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The Power of Transformational Gifts

May 01, 2018

Chuck Feeney was determined to find solutions to treating cancer. He sought out established, experienced research institutions that were engaged in cutting-edge work and committed to innovation. One of his guiding principles in selecting prospective grantees was that of “finding the right people.” That was his impression of Cancer Research Institute (CRI)’s founding scientific and medical director, Dr. Lloyd J. Old, and Feeney’s interactions with Dr. Old encouraged him to invest in CRI.

Atlantic Philanthropies, a large charitable foundation founded by Feeney in 1982, recently released a report summarizing the group’s investments in cancer and biomedical ventures over almost 30 years. Highlighted in this report are two major grants given to CRI. These gifts made a huge contribution to CRI’s program development, enabling us to expand our existing fellowship program and add clinical research to our portfolio. We were truly honored to have been selected as the recipient of Atlantic Philanthropies' generosity.

Atlantic Philanthropies' first gift to CRI was $125,000 in 1988, and the size of subsequent grants grew to gifts of $500,000 in 1995 and 1996. These grants were made to support macrophage- and T cell-related research, prostate cancer initiatives, CRI’s postdoctoral fellowships, and Clinical Investigator Awards. Then, a truly transformational gift of $20 million was made in 1997. This was followed by another $20 million grant in 2002, as well as some smaller awards. Dr. Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, CEO of the Cancer Research Institute, says the eight-figure gifts from Atlantic Philanthropies were “the most transformational gifts that the Cancer Research Institute had.”

These substantial grants enabled CRI to increase the number of postdoctoral fellowships offered by 40 percent. Expanding the number of young scientists at the early stages of their careers has ensured a steady stream of talent and leadership in the field. Subsequently, these investigators have often gone on to mentor new fellows, passing on what they have learned and continuing to develop the roster of immunological experts.

The grants from Atlantic Philanthropies were structured with enough flexibility to allow CRI to branch into new areas of research, too. The first of these grants established the groundwork for CRI’s initial clinical program, which included the Cancer Vaccine Collaborative. This original coordinated effort significantly grew and expanded, serving as the model for what is now CRI’s Anna-Maria Kellen Clinical Accelerator. This program was the first of its kind, bringing together stakeholders from academia, industry, and the nonprofit sector by eliminating the hurdles that had previously hindered such collaboration and restricted the development of new cancer immunotherapies.

The Clinical Accelerator plays an important role in facilitating combination therapy trials and its demonstrated success has served as a model for similar collaborative efforts now spearheaded by other immunotherapy-focused organizations. Today, the Clinical Accelerator’s academic network consists of 80 leading scientists at institutions all around the world and more than 15 significant industry and nonprofit partners. To date, CRI and its collaboration partners have funded over $60 million in clinical trials through this unique mechanism, more than any other nonprofit focused on cancer immunotherapy.

While the Atlantic Philanthropies’ gifts made a tremendous impact on their own, we have amplified their positive effect by leveraging this support and increasing gifts from other sources as well. In 1996, prior to receiving the first eight-figure gift from the Atlantic Philanthropies, CRI’s operating budget was roughly $6 million. Today our annual operating budget is over seven times that amount, as we have seen increases in every facet of giving. Collectively, this has enabled us to continue to grow our important established research programs as well as develop new programs designed to address critical unmet needs in the field. 

Finding donors with both the financial resources and the vision to support unproven but promising research is rare, and CRI remains ever grateful to the Atlantic Philanthropies for their belief in us and in the promise of immunotherapy. Their generosity has truly transformed the cancer treatment landscape, bringing hope to millions of patients. It is also an example of the tremendous power such transformational gifts can have, even beyond their initial intended purpose, when philanthropists do their due diligence and select grant recipients carefully and thoughtfully. We at CRI are pleased and proud that our reputation for efficiency and effectiveness makes us a good partner for these generous endeavors.

Photo by César Couto on Unsplash.

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