There are some extraordinary individuals in our business - people who devote their spare time to giving something back to society. Ronald Gift Mullins investigates children's cancer charity St Baldrick's, the pride of the reinsurance industry.

By shaving more than 27,000 heads, the St Baldrick's Foundation has raised millions of dollars to conquer childhood cancer. The charity began when three reinsurance executives, in the early hours of the morning of 4 July 1999, decided their profession and community had been very fair to them over the years and resolved to give something back.

Tim Kenny, president and CEO, QBE the Americas; John Bender, chief underwriting officer, casualty, Platinum Underwriters, and Enda McDonnell, president and CEO, Access Re, agreed to celebrate their next St Patrick's Day (Kenny and McDonnell are originally from Ireland) in a manner that would benefit a worthy cause. As they discussed various causes that would benefit from charitable work, one that came up was children with cancer. Without further ado, they decided to create an organisation to raise funds for research to help cure this deadly disease. Cancer remains the leading cause of death by disease in children.

Being resourceful reinsurance professionals, they knew they needed something that would set their charity apart. The verdict was to highlight an obvious side effect of cancer treatment - hair loss. "When I thought of children's bald heads," Kenny recalled, "the idea of having people shave their heads and asking for donations appealed to me, especially since everyone would start to look like me. I also took great satisfaction in knowing I'd see Enda's mop of blonde hair fall to the floor. Then I took it to the next level in thinking of the kids, and the empathy I felt for their situation. Being Irish, turning St Patrick's Day into St Bald-rick's was an easy change that made sense to all of us."

The First Shaving

To inaugurate St Baldrick's the three planned to raise $17,000 on the next St Patrick's Day by recruiting 17 colleagues to each raise $1,000 in donations by having their heads shaved. To their astonishment, by the end of March 2000, instead of the $17,000 expected, donations totalled more than $104,000.

While many events continue to be held around St Patrick's Day, there are now shavings throughout the year. Bender and McDonnell currently have full heads of hair and both have been shorn multiple times. Bender holds the record, having gone through the process eight times. Kenny has little hair and looks like a permanent advertisement for St Baldrick's.

While the first shaving brought a rewarding surprise of more than a $100,000, "at that time we didn't foresee that within seven years we would have raised about $20m and shaved more than 27,000 people," McDonnell said. "We have been greatly surprised that about 2,000 women have chosen to have their heads shaved."

In fact, Susan Patschak, executive vice president and COO, Endurance Specialty Insurance, Bermuda, holds the record for garnering the greatest amount of donations. "The main reason I participated in the shaving," she said, "was that I have had a number of family members who have had cancer, some survived, some did not. I am convinced that any research we do on the causes of children's cancer has to help in the research for adult cancer as well. In addition, my husband and I have a very healthy six-year-old daughter and I wanted to give back as a way of saying thanks for how special she is." Patschak and her colleague Shannon Totten amassed more than $270,000, including donations given directly to the cancer center in Bermuda.

Going global

Initially some people were shocked when asked to shave their heads. "They didn't believe someone would shave his or her head for a cause," Bender remembered. But it seems that once the cause is explained there is little hesitation. "I've never asked someone for help and been turned down," he adds. At first, most events took place in New York, where the three founders live and work. But by the second year, the appeal went out to reinsurance colleagues around the world. "Everyone received us in a very giving mode and with great sensitivity," recalls Bender.

In the first two years most of the participants came from the reinsurance industry, but as the event became better known people from other industries and groups got involved too. "Police and fire departments have really been great," McDonnell said, "as well as rugby teams, schools and others."

"Even though this is a very serious cause," Kenny said, "we make sure people have fun with St Baldrick's. Once people have their heads shaved, they become walking billboards for this cause for several weeks, if not months. They learn more about childhood cancer and the need for research, and they come back even more dedicated the following year. And they bring friends with them! It means a lot that we have so many participants from families affected by childhood cancer."

Personal Involvement

One couple who had to confront the reality of having a child with cancer was Briget and Chuck Chamness, president of the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies. In January 2005, their eight-year-old Joey was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma. Joey began chemotherapy and in early March started to lose his hair.

"I remember it happened all in one week really," Chamness said. "His brown hair was just getting a little bit thinner, and then it started to fall out in clumps. A friend of the family came to the house to shave Joey's head. Next, Robbie, Joey's twin brother, sat down to don the 'Mr Clean' look, in solidarity with his brother. They both went to school bald, and the next thing you know, nearly every kid in the classroom had shaved his head. I told Joey that if it would make him feel better I'd shave my head too."

Chamness soon organised a shaving event and set his fundraising goal at $5,000. He sent an email to friends, family and business associates and to his great pleasure in a matter of weeks he had raised more than $45,000. Since then he has gone through the process a further two times, and plans to do it every year until there is no longer a need. "St Baldrick's is the perfect fundraiser because it combines a good cause with the right amount of personal humiliation on the part of the person requesting the money," Chamness explains.

The success of the charity is reflected in the yearly increase in donations. During 2000 and 2001, donations were about $110,000. But in 2002 the total exceeded $750,000, and in 2003 close to $2m; 2004's amount increased to $3.2m, 2005's contributions leaped to $5.1m and to date in 2006, donations surpass $8.3m.

The growth of the charity is reflected in the fact that in 2005 it became an independent IRS recognised charity, becoming the St Baldrick's Foundation, of which Kenny is chairman and Bender and McDonnell are board members. "With the establishment of the foundation," Kenny said, "we have more independence, more control over our destiny, and are committed to spending every penny in the most efficient way possible."

Funds for research

The majority of the funds raised by shaving events have so far gone to the Children's Oncology Group, made up of more than 2,000 childhood cancer experts working at 230 leading childhood cancer institutions around the world. This cooperative research group has led the way in finding new treatments. Its members treat over 90% of all children with cancer in North America.

"We are also able to fund research priorities of some local institutions where children are treated," McDonnell said, "as well as fellowships to encourage the best and brightest new doctors to enter careers in childhood cancer research. We now have six St Baldrick's Fellows, working at respected research institutions across the country, and we will fund more next year."

There does not appear to be a central statistical clearinghouse that tracks the overall charitable activities and giving of the insurance and reinsurance industry, but St Baldrick's is unquestionably one of the largest and most prominent charities associated with it. "We are proud of our industry's involvement in St Baldrick's," said Kenny.

- Ronald Gift Mullins is an insurance journalist based in New York City.

- For further information about St Baldrick's visit