Jill O'Donnell-Tormey

  Jill O’Donnell-Tormey


Giving has changed significantly in my two-plus decades at the Cancer Research Institute (CRI). When I arrived at CRI, donors believed in our mission and were willing to make donations to do something about cancer, but were less hands-on, trusting the organization to do good. Now donors want to know what their donation accomplishes, focusing on quantifying impact and return on investment.


Diversify Funding Sources

We’re seeing fewer big gifts, but a larger variety of gift-giving. CRI’s most “impactful” gifts are from big donors with transformational big gifts. But I constantly worry, as most nonprofit leaders do: one large gift is great, but replicating that every year is not easy. How do you protect your organization if that one big donation doesn’t come through?

A diverse platform is critical for sourcing funds. CRI constantly looks for grassroots approaches where many people give small donations and feel part of it. We try to step into people’s lives to connect with them. Unfortunately, almost everybody has been touched by cancer and knows people who have gone through it. There’s empowerment in doing something. Cancer is a big issue; how can you combat it?

That’s one reason for this year’s Ride to Conquer Cancer, a 150-mile bike ride which we’re hoping reaches a new population of donors. This is not only for elite riders; anyone can do this. People like to feel that they’re really having an impact, not just giving or raising dollars, but physically doing something and challenging themselves. We hope to have hundreds of riders our first year, and raise lots of money and get the word out that CRI is developing revolutionary immunotherapy treatments for cancer and giving people hope.

You need a diverse funding base. You could rely simply on lots of small donations, but you also need big donations. Bridge the gap from where you are to where you are headed by telling the organization’s stories. Do this by talking about the programs that are in place to accomplish your mission.


Create Strong Corporate Partnerships

Loyal donors, the lifeblood of your organization, must be maintained and sustained, but expand beyond them. How can you expand in corporate giving? Many organizations 30 years ago saw no potential in partnerships with corporate entities, other than soliciting big gifts. Now, organizations like CRI are finding ways to work with corporations, like pharmaceutical companies, that are working on problems similar to ours.

The future of partnerships between corporate entities and nonprofit organizations quite likely will shift and nonprofits need to be adaptable. We’ve developed a clinical accelerator collaboration that is a win/win for both sides, through a clinical strategy that allows us to bring a global network of top clinicians and scientists together to identify the most promising combinations of new treatments to harness the patient’s immune system, make these combination treatments possible, and bring them into the clinic for patient testing.

When we forge partnerships with leading biopharmaceutical companies, they see us, our track record, pedigree, and scientific insight, and allow us access to their drugs. Then we develop a venture philanthropy group, providing capital and clinical resources. By partnering with Ludwig Cancer Research, we launch clinical trials that maybe wouldn’t happen or be as timely, bringing new treatments faster to the patient population. The pharmaceutical company gets another shot, allowing their drug to be used, maybe not along their development path, but in a new way based on this international brain trust of scientists and clinicians.

Collaboration, finding ways that the different strengths of a corporation and a nonprofit can be brought together, gives a sum greater than its parts. We’ll see this more as both corporations and nonprofits realize they can’t do everything. Collaboration is very important in our work because we need the pharmaceutical industry to eventually get these drugs approved and into the hands of patients.


Tell the Stories

Immunotherapies are having successes in treating patients. People glaze over: “What’s a T-cell receptor and what does it have to do with anything?” You have to explain, “Well, this is what we’re funding and why.”

Now we can say, “Here’s a cancer patient who had metastatic disease, has been treated and is now alive ten years later after all other previous treatments failed.” That’s much easier to comprehend, but you have to state that it’s happening because we funded this research for many years, and these discoveries have led to these results – not in all patients but, with continued research and investments, we hope to see this happen in more cancer patients and more types of cancer.

In a research-focused organization, it’s a harder story to tell than in social service, where you can say, “Give us $10 and we’ll feed this many kids.” Research is not instant gratification. You can’t say, “Give me $100 and you’re going to cure cancer.” You have to tell the story that research is long term, it’s not linear, and surprises happen. You can’t guarantee that, even though you’re selecting the best research right now, you’ll get the answer you want.

It’s a hard message to communicate. People must understand that solving the problem of cancer comes from supporting the best scientific research around the world, without guaranteeing when or if we’re going to have that answer. CRI has always been dedicated to cancer immunology with the hope of developing immunotherapy that will treat, prevent, and cure cancer. It’s been a rocky road and it wasn’t always mainstream but, by staying true to our mission, that scientific excellence overshadows everything.

Our goal is to get people invested in the change we can bring. We hope to move people from donors to ambassadors by developing a relationship. We get donations from across the country and around the world: they write a check and send it in, we send them a thank you, we send things back and forth, developing that community and relationship. It’s a real challenge to talk to people. You can end up really connecting with a person, and if they get to meet a scientist or hear it firsthand, they become more engaged and committed, and they’ll want to do more, and then they become an ambassador and tell the story to others.

We’ve launched a patient-facing site called The Answer to Cancer with stories of cancer patients who have been treated successfully with immunotherapies. We’re trying to develop an immuno-community around this and develop ambassadors who’ll go out and tell other patients about immunotherapy options.

In the same way, these stories and connections come down to donor relationships in fundraising. You need personal relationships to get someone to be an ambassador who’ll go out and tell other people about how great you are and why you should be supported.


Connect Giving to Impact

We all want our organizations to bring greater impact into the communities that we serve. This doesn’t just happen, though. It’s important to have a vision for your mission, and set goals. Then figure out how to get there, how to develop programs that allow you to reach those goals, how to communicate your goals, and set up metrics to measure your successes or failures.

That data is important, both to communicate to donors how their philanthropic dollars are being used, and to alter and evolve your program to increase your efficiency and productivity. CRI is working to see where the gaps and needs are in the research field, funding, or types of programs, and responding to that. We’re a non-heavily bureaucratic organization, so we can turn on a dime. We have the insight of our scientific advisors to innovate and quickly respond with new programs for greater impact.

To further the impact of social benefit, we need to better concentrate our efforts. In the cancer field, many new foundations and nonprofits pop up, wanting to do things, sometimes just duplicating and replicating. We would be better if people wanting to come into the field would see if they can plug in or partner with an existing organization to avoid recreating infrastructure and duplicating efforts, instead increasing efficiency by concentrating those efforts.


Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, Ph.D., is CEO and director of scientific affairs at the nonprofit Cancer Research Institute, today’s global leader in supporting and coordinating research aimed at harnessing the immune system’s power to conquer cancer. She serves on the boards of CT Atlantic AG, Richmond University Medical Center, and the Staten Island Foundation. jtormey@cancerresearch.org

This article is reprinted from Issue #4 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!

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