Monday, March 17, 2014


A recent New York Times essay highlights the role billionaire's philanthropy plays in funding basic and clinical research or prevention and treatment across a spectrum of diseases, mostly cancer but other ones as well. Having had Michael Milken's Prostate Cancer Foundation as a client for several years I truly appreciate the game-changing role billionaires have had. But rightly the thrust of the article is that no matter how generous they are "private" science - billionaires' gifts are still a drop in the proverbial bucket when contrasted with the sums the federal government puts into grant making even when it's cut back as it has  in recent years.

PCF, for example, founded in 1993 has raised more than a half billion dollars and they push the money out the door funding scientists and  investigators as quickly as they can consistent with due diligence. What the article doesn't say  much about, though, is the part groups  like PCF have played  in leveraging dollars. Every dollar PCF raises generates many multiples in grant awards from National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Defense Department and other entities. But the government pace is slow; PCF pushes hard and it has a seat at the table..

But if you're  not a billionaire how do you make a difference? Over time  I've been approached  by folks who have lost a loved one to cancer, stroke, other disease, drunk driving, accident, whatever -  and  in their bereavement their notion is to set up a fund of their own and raise money. As gently as possible I encourage them to direct their giving to established, well regarded charities already engaged  in research, prevention or treatment. Though well intended these start-ups can seldom achieve scale; after an early run of  support from family and friends, and some  luck, they fade.

A few things I learned at PCF carry over: first, it's hard to blow off a billionaire; second, regardless of  political persuasion rich men with prostate cancer or any other life threatening disease know their giving alone is  not enough. The federal government still has far more than any single billionaire or even a clutch of them. Third and maybe most  important is many thousands of small and modest annual gifts is what separates a start up from a charity with scale and staying  power over time.

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