If Dry July enters his 15e year, co-founder Brett Macdonald tells Startup Daily about the early days, how the movement grew to raise $82 million for more than 80 cancer organizations across Australia – and where it’s going.
It started in 2007 in a small garage in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. British expats Brett Macdonald, Kenny McGilvary and Phil Grove lived as backpackers. drink, sleep, repeat.
After a particularly big birthday weekend, the three friends took on a challenge to see who could go the longest without alcohol. Friends thought it was funny to buy them beer to tempt them.
At about the same time, Brett was diagnosed with cancer from a relative that was spreading rapidly.
“Unfortunately, my aunt passed away in July,” Brett recalled. “It just got me thinking, well, instead of these beers heating up on a table in a pub, what if this was a donation to a cancer organization?”
But in the beginning it wasn’t that easy…
In the coming months, Brett, Kenny and Phil put their heads together. Brett had experience in graphic design, web marketing and start-ups, including working for online greeting card company Moonpig in the UK; Kenny had a background in branding, non-profit and communications; and Phil brought the technical product management skills.
“We bounced on the idea and a lot of people thought we were crazy and it was a waste of time, but we believed in ourselves and believed we had what it took to get the idea off the ground,” says Macdonald. “It was difficult to find an organization to join over time. We knew we wanted to support a cancer organization, but we didn’t think we had it in us to approach some high-profile cancer organizations with this idea.”
In July 2008, they built a website and set a goal of raising $3,000 to purchase a new TV for the waiting room of the Cancer Center at Prince of Wales Hospital. After a radio interview on 702 ABC Sydney with then presenter Adam Spencer, whose father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, the first Dry July raised $250,000 and a movement was born.
“It was a big risk”
On a wave of media and public support, the founders quit their jobs to Dry July Foundation later that year.
“The passion and drive we had for Dry July I hadn’t experienced in any other job,” says Brett.
Those first few years they started the organization to try to make it work.
“We had to pay rent and pay bills and that was a big risk,” says Brett. “So we weren’t in a position to start paying for web development or advertising or lawyers and accountants and stuff. We begged and borrowed a lot for pro bono services. But sure [our] collective skills were critical for us to get it to a certain level where we could actually have some money to fund things.
Fortunately, the public has embraced Dry July more and more each year. As it stands, over 317,000 Australians participated in Dry July. The premise remains simple: go alcohol-free for a month and collect donations from friends and family. The donations are then distributed to local and national organizations that support cancer patients, their families and carers.
For Brett, the biggest strategic challenge was to make a big impact each year over a limited campaign period.
“We are doing everything we can to make sure that as much money as possible goes to the cancer organizations and service providers,” shares Brett. “It’s critical that Dry July raises enough money in that eight- to 12-week window to fund itself for the next year in order to survive.”
Why the Dry July Strategy Works
A key to its success was tapping into everyone’s different motivations to participate. It could be for health reasons, the challenge itself or because there is a personal connection with a loved one who has been affected by cancer. This is reflected in the theme for 2023 ‘This is Why We Dry July’.
“The sense of accomplishment is definitely the most important thing,” says Brett. “And that is twofold. Not only are we raising money for people going through some of the toughest times of their lives, but it’s also about helping people stop drinking for the entire month. The people we talk to haven’t been without alcohol for a week, weekend or month since the legal drinking age, so that could be 20, 30, 40 years in some cases, so it’s going to be a huge challenge.
The health benefits include weight loss, better sleep and improved energy levels. But there is also a very relevant one in the current economic climate: the cost of drinking.
“People find they get more time and they have more money in their pocket,” Brett adds.
Watch: ‘This is Why We Dry July’
A surprising impact on workplaces
Workplaces also see the benefits. “First off, you don’t have hangovers for the month, so that equates to more productivity, better focus, and being more present in the workplace and with your co-workers,” says Brett. “It is also an opportunity for workplaces to talk about alcohol and its relationship to alcohol. This is normally a tricky topic for workplaces to introduce, but Dry July offers a lighter engagement piece and the foundation has a lot of support they can give workplaces.
Teams can register together as a team bonding exercise, but Brett says this usually starts with a “workplace champion” to get the ball rolling (and it doesn’t have to start from the top).
“Often workplaces match the donations they collect,” he says. “It’s a great way to assemble the team in a very different way than they’ve traditionally done.”
Scaling up the Dry July concept
In recent years, trends towards a less alcoholic lifestyle and the growth of the non-alcoholic beverages available have only made Dry July more relevant.
“In that first year I managed to get hold of beer-flavored chewing gum from Japan. That was about all I could find in the non-alcoholic beer space,” says Brett. “Now there are so many broad options available.”
That trend is mirrored in other markets where Dry July has launched, including the UK, New Zealand and Canada. “Each market was very strong,” added Brett.
Dry July has also enabled Brett to launch a spin-off peer-to-peer fundraising platform, Ezy Raise, which helps other charities run and scale online mass events and campaigns. Their array of partners raises money for cancer care, conservation, veterans support, mental health and addiction and more.
“It’s a testament to what we built with Dry July and how we had one particular goal in mind with what we were trying to build, but in fact, thinking a little differently about how we might do things opened up a whole host of other possibilities ‘, he says.
Brett’s top tips from 15 years of Dry July experience:
- “Be the designated driver. You’ll always be popular – but always ask for a donation when you’re driving!”
- “Put your non-alcoholic drinks in a wine glass or a schooner.”
- “Still go out, but change it! Take a walk in the park with your friends as a way to socialize, or try a new activity or sport.”
Sign up for Dry July today to raise money for people affected by cancer.
This article is brought to you by Startup Daily in partnership with Dry July Foundation.