Philanthropy and medicine have gone hand in hand for centuries. In 1756, the first general hospital opened in the U.S., and its physicians provided free health care to the poor. Dr. Thomas Bond started fundraising in the hopes of replicating similar medical facilities in Britain, and Benjamin Franklin helped by organizing a campaign with the Pennsylvania Assembly, which matched each donation.
Another notable example of the way in which philanthropy has boosted medical research is the story of how insulin came to be. In 1922, Canadian physician Dr. Frederick Banting and one of his medical students treated a diabetes patient with insulin for the first time. The charitable component surfaced when Dr. Banting decided to forego a patent and instead chose to sell the rights to his discovery to a local university. The act enabled the medicine to reach the market more quickly and broadly so as to benefit more individuals with diabetes. Dr. Banting charged the University of Toronto only one dollar.
Approximately 30 years later, the National Foundation for Infant Paralysis, which is today known as the March of Dimes, financed the clinical trials of a new vaccine developed by Jonas Salk, a medical researcher and physician. The combination of Dr. Salk’s research and the sponsorship of the foundation resulted in successful results for polio vaccinations, which reduced individual cases of the virus to under from 45,000 to under 1,000 within a decade.
Medical research has and continues to benefit the lives of people facing a wide range of illnesses and injuries. The role of philanthropy in the process has been significant. Here are a few ways in which nonprofit organizations and private donors are uniquely equipped to support medical research.
Freedom to pursue bold theories
In comparison with public and for-profit organizations, philanthropy accounts for a fraction of the total amount of money dedicated to medical research. However, groups and individuals in the nonprofit sector benefit from the freedom to support unorthodox ideas and approaches, whereas other sectors do not.
The extra room to experiment and engage in otherwise unconventional ideas has led such philanthropists as Peter Thiel to launch research projects. His namesake foundation has explored topics such as aging and longevity with the hope of improving the quality of life and life spans.
The ability to make connections
For many of the same reasons that philanthropy enables unorthodox research approaches, it also paves the way for unexpected collaboration. Philanthropists can directly support the collaborative efforts of researchers wherein the researchers can reach out to one another and focus on progress instead of shareholder and government funding constraints.
The obstacles presented by traditional funding sources often inhibit the ability to maximize all available resources, including large aggregates of data on the Internet. In addition, collaboration tends to require more time and patience, all of which nonprofits are in a better position to supply.
Beyond directly funding the collaborative efforts of researchers, philanthropists also have the distinct ability to make connections with the donor base. Nonprofit organizations, in most cases, have the advantage of grassroots appeal that helps to spread awareness throughout communities. Awareness and education naturally lead to encouraging people to donate to causes that they deem worthy of support. At all levels, philanthropy is positioned to make important and lasting connections.
Private donors as research catalysts
With the ability to support unorthodox ideas and connect strong minds with powerful resources, philanthropy has the potential to expedite research efforts. Limitations in public and for-profit circles make it difficult to speed up the process of getting new medications and treatment methods into practice. The example of Dr. Banting and his willingness to send his insulin patent to market demonstrates how even a simple act of philanthropy can serve as a catalyst for helping those in need.
Liberty to invest in potential
Large-scale organizations, such as the National Institutes of Health, which grants approximately $26.1 billion to research endeavors annually, typically allocate their funds to experienced physicians and researchers who have become established names in their respective fields. While this practice generally reduces risk tolerance, it tends to overlook the potential of many rising scholars. Philanthropists can elect to support essentially any idea they wish, even and especially if it comes from a promising individual fresh out of medical training.
Flexibility to focus on rare diseases
In addition to its ability to pursue unconventional research, the nonprofit sector has the exclusive capacity to fund research for rare and overlooked medical conditions. More common diseases and ailments incentivize the government and for-profit agencies to work toward treatments and cures, but there is little motivation for outlying issues. This is where philanthropy comes in. Nonprofit organizations have developed in niche areas to help people who are equally in need, but who lack the support of larger institutions.