With Government Giving Billions for Cancer, Where Does Private Giving Fit In?

One question we ask often at Inside Philanthropy is where private philanthropy fits in, given all the things that government and business may be doing to address a problem.

Cancer research is a great example. Both public agencies and big pharma spend billions every year seeking breakthroughs on cancer. So what difference can much smaller-scale funding by private philanthropists make in this area?

Maybe a lot, actually. Or so we argued earlier this year, looking at Sean Parker's $250 million initiative to push forward the boundaries of cancer immunotherapy by backing risky research, breaking down silos, and forging new collaborations.

Related: What I Learned About Philanthropy and Cancer At Sean Parker’s Pad Last Night

Something similar can be said about much smaller investments. Most recently, a couple of the University of Michigan's staunchest philanthropists stepped up to make the largest private donation for cancer research in the school's history, giving $17.5 million to create a new research institute, fund cutting-edge research, encourage cross-disciplinary research and endow new scholarships and professorships.

The gift came from Michigan mega-donors Madeline and Sydney Forbes, who are big supporters of health and cultural causes throughout their home state. He founded the Forbes Company, which develops and manages luxury shopping malls. The couple has supported the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Cranbrook Schools, the Karmanos Cancer Institute and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

The gift, like others of its caliber, is notable for a couple of reasons. Obviously, it's a game changer for the University of Michigan, which created the Forbes Institute for Cancer Discovery within the U of M Comprehensive Cancer Center. The goal is to accelerate understanding of cancer and the development of new therapies.

It's also significant because it highlights the way that private giving often complements federal grants. As we've noted before, federal dollars for medical research has been constrained in recent decades, putting more pressure on academic and other research institutions to draw support from private sources. It's not just that budgets have been falling, it's that government agencies are known to be conservative abput what they fund.

After many years of austerity, Congress increased the NIH 2016 budget by $2 billion, up to $32 billion. It's the first boost in 12 years, and welcome news, but it's not like the NIH is an easy touch for scientists seeking grants. The feds typically favor sure things and established investigators, and are less likely to fund high-risk, high-reward research or early-career scientists.

That's where private donors, like the Forbeses' and others, can make a big difference. Their new gift will provide grants to develop new technologies and research by junior faculty.  

And these days, the importance of multidisciplinary research is often cited, not just between specialties within medical schools, but between medicine and departments of engineering, pharmacy and others on campus, as well as cross-disciplinary innovation and research. That's another focus of the Forbeses' gift.

Fortunately for University of Michigan, Sidney and Madeline Forbes have long been excellent boosters for medical research and other causes at the school, as have their sons, Nathan Forbes and David Forbes, and daughter Nancy Forbes Katzman.