It was nearly impossible to miss the international media coverage of the Chicago Polar Plunge in March 2015, when pop superstar Lady Gaga joined Vince Vaughn and the cast of “Chicago Fire” to jump into an icy Lake Michigan. The event, which benefits Chamber member Special Olympics Chicago and its 6,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, has truly become a not-to-be-missed iconic event in the city.

The team at Special Olympics Chicago recognizes the growth opportunity after the success of the last few years and has devised a strategy that harnesses the hype, while growing the event’s long-term participation. An important objective involves positioning the Chicago Polar Plunge as THE “Wintertime Corporate Challenge.” Unlike a race or stair climb, almost anyone at any fitness level can take the Plunge (by simply dipping a toe in or going all the way under), and it provides a fun, social atmosphere incomparable to other fundraisers.

Perfect for businesses of all sizes, the event “ticks all the boxes” as it: 

  • Elevates employee engagement efforts with a memorable volunteer and team-building opportunity. In fact, ComEd participates every year with nearly 500 employees.
  • Can enrich a CSR program without having to fit perfectly within corporate giving guidelines. Because each individual employee is responsible for fundraising, there is no budget required from the company itself.
  • Allows companies to market and promote their involvement with the full support of the charity – free professional photos from the event are perfect for sharing via social media and traditional PR campaigns.

In advance of the 2016 event which will be held on Sunday, March 6, a new suite of promotional materials has been created specifically for the corporate sector. In addition, a “Lunch + Learn” offering – in which a Special Olympics Chicago employee presents a fun and engaging overview of the Plunge event and benefits – has been massively successful, with most sessions resulting in Plunge teams of 20 employees or more.   

Through targeted outreach and a keen focus on marketing benefits, Special Olympics Chicago added eight new supporting sponsors for 2016, including Peoples Gas, Yelp, Lyft, Sprint, Sports Authority, Redbox, Chicago Athletic Clubs and Body Gears Physical Therapy. 

So far, the 2016 event is averaging 20 percent ahead of last year regarding the number of people registered and total funds raised. This is great progress for a non-profit executing an event that may be “kooky” but is absolutely crucial in sustaining and growing Special Olympics programs throughout the city – programs that serve thousands of athletes, many of whom are economically disadvantaged. 

For more information about Special Olympics Chicago and how to get your company involved with the Chicago Polar Plunge or other events throughout the year, please contact Katie Hardiman at