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When Myka Osinchuk took over as Chief Executive Officer of the Alberta Cancer Foundation (ACF) in 2011, the ACF already had the distinction of being the province’s largest philanthropic investor in cancer research. In 2010-11, it invested more than $25-million in research, enhanced care, prevention and screening.
But Osinchuk thought the Edmonton- and Calgary-based provincial foundation could do more with its money to make a difference in the battle against cancer.
In keeping with a movement now sweeping the donation-based not-for-profit sector, she envisioned an organization based on impact investing, where decisions about what to fund are based not only on scientific or academic considerations, but also on the possible outcomes for patients and the time frame for seeing results. The goal: a shift in culture from a fundraising body to one that took an active role in achieving results by helping patients, researchers, clinicians and industry work together to do things in a new way.
“We talk about ROI, which, in a philanthropic organization, is an unusual concept,” says Osinchuk, whose foundation has committed to strategically investing $120-million from 2012 to 2017 in the fight against cancer in Alberta. “But we’re not using it in the same sense as the private sector. What we’re talking about is results, outcome and impact.”
The foundation developed a framework to measure the impact of various initiatives and to understand how to re-evaluate them on an ongoing basis. Some considerations: Would an initiative potentially benefit a large part of the population? Or would it have a big impact on a smaller number of people? How many lives and how much money could be saved if various types of cancers were detected earlier? How much would it cost the health-care system to invest in new diagnostic technologies? What are the investment opportunities that resonate with donors? How should risks, such as failure to get results, be understood and measured?
The framework was designed to assess individual investments, as well as the foundation’s portfolio as a whole. The culture shift required a significant amount of change management, both internally and with outside stakeholders. “The research community was used to traditional grant applications and approvals,” says Theresa Radwell, Vice-President of Program Investment. “We had to encourage them to think outside the box of their own research and focus on the direct impact for patients.”
The ACF is already noticing results. One example is in the area of personalized medicine for treating breast cancer. Through its selection process, the foundation is investing in research on biological markers of the disease that aims to understand which treatments will work best for cancer patients with a particular biomarker. The investment includes moving the results into clinical trials with patients and ultimately providing the information to oncologists for all their patients.
“We are seeing as a result of this a better understanding of who will benefit from a particular type of treatment,” Radwell says. “Therefore we can provide appropriate treatment to those patients who will actually, truly benefit and provide more-appropriate treatments to other patients, avoiding unnecessary treatments, thus improving their quality of life.”
Donors – most of whom have a personal or family reason for investing in cancer research and patient care and are eager to see results – have responded positively to the new approach with increased confidence that their contributions will be invested and proactively managed to deliver impact to Albertans.
Osinchuk and Radwell believe that collaboration with researchers, clinicians and patients will help the foundation more wisely choose initiatives in which to invest. Having a framework to evaluate whether a program is on track to meet its goals lets the ACF make necessary adjustments and decide which projects to keep funding.
“We can demonstrate to our donors the progress that is being made, the timelines and the specific impacts of those investments,” Osinchuk says. “This allows us to have a much higher level of accountability and transparency into how we’re managing those investments.”
The hope is that more accountability will translate into more research dollars as ACF donors see the value coming from their contributions.