Has philanthropy kept up with the times?

Has philanthropy kept up with the times?
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As the holidays approach our thoughts often turn to giving, but philanthropy today is not the same as in years past.

This summer an iconic charity retroactively terminated the individual investigator grants of most of the scientists who were only partially through their three-year funded research projects.

The notification was made weeks after the funding officially stopped and some of the researchers had to scramble to secure funding for money already spent or to continue on, while others were forced to end their research, layoff staff and destroy rodent colonies raised for their specific projects.

The charity issued a statement noting that the work of these researchers did not directly impact its current mission, one of several that had been revised over the years following the successful eradication of a disease it had sought to end several decades ago.

This was news to the researchers who had competed for grants based on a broader mission that was retroactively whittled down due largely to dwindling financial resources.

This unfortunate situation raises many questions, including the importance of a clearly stated and necessary mission, the difficulties facing charities raising money today in a very crowded field and the responsibility to researchers who had been funded for multi-year cycles.

The nature of philanthropy in the 21st century is very different from just several decades ago.

In 1982 when Susan G. Komen was founded to help end breast cancer, there were very few cancer advocacy groups and cancer was still a much stigmatized term and deadly killer.  

Fundraising events such as the Race for the Cure eventually helped raise awareness as well as billions of dollars toward research, education, treatment, support and advocacy.

Some of these efforts were adopted by other organizations and over the years new awareness mechanisms such as colored silicon wristbands and ice bucket challenges were created to bring in more money and attention to various diseases and causes.

Fast-forward to today and the word cancer is nearly ubiquitous in the media and everyday conversation; disease awareness days, weeks and months abound; and recent tax changes limit deductions for charitable giving.

Although not entirely curable, cancer is often preventable and treatable, with more than 15 million cancer survivors living with rather than dying from cancer and that number is projected to increase by 31 percent to more than 20 million by 2026.

However, with federal funding for cancer research relatively flat, institutions and organizations have been relying on other sources of revenue and the increase in competition has served to cannibalize many efforts.

Traditional fundraising has had many challenges, which have been exacerbated by competing charities within the same disease interest and against other causes.

Philanthropy should be directed in an efficient and effective way toward a specific need that is not otherwise being met sufficiently.

And it’s important to remember that cancer’s recent gains in research, treatment and increased survival rates cannot be sustained over larger populations as long as disparities exist and certain individuals or groups are not able to access those gains.

What we need are innovative philanthropic models that support programs and not just new buildings bearing the name of the donor and we have to find ways to engage donors to invest in meaningful projects that support scientists, provide treatment, help patients enter and navigate the medical system and fill other unmet needs.

Missions should be focused on benefiting society, not on sustaining organizational or individual egos or vested interests.

To this end, we offer a few recommendations:

  1. Organizations should assess whether their missions can be more effective and efficiently served through collaboration, coordination, cooperation and perhaps consolidation to reduce overhead and expenses in fulfilling those missions.
  1. Donors should be encouraged to help solve problems and strive to have their names linked with meaningful programs rather than just adorning buildings and plaques.
  1. Organizations should implement innovative funding models including donor advised funds that allow donors to make a gift to a public charity, receive an immediate tax benefit and then recommend grants to the charity of their choice when they want; and social impact funds where investors can “do good” while seeking a competitive return.
  1. All transactions and relationships should be transparent, with full disclosure at all times to maintain integrity and trust.
  1. Charities should be responsible stewards and focus on raising money for their respective missions rather than spending it on unnecessary overhead or fundraising events that cost more than they bring in.
  1. When an organization’s mission has been realized it should either find another meaningful purpose for its existence, or retire gracefully and disperse whatever intellectual or financial assets are left in its coffers to other deserving, relevant causes.

Charity should not necessarily start at home, but should be based on meeting needs not being met.

Nancy G. Brinker is a global cancer advocate and the founder of Susan G. Komen, the world's largest breast cancer charity named after her sister. She has also served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary, U.S. chief of protocol and as a Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control to the U.N.'s World Health Organization. Find her on Twitter: @NancyGBrinker.  Eric T. Rosenthal is a writer and the founder of the National Cancer Institute-Designated Cancer Centers Public Affairs Network. Find him on Twitter: @etrosenthal.