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Hope, health, and the future of fundraising

Late last month, Priscilla Chan, MD and Mark Zuckerberg committed $3 billion to eradicate disease in their daughter’s lifetime. The statement they made is that they plan to eliminate all diseases – cancer, heart disease, infectious disease, and neurological disease – in the next, say, 80-85 years, and are putting $3 billion on the table to make it happen.

While you think about the magnitude of that gift, and the boldness of the plan it will fund, I want to take a moment to deal with a couple of elephants in the room.

First, to those who believe that that there are already cures to most diseases, but that “big pharma” and the medical-industrial complex are keeping them from us, I will say that probably isn’t true. Too many important and influential people, such as Steve Jobs, David Bowie, and others both famous and not, who have the means and influence, died way before their times from one of these so-called “cured” diseases. Wouldn’t it make sense that if a cure existed, these important leaders in business, entertainment, sports, etc., would get access and make “miracle” recoveries instead?

But if you do believe that cures are hidden in a secret vault somewhere and being kept locked up in the name of profits, the beauty of this largesse is that it circumvents the traditional clinical research process, much like organizations such as the American Cancer Society do. It is important to note that the American Cancer Society has funded some 47 Nobel Prize winners, and their research grants have led to some of the major cancer breakthroughs of the past 50 years.

Second, deciding to cure all diseases is somewhat similar to trying to count all the blades of grass in a field or all the grains of sand on a beach. In theory it is probably possible, but can we really make that happen? After all, we have cured diseases such as polio and smallpox, only to see new ones emerge, such as HIV/AIDS, West Nile virus, new strains of flu (such as Avian flu), and, more recently, Zika.

Third, we need to get some perspective around the dollar amount we are discussing. While $3 billion is an unimaginable sum to most of us, it represents about 2.5% of the $119 billion spent annually (2012 data) on biomedical research in the United States alone.

And lastly, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative states that it is not accepting unsolicited proposals, to the dismay of fundraisers.

Now, don’t take any of these assertions as an attempt to belittle this extraordinary effort in any way. Mr. Zuckerberg has already changed the world immeasurably with Facebook, and I am sure that it will happen again with his innovative mind, Dr. Chan’s medical knowledge, and the outstanding team they have amassed. And even if they don’t accomplish the absolute end to all disease, they certainly can make a significant enough impact that it will be well worth the investment, especially to those whose lives were saved or improved by their work.

My point is simply that they can’t do it alone.

Chan Zuckerberg Science, as part of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, plans to bring the best medical minds together to research innovative treatments and cures for all types of diseases. But there will be a need to bring those advances to local hospitals and healthcare systems. The first gift announced by the Initiative is $600 million to Biohub, a partnership between Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UC San Francisco. That gift was made to bring together scientists and engineers to innovate, but the results of that innovation will have to get to every corner of the world so their work can be put into practice for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Therefore, this initiative is a golden opportunity for healthcare philanthropy to step in and coalesce around the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and expand its reach and scope. Fundraisers at hospitals and healthcare agencies have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to truly engage their donors and prospects at all levels of giving around this world-changing initiative and allow it to move from concept to reality.

As a matter of fact, it is our duty as healthcare fundraisers to be as bold and as innovative as Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg. For years, most of us have moved forward in the same way. Our hospitals or healthcare systems have engaged grateful patients and philanthropically minded community members to fund equipment and construct buildings. Across the nation, and in other parts of the world, hospital buildings bear the names of generous benefactors, and fundraisers and campaigns are judged on their ability to garner countless six-, seven-, and even eight-figure gifts. About 20-25 years ago, a $10 million campaign was audacious. Now, many hospital foundations are setting their sights on campaigns with goals of $100 million and upwards.

But even without the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the tenor of these campaigns was going to have to change. Healthcare is evolving from managing disease to maintaining wellness, and many states find themselves with more hospital beds than inpatients to fill them. Several prominent hospitals and healthcare systems have either closed entirely or downsized dramatically, such as Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City, which recently announced it is shuttering an 856-bed hospital and replacing it with a 70-bed facility in 2020.

Think about it. What if we decided to be as daring as Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg? What if we engaged our healthcare donors in a long-term commitment to make a radical difference in healthcare delivery and treatment, using the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (and the other forward-thinking initiatives it will certainly spawn) as our compass? What if, dare I say it, we stopped raising money to build buildings and started raising money to end the need for those buildings?

If hospitals:

  • put their efforts into creating endowments and research funds to support the best and brightest minds in their communities, across the nation, and around the world…
  • use the philanthropic dollars they receive from grateful patients to augment programs with the latest advances…
  • call on the best entrepreneurial minds in their communities to look at the new innovations in healthcare…

…then maybe each of our hospitals and healthcare systems would be able to quicken the pace and make the goal of eliminating disease by the year 2100 a reality.

It won’t be easy. It will take an entire mind shift from foundation offices and development departments, and a renewed partnership between healthcare leadership and healthcare fundraisers. It will take a lot of work on everyone’s part to redefine philanthropic legacy and reeducate donors on the changing face of healthcare and the crucial role of philanthropy in that change. And most importantly, it will take the ability to convince all donors – from those who give $5 to those who give $50 million – that they are making a real difference for future generations, without a building to show for it.

This is an exciting time for healthcare fundraisers. A time of great change, but a time of great promise. Who’s in?

– Gina Carro, Vice President