Buffy-Swinehart

Buffy Swinehart shares how they developed and executed their My Special Aflac Duck initiative to aid children battling cancer

We felt like we could make a difference in an underserved area by focusing on childhood cancer. Buffy Swinehart
According to Senior Manager of Corporate Social Responsibility Buffy Swinehart, Aflac’s long-term CSR commitment has always been cancer — with their relationship with the Aflac Cancer Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta dating back to 1995.

More recently, however, they were approached by a patient’s mother — as well as the Director of Development at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta — who shared her story about needing to travel out of state for her daughter’s procedure.

“At that point, most of our community giving had just been in the Columbus regional area,” said Buffy. “But we felt like we could make a difference in an underserved area by focusing on childhood cancer.”

A couple of years ago, Buffy and her team hired Carol Cone ON PURPOSE to help evaluate their CSR program and grow it to a more national program.

She connected them with a company called Sproutel, who create interactive, social robotics focused on childhood illnesses. Through them, Buffy and her team had the idea of using the Aflac duck for something more than brand awareness.

They spent 18 months with Sproutel and the Aflac Cancer Center interviewing a hundred patient families to create My Special Aflac Duck.

Buffy said an important component early on was executive leadership buy-in.

They did interviews with all their executives at Aflac, specific to their focus on childhood cancer, as well as interviews with the director of the Aflac Cancer Center.

Our goal with the duck is to provide joy to these children and their families as they're going through a really difficult time. Buffy Swinehart
“We wanted to start there before we jumped ahead to creating greater awareness of Aflac’s commitment to funding for childhood cancer,” she said.

Before launching My Special Aflac Duck, Aflac had committed over $135 million to childhood cancer, most of which came from their agents across the country. However, according to Buffy, My Special Aflac Duck has helped them elevate their commitment to helping children fighting cancer on a national scale.

They officially launched My Special Aflac Duck last January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

“It was a risky move on our part, but it was a calculated risk,” said Buffy. “People kept coming to our booth saying, ‘What is an insurance company doing here?’ Then we demonstrated the ducks and people were blown away.”

They were the only social good item that wasn’t going to be put on sale, and they won Best in Show and Consumer Electronics’ social good award. Then Time Magazine named the duck one of the best inventions of 2018.

“We’ve been really proud of the recognition we’ve received for this initiative, and we’ve gotten several big awards,” she said. “Including two at Cannes and SXSW.”

But, Buffy said nothing has been more rewarding than seeing the kids and the joy the duck brings them.

Now, nearly every feature was designed by a child and their family and their medical care team. Buffy Swinehart
They’ve done seven duck delivery events to date — with three more planned for the remainder of the year — where they work with hospitals to demonstrate the tech, while also working closely with their child life team to make it a kid-friendly event.

“The kids go on a scavenger hunt where they get different clues throughout the hospital and each clue is a different piece to the My Special Aflac Duck,” said Buffy. “Then we have a party where each child fills out a birth certificate for the duck.”

To date, they’ve given out approximately 4,800 ducks across 47 states in over 200 hospitals and facilities.

And Aflac takes care of all the costs associated with the ducks.

“We didn’t launch until last September, so we’re excited about our progress towards our goal of getting one in the hands of every child with cancer in the United States above the age of three,” she said.

Every feature of the duck was created with the child in mind.

“Initially, we tested a lot of things we thought would be great, but turned out not to be what the kids wanted necessarily,” said Buffy. “Now, nearly every feature was designed by a child and their family and their medical care team.”

One of the first key learnings they found was that children needed a better way to communicate how they’re feeling to their caregivers and families.

“We created emoji cards with seven different feelings to help children communicate more effectively through their duck,” said Buffy.

She said they also found that medical play was important for children to practice and feel well informed about procedures before they had to go through it themselves. So, the duck comes with a chemotherapy port that, when activated, puts the duck into a soothing heartbeat mode to help calm and relax the child.

The duck comes with an app that can download on any smart device with more features to help the child.

“They can give the duck medicine or chemotherapy through the app,” said Buffy. “They can also feed their duck, because the app incorporates augmented reality, to help the child realize eating can be fun even if you don’t feel great.”

The third thing they can do with the app is give their duck a virtual bath.

“We learned for a lot of the children that have the chemotherapy port, it’s important they keep them clean,” she said. “But there was a lot of stress for the kids around bath time. We wanted to try to make it more fun so they can bathe their duck as well.”

The duck also has customizable sound and is designed to provide maximum comfort to the child.

We created emoji cards with seven different feelings to help children communicate more effectively through their duck. Buffy Swinehart
“Children can spend up to a thousand days in a hospital when they’re going through a cancer diagnosis,” she said. “And hospitals are noisy places, so sometimes it’s difficult to sleep. The kids can turn their duck into a sound machine and customize the sound they want to hear.”

They also made sure the soft exterior was removable and machine washable, so it would always be clean for the kids.

“We realize it takes more than medicine to heal,” she said. “Our goal with the duck is to provide joy to these children and their families as they’re going through a really difficult time.”

So far, she said, they’ve had a positive response to the duck, but are always looking for more ways to improve.

Throughout the launch and rollout process with the duck, they worked with the Association of Child Life Professionals, who work to help children manage their disease.

“They’ve been very important to us in terms of how we can improve the duck and how they’re using it with their patients,” said Buffy. “We got some wonderful testimonials from child life professionals as well as the patients and families, and we did an initial feasibility study at the Aflac Cancer Center that gave us some good results. But we are looking to do a more in-depth study potentially starting at the end of this year to look at how children and child life professionals are using the duck.”

To get the word out about their initiative, they started with macro targeting from their award publicity before zeroing in on key partners.

“We quickly realized we needed to micro-target, and that’s where a lot of our partnerships have been key to our success,” she said.

We were able to work so well with our partners because our focus is united. We've learned a whole new set of skills, but we've had to rely on expertise from others to get this job done. Buffy Swinehart
Those partners included the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals with 170 hospitals across the country, the Association of Child Life Professionals, and the Children’s Oncology Group with 190 hospitals across the country.

“They’ve been instrumental in helping us get the word out,” she said. “But we’ve also done things like sending over 3,000 postcards to pediatric oncologists across the country. We realized it takes more than just great public relations and media and awards. We also have to get very specific with who we’re trying to target and get the ducks to.”

Moving forward, Buffy and her team plan on looking at ways they can incorporate the ducks into their greater giving strategy.

“I would like to continue to look at ways to how we can leverage this to raise more funds for childhood cancer,” she said. “I’d love to see more growth in the fundraising and the number of projects we can support.”

For anyone looking to develop a similar initiative, Buffy emphasized the importance of collaboration and partnership.

Getting executive buy-in at the very beginning has been instrumental for us. Buffy Swinehart
“Aflac is not in the field of social robotics, so you have to be open to partnering with others that have expertise you don’t, but who have that common goal,” she said. “We were able to work so well with our partners because our focus is united. We’ve learned a whole new set of skills, but we’ve had to rely on expertise from others to get this job done.”

She also said for any new venture, you have to take risks — but they need to be calculated risks.

“Our CEO has always said don’t risk a lot for a little,” said Buffy.

“Getting executive buy-in at the very beginning has been instrumental for us.”

She said you don’t want to surprise anyone — so you need buy-in early with regular communication.

“We send a monthly report to our CEO so he knows exactly what we’re doing every month to distribute the duck,” she said. “Where we are in terms of how many we’ve given out, our key activities, what our successes are, and areas where we need to improve.”

Buffy Swinehart has been a member of the CSR Board since 2019. You can follow her on LinkedIn.