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Image from an upcoming SickKids Foundation ad campaign.

Handout

There is not much blood. The surgeon's gloved hands move gingerly and unwavering as a small probe is threaded through Danielle Garand's vein, starting from her leg.

As Nino Rota's theme from Romeo and Juliet plays quietly, the 17-year-old's overworked and enlarged heart comes into view on the screen beside the operating table. Lee Benson is about to repair a hole in Danielle's heart, a defect that not so long ago would have meant invasive, open heart surgery. Now, the laparoscopic procedure takes just a tiny incision. For Dr. Benson, it's routine.

But his operating room is uncommonly crowded today. As he works, a three-person film crew orbits the table, angling for the perfect shot. The access that the crew has been granted is in service of an unprecedented campaign for the SickKids Found- ation. It is also a sign of how hard charities have to work to be noticed during the all-important holiday season, among a pool of donors in Canada that is not growing.

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Starting this week, SickKids will run a different TV ad every day from Monday to Friday (online on weekends) for 45 days. Each one aims to be a mini-documentary, profiling a moment in a child's life at the hospital. Each ends with the tagline, "Help make their tomorrow as good as your today." The ads will run online and in cinema as well, and the hope is that the stories are compelling enough to convince people to pass them around on social media.

On one day, viewers will meet Kael, a cherub-cheeked boy with a rare immune deficiency. He is crying, collapsed on his mother's shoulder. But soon enough he steels himself, wipes his eyes, and raises the weights gripped in his little hands. Fighting to regain the strength that his illness has robbed, he punches at the open palms of a staffer helping him through his exercises.

"A traditional campaign couldn't convey the breadth and depth of what happens at the hospital every day," said Brent Choi, chief creative and integration officer at JWT Canada, the ad agency working with SickKids. "We could have done 142 spots."

"People are more emotionally connected to the patient story," said Ted Garrard, president and chief executive officer of the foundation. "And that emotional connection is a significant driver of giving."

SickKids is trying to get noticed during a holiday season dense with charity advertising. The approaching end of the tax year, means that many people do all their donating for the year in late November or December. The foundation is dedicating 75 per cent of its total annual advertising budget to this six-week period.

The film crew has spent long days and nights at the hospital, clocking more than 17 days of shooting in total. Families already coping with a child's illness have allowed the crew to film some difficult moments.

For Katie Angel, that includes her three-year-old son's open heart surgery, the third since he was born. She watches over Liam in recovery, taking comfort in his pink cheeks: a good sign. At birth, the left side of his heart – the side responsible for pumping oxygen-rich blood through the body – had not had a chance to develop. On his last visit, Liam's heart stopped here in this room. Now he is sleeping peacefully, an oxygen tube secured to his face with tape that a nurse has cut into the shape of a heart.

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"Without them, we wouldn't have him," Ms. Angel says, looking down at Liam lying beneath the blanket with a pattern of multicoloured cars that his grandmother knitted for him. "… I hope we're being helpful in some way. We always want to donate, but we don't have the money. If there's anything we can do to help, we're all in."

The foundation's principal focus is to fund research. The hospital's clinical operations are government-funded, but there is plenty that is not covered, including updating equipment as technology advances. As the largest hospital and health care foundation in Canada, SickKids sometimes has to fight the image that because it is big, it has plenty of money. Things have been improving: last year's holiday campaign set a new record, with $31-million raised.

"While we've had success in our fundraising … the demand on the hospital side still outstrips the amount that I'm able to raise," Mr. Garrard says.

It's a challenge many charities face. Nearly 30 per cent of Canadians claimed charitable donations on their taxes in the late 1980s. Since then, the number has declined to 23 per cent, according to Imagine Canada, a group that works to strengthen the charitable sector.

"If you look at recent trends in total charitable giving, the pie has not been growing," Mr. Garrard says. "And there are more charities than there have ever been. And there is greater need from public institutions because of constrained government funding. You have a perfect storm."

A daily campaign has been done before: in 1991, restaurant chain Chevys Fresh Mex created an award-winning campaign called "Fresh TV," its agency filming ads on the fly and airing them the same day. But because it takes so much extra work, and the co-operation of TV stations, it's an unusual approach.

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SickKids is hoping the stories these families have agreed to share will resonate with potential donors.

Less than an hour and a half after Danielle walked into the O.R., Dr. Benson points at the image of her heart on the screen. A device that looks like an infinity sign flattened from both sides is visible. Made of flexible, braided metal, it was inserted through the catheter and returned to its original shape. It plugs the hole, allowing blood to flow normally.

Soon, Dr. Benson meets Danielle's parents in the waiting area, and hands them the same image.

"Here's a picture for her baby book," he says.

Danielle's mother smiles at the doctor, keeping the same brave face she has had on all day. But after he walks away, she doesn't shoo the camera crew away as her expression crumbles. She lets them quietly film her as she weeps in her husband's arms, overcome with relief.

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