A New Generation of Philanthropy Joins the Battle Against Disease

November 21, 2017

FasterCures’ second Partnering for Cures of 2017 closed with a discussion of the new generation of philanthropists pledging their funds to help solve some of humankind’s most pressing health challenges. The conversation covered evolving approaches to philanthropy, support and collaboration with other sectors, and problems unique to the medical research/health-care space that donors face. While philanthropic giving in other types of giving like art or education can be approached at a slow, dedicated pace, “medical philanthropy often comes at you like a brick at your head, and you jump feet first into a field that you never wanted to be involved in,” said Richard Ditizio, the Milken Institute’s president and chief operating officer and panel moderator.

To set the stage, Ditizio shared that there are 1.6 million nonprofits in the United States, which employ 11 percent of the U.S. workforce. Since organizations and causes supported by philanthropy make up a significant portion of our economy, he argued that we should treat philanthropy like the business that it is. Effective philanthropy requires diversification, taking bets on the most promising areas in the marketplace, having predetermined measures of success, and a timeframe for exit – just like a traditional investment portfolio. David Panzirer, trustee of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, supported this approach. He noted that impactful giving in medical research requires a targeted approach of conducting due diligence, understanding the landscape, and then understanding where philanthropy can play a role in that landscape. Panzirer cautioned against more traditional ways of giving by saying, “It is philanthropy’s job to understand the full landscape. Don’t just write a check to the guy in the white coat and wait to see what happens.”

One aspect of the next generation of philanthropy is bringing together other stakeholders, whether to better understand a disease area or to support a cohesive approach to philanthropic efforts. LaTese Briggs, director of strategy and programs for the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy, emphasized the importance of looking beyond medical researchers and basic scientists to figure out the roles of other stakeholders, like patient advocacy organizations and other funders, to achieve a nuanced understanding of the challenges of a disease. As a member of a nonprofit that funds disease research, Todd Sherer, CEO of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, suggested that philanthropists should fund activities within the disease area that will truly make a difference. Providing additional funds on top of an already well-funded area will make little difference. Briggs frames what philanthropists can bring to the table as four T’s: Treasure (their available financial resources), Talent (their expertise), Time (an active approach), and Ties (their connections to other sector experts and other geographies). Combining these areas is allowing the next generation of philanthropists to more deeply consider how best to achieve their mission, vision, and impact in a disease area.

Sherer also shared the power that funders can wield over how research is conducted. They can require sharing of data and collaboration among researchers, patients, caregivers, stakeholders, or other partners to help push research in their desired direction. David Beier, managing director of Bay City Capital, spoke of his involvement in the development of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. The Parker Institute has brought together a toolkit of resources, including data sequencing, analytics, and tumor samples, that incentivized participation from some of the best scientists in the field because those same resources didn’t exist elsewhere. Beier added that the Parker Institute is becoming a leader in the space, addressing barriers in research through a common institutional review board for all clinical sites, and attracting further investment in immunotherapy by enrolling 15 percent of patients in cancer clinical trials in the United States. These attractive measures – a streamlined protocol approval for all clinical centers and a robust patient population – are appealing to researchers and industry alike.

Bringing together resources and interdisciplinary collaborations can also speed up processes and progress, as Mark Smolinski of the Skoll Global Threats Fund shared. The foundation brings together engineers and experts in human health and animal health to work through problems in open data sharing and tool development. The interdisciplinary teams brought together in this manner achieve great strides over a short period and create a strong collaborative foundation for the future work. Sherer advocated for a balance between collaboration and competition. Both approaches can improve the speed at which research is done and problems are addressed, but philanthropists should consider which challenges may lend themselves to a team approach and which may inspire groups to race for the finish line. Collaboration and innovation are often thought to be costly or difficult to achieve, but Smolinski shared his belief that “no community is too hard to reach. No country is too poor to innovate. Curiosity outshines fear if you create a chance for innovation to happen.”


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