The Quiet Yet Powerful Pass-Through Funder Making Big Moves on Breast Cancer

 photo:  Chinnapong/shutterstock

photo:  Chinnapong/shutterstock

There are plenty of breast cancer charities across the country. Unfortunately, some of them—like the American Breast Cancer Foundation, Breast Cancer Relief, and the Woman to Woman Breast Cancer Foundation—are ranked among the worst charities in the United States. And some, like the Susan G. Komen Foundation, have been plagued by scandal and controversy over the past few years. All of this makes it pretty easy to say “no” to those charitable donation requests, even if it’s only $1.  

Still, there are number of standouts in this philanthropic landscape, like the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF).

BCRF was born out of kitchen table conversation in 1993 between would-be co-founders Evelyn Lauder—who had already established what is now known as the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center—her husband Leonard, and their friend Dr. Larry Norton. Even though medical investigators at the time had begun transitioning their work from basic research to translational science, a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the disease was still in the developmental stages. As a result, a breast cancer diagnosis offered little hope of recovery or remission.

BCRF is continuing to give women hope, becoming an ever more powerful grantmaker for research. Recently, it announced $59.5 million in new funding for breast cancer research in 2017-2018 to support 275 scientists across 15 countries.

BCRF's impressive grant outlays offer a great example of pass-through funders becoming ever-bigger players in philanthropy, especially around causes that generate a lot of emotion, like disease funding. BCRF doesn't have its own large endowment, but rather raises large amounts of money from contributors—with gifts ranging widely in size. In 2015, the foundation reported $66 million in gifts. 

BCRF then turns around and determines where this money can be best spent, guided by a scientific advisory board stacked with medical experts. 

It's a strong model overall: A high-profile fundraising operation hooked up with a rigorous grantmaking process. And in an era when lots of Americans have extra money to give—but not the time or skills to figure out where to give—trusted pass-throughs like BCRF are doing better than ever. Which is good news for researchers and nonprofits downstream, pulling in support. 

Areas of focus for this year's grantees fell into six major categories: heredity and ethnicity, lifestyle and prevention, metastasis, survivorship, treatment, and tumor biology. BCRF gave a total of $18 million to support research on metastatic breast cancer, studying how cancer cells spread, new advanced-stage treatments, and discovering biomarkers in an effort to predict where the cancer is more likely to spread.

Other work supported during the recent grantmaking round includes studying the relationship between breastfeeding and breast cancer, understanding drug resistance and developing new approaches to improve clinical outcomes, and male breast cancer studies.


The biggest portion of BCRF grants in this latest round backs a wide range of studies related to better understanding why specific treatments work for some patients and not for others, and discovering new biomarkers to match patients with the proper treatment protocols. Prior to announcing its grantmaking, BCRF launched the Drug Research Collaborative. Initially funded with a three-year, $15 million grant from Pfizer, the collaborative aims at “bridging the gap between academic investigators and access to drugs in development.”

While BCRF has raised its funding by a few million dollars this year, it hasn’t exactly rested on its laurels as far as new partnerships and collaborations are concerned. In March 2017, BCRF announced a new partnership with the Jayne Koskinas and Ted Giovanis (JKTG) Foundation for Health. The partnership includes three jointly funded, multi-institutional ventures that will “provide new insights into tumor growth and metastasis and the mechanisms of drug resistance.” According to the press release, this research is “groundbreaking,” and has the “potential to substantially advance understanding of cancer biology and improve clinical outcomes.”  

Evelyn Lauder spent her life dedicated to ridding the world of breast cancer. Up until her passing in 2011, she helped transform BCRF into a top-rated organization, dedicating millions of dollars in grants each year to combat a disease that affects one in eight women in the U.S. alone. Not bad for what started out as a kitchen table charity.