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These cancer research grants are named not for billionaires, but everyday cancer victims

The American Cancer Society is letting groups that raise money put the names of loved ones on grants, so that their name can live on as cancer breakthroughs develop.

These cancer research grants are named not for billionaires, but everyday cancer victims
[Photo: American Cancer Society]

One thing that Cooper Hodges, Rosebud Miners, Gretchen Mitchell Anderson, and Reuben “Papa” Scherr share in common is they’ve all died of cancer. But they have a more positive connection: Each lives on in a novel and inspiring way. Last year, the America Cancer Society awarded $165,000 grants named after each to researchers working on promising early-stage ways to impact the disease.

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In the philanthropy world, the eponymous tribute treatment is typically reserved for the super-rich. Donors who tend to give places lots of money can specify (or accept) that the newly endowed medical school, arts complex, or museum will pay homage. Hollywood mogul David Geffen, for instance, has a collection of all three.

But the American Cancer Society has taken that idea and largely democratized it through its new Heroes of Research program, which started last year as an extra incentive with ACS’s 12-to-24-hour Relay For Life events. ACS allows any family, school, church, or corporate team whose participants can raise $165,000 to name their own grant, typically after the people who inspired them to raise money in the first place. The teams then pick where to direct their grants from a vetted list of researchers working on different topics at different medical institutions.

For those participating in the memory of Hodges, Miners, Anderson, and Scherr, that was University of Texas, MIT, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and Duke University Medical Center, respectively. Initially, 10 teams earned the honor, with combined contributions that totaled about $400,000 more than what they all raised in previous years. It’s a concept that’s continued to gain steam. This fall, two other teams reached that milestone, averaging a combined $200,000 more than their previous annual totals.

[Photo: American Cancer Society]
ACS is the largest nongovernmental cancer research funder in the country. So the idea is to make the important research it backs feel less “nebulous” and “more personal,” says Maria Clark, the organization’s senior vice president of volunteer events. “The teams are extremely moved by it and they know that the work that they have invested in could be the cures for tomorrow,” she says.

Last year, ACS held 2,000 Relay For Life events, drawing 70,000 teams and more than 1.3 million participants, raising $170 million. While the group has worked hard to diversify how it raises money–soliciting traditional donations, an alliance with the NFL and NHL, separate breast cancer awareness walks, and various corporate sponsorships or contributions all play a factor–Relay For Life still accounts for 29% of its annual revenue. Since the effort started in 1985, people have contributed a total of $4.6 billion to ACS activities.

To that end, Heroes of Research provides top groups a new goal to reach or maintain, and gives everyone else more inspiration. The latest Heroes of Research include a corporate team from Nucor Steel in the St. James Parish of Louisiana, and a community-based one named Becki’s Bling Team in Glen Carbon, Illinois. Those groups will name their award and pick their researchers by the end of the year. Most then connect through conference calls that allow both the funders and the researchers to feel the impact of the work they’re doing more strongly.

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“It’s really a movement,” says Sharon Byers, ACS’s chief marketing and development officer, about the overall Relay For Life effort. “People want to join teams and fundraise and see where the money goes and feel really great that they’re contributing in a really strong way in this fight.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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