Shine: vir­tu­al bal­loon races

Exhibited by
John Grain
July 05, 2018
Medium of Communication
Target Audience
Type of Charity
Country of Origin
Date of first appearance

SOFII’s view

What do you do if your well-established fundraising strategy is having a negative impact on the environment, even if it’s popular? Shine, a small charity supporting people with spina bifida and other serious medical conditions, made the smart and innovative decision to take their balloon races online, with spectacular results. Despite only being a small organisation, Shine has captured the imagination of a large number of corporate donors by introducing a fun, interactive and flexible online balloon race platform and in the process generated hundreds of thousands of pounds of income from a large number of active donors. This programme is unique, innovative and something more organisations should be doing.


As a long-time supporter of SOFII, and a great advocate of much of the wonderful content it contains, it was a real pleasure for me to be asked to speak at I Wish I’d Thought of That (IWITOT) in 2018. 

I love the concept and I really wanted to showcase something that genuinely represented a great, and unusual, idea that was as unique as it was innovative.

I started in fundraising at Oxfam in 1989. That means I’ve seen nearly 30 years’ worth of fundraising campaigns, initiatives and ideas. Lots of good ones, a few very good ones, some crap ones and a couple of total turkeys.

But I only discovered the balloons two months before I was due on stage at IWITOT.

And, when I found out about it, it seemed perfect, because genuinely the first thing that went through my mind was ‘I wish I’d thought of that!’

So this story is about corporate fundraising, about balloons and about a charity called Shine. It has been around since 1966 and provides specialist support from before birth and throughout the life of anyone living with spina bifida or hydrocephalus, as well as to parents, families, carers and professional care staff.

They are one of those organisations that do tremendous work that is immensely valued and valuable to people with these conditions, but are relatively unknown. In fact they are one of those organisations that rather patronisingly I think get called ‘niche’. One of those organisations that people mainly support if they have a connection to it in some way – a family member, a friend, a colleague, a professional interest. You know what I mean.

Back in the good old days of fundraising, many charities would hold sponsored balloon races – the idea was simple, if not exactly great for the environment, people would buy or sponsor a balloon, you’d set lots of them off into the sky together and whoever had the balloon that travelled the furthest would win a prize. 

I thought balloon races had long since been forgotten – a minor footnote in our fundraising history.

 And apparently for most charities it has. But not for Shine.

They ran corporate balloon races from the 1990s until 2009 when they stopped on environmental grounds and moved everything online. Editor’s note: As of 2023, Shine are still running their virtual balloon races!

Special characteristics

Shine’s virtual balloon races operate on exactly the same concept. Main prize for the winner, two runner-up prizes and a prize for the first balloon to virtually pop. As you would expect, companies can decorate and brand their balloon, follow the race online and share their progress on social media.

It costs £40 per balloon to enter. There are ten races a year, or you can even have your own bespoke race if that’s what you would like. 

On their website they publish all their results. They have the winner and the runners-up, but when I checked further, it was amazing to me that there were the even prizes awarded to those who came last.

If you look at the names of the prize winners for the races you don’t see big names, you don’t see national companies, you don’t see any easily recognisable brands.

I looked up some of the prize winners. They aren’t big companies, most aren’t even medium-sized, they are small businesses or one-man bands given a proposition they can afford and an entertaining game they can play.

This sets the Shine approach apart. For almost every charity, this would be a corporate audience that is too small to be able to invest in using traditional corporate fundraising – too time consuming, too little return on investment.

Of course, the vast majority of these companies don’t have a direct connection to the cause, but they do have a direct relationship with Shine all the same, because almost every balloon is sold over the phone using a small, highly skilled, internal team. A team that, over the years, have got to know their supporters intimately – who can have two, three or more conversations with them every year. 


Almost always the last place would be somewhere between 2,000th and 2,500th

And that is a lot of balloons. An awful lot of balloons at £40. Somewhere between £80,000 and £100,000 worth in just one race.

The last time I looked their website said: 620,079 balloons launched. Again that is a lot of balloons. An awful lot of balloons at £40.

In fact that is nearly £25m worth of balloons.

Influence / impact

I just wonder how many other organisations could claim a corporate fundraising programme that has literally thousands of active supporters, engaging and giving year after year, costing very little to service but having a great relationship all the same. 

What I find amazing is this small, relatively unknown charity has a programme generating hundreds of thousands of pounds of unrestricted income from thousands of active corporate supporters.

And as far as know, no one else is doing anything remotely similar.

I think it is fundraising genius and I wish I’d thought of it.