PLYMOUTH, Mass. - The bewildered looks on the faces of young patients in the children's ward of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute were wrenching enough. For Frank Strauss, who had himself become a parent in 1995 to his first child, Nicole, only three months before, the helplessness etched on their parents' faces was far worse.
Having to walk through this scene every time he went to visit his mother, diagnosed with leukemia at the young age of 54, was devastating. Eventually, though, as Strauss' mother, Sandra, regained strength-she remains in remission today, as one in three adults who beats the disease-the ordeal became an inspiration.
Meet Frank Strauss, a principal with mutual fund operations firm Beacon Consulting Group and the indefatigable, effervescent founder of Mutual Funds Against Cancer.
With $800,000 already in the bank, MFAC is on track to raise an outstanding $1 million this year alone, and has pledged $4 million over the next five years to the Center for Applied Cancer Science at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Two of the most visible events of the organization, now in its 14th year, are the Wine & Spirits Extravaganza in November and the Expect Miracles Golf Classic in June. This year, 450 executives from more than 100 companies supported the golf tournament, held through the auspices of foundation sponsor Interactive Data Corp., on three separate courses at Pinehills Golf Club and Waverly Oaks in historic Plymouth, Mass. The first-place winners on each course were Beacon Consulting (on the Jones course), State Street Corp. (Nicklaus) and Spagnolo Gisness & Associates, Inc. (Waverly Oaks).
What has fueled the growing interest in and current 60% annual growth rate of Mutual Funds Against Cancer is not just an interest in fighting a disease that touches so many people's lives.
Certainly, the group provides a great opportunity to network with industry heavyweights, as several golfers at this summer's tournament admitted during the cocktails and awards dinner. The list of people who attend and support its events reads like a veritable Who's Who of executives from Boston and New York.
More importantly, there's the research and development work itself, according to participants. As investment management experts, they have firsthand knowledge of how much ammunition is needed to eventually win the fight against cancer.
This has been the message of many of the famous speakers at Mutual Funds Against Cancer's events, including Superbowl champion Joe Andruzzi who gave a keynote in June on how doctors at Dana-Farber helped him overcome Burkitt's lymphoma, a highly aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
The work of the Dana-Farber is invaluable to thousands of patients who are properly diagnosed with-and beat-rare strains of cancer, Andruzzi told the audience, who rewarded him with a standing ovation. Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong also testified to this fact via video on behalf of MFAC at the 2007 Institutional Investor Mutual Funds Awards dinner.
It is also at the Dana-Farber Institute that the important work of cancer drug research continues, with Strauss noting that it currently costs $900 million to bring a single new cancer drug to market, while only 5% of new drugs succeed. Instead of trying to raise this staggering sum of money, Mutual Funds Against Cancer is putting money raised toward the Center for Applied Cancer Science, which ultimately aims to develop "a more efficient research and development model that will provide tremendous leverage for each dollar invested," Strauss said.
Strauss readily admits that he is tremendously fortunate, in that his motivation for starting the organization did not stem from, as is sometimes the case, the death of someone close to him.
An avid golf player who holds Black Rock Country Club's longest hole-in-one at 202 yards, Strauss decided to turn what was then called the Strauss Open, a tournament for family and friends, into a fundraiser for cancer research. In its first year, the event raised $6,000 and concluded with "me flipping burgers on my back deck," Strauss said, with a laugh.
Strauss also recalls that he was in a good position to start the foundation since, as chief financial officer and treasurer at CGM Funds in Boston from 1992 until 2004, he had excellent industry contacts and vendors he might be able to depend on to help him in this new venture. In fact, State Street Corp. has funded MFAC all these years, and has since been joined by Capital Fulfillment Group, Citigroup, Deloitte, DST Systems, Interactive Data Corp., JPMorgan, PFPC, UBS Global Asset Management and many more.
As to how MFAC has gained such momentum and success, board member and BlackRock Managing Director Brian Schmidt attributes it to Strauss' and the other board members' networks, as well as the generous support of corporate sponsors, including BlackRock. "It's great to see this organization grow from very humble beginnings to such a level of support and recognition," Schmidt said. "It's certainly rewarding for the folks who have been involved in this great effort."
Cindi Boudreau, EVP, sales and marketing, at Computershare and also a MFAC board member, characterizes Strauss' enthusiasm for the cause as "infectious."
"When you tour the Dana-Farber facilities and see the impression in a hospital bed, where only a few hours ago a young child was receiving chemotherapy, it hits home that, yes, you are making a difference and what you are doing is very important," Boudreau said.
While MFAC has become a headline event in Boston and, with the support of the Investment Company Institute and the National Investment Company Service Association, one of the biggest charity rallying points for the mutual fund industry, Strauss is not content to stop there. He and Executive Director Christina Thirkell are currently looking into opening chapters in other cities. They've also been approached by hedge fund and separately managed account companies to open "sleeves" to cater their industries.
Thirkell, in fact, has been a driving force behind MFAC's expansion in the last three years. Besides wanting to work for the cause, as a marketing professional herself, Thirkell recognized the power and influence of the people on Strauss' contact list. This ultimately gave her the drive to leave Giga Information Group in 2004 to become executive director at MFAC.
She was introduced to Strauss by a mutual friend who was on the MFAC board, and the more she got involved, "the more I saw Mutual Funds Against Cancer's potential to really make a difference in cancer research," Thirkell said.
Thirkell "has a full-time focus, which has made the biggest difference and which we have needed as the organization and its visibility have grown," Strauss said, adding, "The denominator has gotten big."
True enough, MFAC has had exceptional results in the past few years, as is evidenced by its exponential growth. It was in 2001 that the name of the tournament was changed to the Expect Miracles Golf Classic, but it was not until 2004, when Thirkell joined the organization, the Wine & Spirits Extravaganza began and she helped turn the website into a powerful marketing tool, that MFAC really became a full-blown organization. As Thirkell stresses, the group is "more than just a golf tournament.
"The wine tasting event really started a momentum and buzz within the industry, and it was great for [us as] a non-profit organization to have sponsors call us and want to get on board," Thirkell recalled.
Over the past two years, the organization has rung the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange and has been honored by Institutional Investor magazine as Charity of Choice at its Mutual Funds Awards Dinner in New York. Being selected Charity of Choice was a great reward for Thirkell's work to "expand our brand awareness and donor reach nationally," she said.
"We definitely want to expand out of the Northeast area," Strauss said, "and are trying to figure out the most cost-effective way to do that, as many of our events are labor-intensive and take a few years to produce the desired financial results."
MFAC has also taken advantage of the talent and resources available within the industry, including a partnership with fulfillment house Harte-Hanks, which helped to change the dynamic of the organization by moving it out of Strauss' house and office. MFAC is also "pretty excited about" its recent alliance with the ICI, Strauss said, since it ran its own fundraiser this year for MFAC. The organization also attended the ICI's General Membership Meeting in May.
The alliance between the Center for Applied Cancer Science and MFAC was made public last year at the banquet concluding the annual golf tournament, where the keynote speaker was CACS Director Dr. Ronald DePinho.
As for the future? Strauss' ideal outcome for MFAC is an unusual one: that a be-all, end-all cure for cancer will one day soon be found, MFAC will be put out of business and any remaining money will be spent on a final, blow-out celebration.
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