An Unassuming Funder Bets Big Against Alzheimer’s

There's a reason we obsessively cover funding efforts aimed at combating Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases. It's been estimated that America will need to spend a trillion dollars a year by 2050 to care for those struggling with Alzheimer's, a terrifying projection—to say nothing of the devastating human toll on individuals and families. 

Demographics are driving this coming crisis. According to the Pew Research Center, some 10,000 individuals per day celebrate their 65th birthdays. That trend is expected to continue until around 2030. 

Public spending on cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s, as well as on brain science generally, has increased in recent years. However, this is a heavy funding lift that requires the participation of a range of players. Quite a few funders have stepped up to the challenge, as we've been reporting. The field of neuroscience has attracted some huge gifts in recent years, from such mega-givers as Chuck Feeney and Sandy Weill. Of course, Paul Allen has been investing big in brain science for more than a decade. 

What gets less attention is that many smaller funders are also on the case, and we like to spotlight them whenever we get a chance. We've written about the GHR Foundation's strategic grantmaking for Alzheimer's, as well as the Cure Alzheimer's Fund and also the Bright Focus Foundation, which, since the early 1970s, has dedicated some $160 million to research projects.

Some of the smaller funders direct their money to campus-based research at institutions well outside the coastal corridors where so much high-profile giving occurs. In fact, many academic scientists across America's heartland are urgently pursuing work to crack the riddles of neurodegenerative diseases, and they're finding some generous allies in their home regions. 

The Gertrude C. Ford Foundation is a good example. It's an unassuming funder with around $45 million to $55 million in assets. The foundation centers its grantmaking on organizations located in Mississippi, with a particular emphasis on those in the city of Jackson.

Areas of grantmaking focus at Ford include higher ed, children and youth services, human services, and health organizations. And this isn’t a funder that gives huge grants every year; most fall in the $5,000 to $20,000 range with a few in the $100,000 to $350,000 range. But on occasion, Ford does award a couple of hefty grants in the seven- and eight-figure range—its latest give being the latter.

The Memory Impairment and Neurodegenerative Dementia Center (MIND Center) at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) received a $9 million gift from the Gertrude C. Ford Foundation to back Alzheimer’s and dementia research. In 2013, Ford gave MIND a $1 million gift to establish its operations and the additional $9 million makes for $10 million in cumulative funding to the center.

Besides its MIND Center grants, in the past, Ford has donated $25 million to the University of Mississippi’s performing arts center as well as $25 million toward a new STEM building, which is currently under construction.

Thanks to UMMC's recent $9 million windfall, the university will rename its research wing the Ford MIND Research Center, which is set to open its doors in summer 2017. The gift will bring researchers together under one roof, allowing for a more collaborative scientific process. The grant will also allow the center to expand its research work involving Alzheimer’s risk factors, brain imaging, and genetic technologies toward new discoveries in diagnoses and treatment.