Four Things to Know About That Mammoth Mental Health Gift

It’s being called the largest private donation in the history of psychiatric research. Ted Stanley’s $650 million commitment to the Broad Institute announced this week brings the donor’s total giving to $825 million, a sum that researchers hope can kickstart a new golden age of research into psychiatric illness. Here’s a roundup of what it all means for science and philanthropy.

It’s almost always hyperbole to say that a single philanthropic act can have a serious impact on an area of research, but in this case there may be some truth to it. As one of the largest private donations for scientific research, and in a field that has struggled, the long-term stream of funding for the Harvard-MIT research center could nudge forward difficult work in psychiatric diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. So for starters…

1. It’s about momentum 

The Ted Stanley gift is large, make no mistake. But for perspective, the pharmaceutical industry spends around $50 billion annually on research (not to mention marketing), and the NIH has an annual budget of $30 billion. That’s to say that private philanthropy cannot replace what industry and government can (and should) spend. Development of new treatments also takes a very long time, with new applications potentially decades away, researchers caution.  

Despite the fact that this is the only the very beginning of a long process, and that this amount of funding is nowhere near enough on its own, it is an important time and could be an important step to getting this ball rolling

Right now, NIH funding is not what it used to be, and the pharmaceutical industry has backed away from mystifying mental disorder research after some recent failed attempts at new treatments. Fact is, some of these disorders are relying on therapies developed in the 1950s. And yet there are new tools for analyzing genetic blueprints that are showing glimmers of promise that were basically non-existent even five years ago. 

A gift this size sends a message to the research world that this shop is open. Those involved hope it starts a similar wave of investments and discoveries toward treatments of psychiatric diseases as we saw in cancer research starting in the 1980s. 

2. It’s about scale 

Historically, we’ve known very little about the molecular underpinnings of psychiatric diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, in no small part because brains are really hard to study. Advances in the study of human genetics are changing that. But such studies need huge sample sizes, time and money. The announcement of the Stanley donation coincides with the publication of a study in Nature that looked at the genomes of 37,000 people with schizophrenia and 113,000 without, and made promising steps in identifying genetic indicators of the disease.

Where philanthropy can have an advantage over government and industry funding is that, while smaller overall, such gifts can enable risky, long-term projects, and highly collaborative ones. Competitive individual grants tend to have more short-range goals, and industry research needs the promise of profit, at least in the somewhat near future.  

Stanley’s gift effectively says, “Do this as long as it takes, even after I’m gone. I trust you guys.” Or as one researcher involved put it, “Having philanthropy allows us to take thoughtful risk.” And Broad, which grew out of the Human Genome Project, has the expertise to orchestrate the level of genomic study of tens of thousands of subjects, and it can work with dozens of research centers, with individual scientists “burying their egos” for one big, collective project.

3. It’s personal

Just about every major philanthropic project to cure disease has roots in the personal history of a wealthy donor. The Ted Stanley gift is no exception. Stanley is the founder of MBI, Inc., a company that markets collectibles like sports memorabilia, stamps and coins. Ted and wife Vada Stanley’s son Jonathan Stanley was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but thanks to psychiatric medicine has been able to manage his illness and today is an attorney. The difficult but hopeful experience inspired the family to begin donating to psychiatric research.

One critique of research philanthropy is that it’s often motivated by highly personal reasons, so not always by reason, practicality or proportional need. But you can see how the flip side is that this can be a good thing. For example, in a subject where public and industry funding can be too gun-shy, a philanthropist with a personal connection to a disease can say, “enough is enough” and make it his or her main or only focus.

4. The donation is long-term and all-in

Ted Stanley is getting on in years, and while he has a history of giving substantial amounts to the Broad, he wanted to make sure that funding would continue in his absence. The commitment of $650 million will be ongoing, allotting tens of millions each year to the center for years. It brings Stanley’s total contributions to the Institute higher than even Eli and Edythe Broad themselves.  

As he said with the announcement of the donation: 

I’m just turning over almost all my money, now and through my will, knowing with great certainty that they’re the best equipped to know the best ways to spend it. So if you’re a talented researcher try to get a job at the Broad or collaborate with them, and if you’re a fortunate philanthropist with money to spare, do what I’m doing and send it there.

We tend to see big donors build an affinity and ever-increasing giving to institutions, like we recently witnessed with the Simons gift to Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory. But this is a level of focus and devotion you don’t see too often. 

Stay tuned for more of our analysis of what this gift and others like it mean for disease research, and be sure to explore other IP guides below.