what charities call the ‘giving season.’ Always a significant boost to revenues, this year non-profit organizations are counting on the holiday period to help make up for the drastic drop in donations.

“The holiday time frame, especially November and December, is a really important period for us. A significant amount of funds come in during that time,” Ms. Huggins says.

A Sept. survey found that 37 per cent of Canadian donors had given less during the pandemic than in years past, says Marina Glogovac, chief executive officer of CanadaHelps, which processes about one-third of all online donations in Canada for a wide array of non-profit organizations.

“Event-based fundraising, those are all gone; in-person solicitation, gone; and some other forms of fundraising, too,” Ms. Glogovac says. “While this is happening, charities are also experiencing a real increase in demand for their services.

“When you ask charities about the future and what they expect, not very many are optimistic, to be honest. "

Charities are adapting, she says, switching to virtual programs and events. CanadaHelps has had an influx of organizations looking for support in setting up online.

“We’ve been urging charities for a long time to really start investing in digital infrastructure,” she says. “Before the pandemic charities recognized that and they were on varying points on that journey but there was a lot of ‘we’ll do that next year.’”

Many don’t have much money to invest in their own infrastructure, she says.

“But now, all of a sudden when this pandemic hit, it’s a matter of survival,” Ms. Glogovac says.

A quarter of all annual donations are made in December, the peak of giving season, she says.

“This year, they’re coming out of missed spring events and spring fundraising, missed fall events and fall fundraising. I can’t tell you how many charities are looking at November and December and saying this is do-or-die.”

Fortunately, Canadians rank consistently high among the most generous and altruistic people in the world, says John Helliwell, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia, a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and co-editor of the United Nations’ World Happiness Report.

And charities are not alone in benefitting from that generosity, he says.

“It turns out that people actually feel better about their lives and about themselves when they’re doing things with and for others,” Dr. Helliwell says. “Human beings are hard-wired to connect with one another and not just to connect with one another but to do so in positive ways. Generosity is a key element of that.”

Preliminary surveys suggest Canadians have experienced a big drop in happiness since the pandemic began, says Dr. Helliwell, who is also a member of The Lancet COVID-19 Commission’s task force on mental health, part of a global initiative to speed solutions to the outbreak.

It’s concerning because even prior to the pandemic loneliness and isolation were identified as growing mental health issues in western countries, he says.

“Loneliness is not something you wait until it appears and then try and treat it. You want a vaccination that prevents loneliness and that vaccination, of course, is friends and connections,” Dr. Helliwell says.

Generosity and charity may well be part of the cure, he suggests.

“Reach out in any way that’s open to you to make these social connections that everybody needs,” is his advice.

At The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, maintaining those connections had led to some swift changes to the fundraising line-up.

The foundation launched the “DIY Challenge,” which allows donors to create their own physically distanced fundraisers based on their own talents and interests.

For example, Jason Furlano of Toronto has raised more than $52,000 for leukemia research so far by running across Canada, kind of. Since Jan. 1, Mr. Furlano has run an average of 15.1 kilometres a day to complete the equivalent of the 5,514 kilometres from Cape Spear, N.L. to the Yukon-Alaska border.

He’s doing it to support a friend who was diagnosed with leukemia shortly before her wedding and is being treated at The Princess Margaret.

“He just actually completed seven days straight of marathons,” Ms. Huggins says. “It’s pretty incredible.”

The foundation also launched an e-gaming fundraiser, Quest to Conquer Cancer, which has attracted both celebrity gamers and amateur enthusiasts and has raised almost $230,000 so far for cancer research and will have its big fundraising push in December.

“We have had an impact from COVID, no question, but we’re cautiously optimistic about the future,” Ms. Huggins says. “At the end of the day there’s a ton of work to be done despite COVID. One in two people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime and cancer is still the No. 1 cause of death in Canada.”

Ms. Huggins says people who donate to the foundation as part of Giving Tuesday will have their donations matched — doubling their impact. All the more reason to give.

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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