It’s Personal: Why Catherine Ivy Funds Brain Research

Who really knows what motivates big individual givers? Some of them seem so scattershot and random you almost have to wonder. Literacy in Gambia? Aging among the Inuit? Pioneering development of a pinball machine that teaches quantum physics? I exaggerate, but only a little. Some funders seem driven by the errant fascinations and dreams they’ve had since childhood when it comes to their personal giving—and they can be damn hard nuts to crack—but for some, like Catherine Ivy, their motives are entirely based on life experience and compassion. In the past few years, the health giving space has seen a real influx of philanthropists motivated by family illness and suffering. It’s sobering, but also important to understand how these funders differ from other philanthropists, especially from the charitable foundations working in the same field.

Catherine Ivy doesn’t exactly hide the fact that she’s driven by personal experience. She wrote a “Message” on the Ben and Catherine Ivy Foundation’s homepage—which isn’t a real easy read, by the way—in which she comes right out and says it: Her husband Ben died of glioblastoma multiforme just four months post-diagnosis. His quality of life was compromised. He suffered. The lingering pain of what Catherine Ivy went through is so clear it almost gives you chills. Since his passing in November, 2005, it’s clear she has totally committed herself to curing brain cancer. She’s interested not in seeing her name in lights, not in being known as a pioneer in the field of brain cancer research, but as, simply seeing “the day when no one has to go through what Ben did.”

Though she’s obviously motivated by compassion and empathy, beware submitting a funding proposal softened with emotional language. Ivy may have gone through a lot of pain, but she isn’t looking for sympathy in the projects she funds. She doesn’t want “Race for the Cure”-type charity events that raise awareness; she wants cures. In the nine years since its inception, the Ben and Catherine Ivy Foundation has committed over $50 million to brain cancer research, including $3.7 million to the Translational Genomics Research Institute to test drugs that cross the blood-brain barrier, and $10 million to Stanford for development of a neuro-oncology imaging program.