Delaware resident Debi Brooks is a co-founder of The Michael J. Fox Foundation, which funds research for Parkinson’s Disease treatments. Before becoming involved with the foundation in 2000, she worked on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs. She was the CEO of MJFF until 2007, when she became the executive vice chairman. Brooks sat down with Town Square Delaware to discuss how she applies her business background to her work in the non-profit sector.
TSD: How did you first become involved with The Michael J. Fox Foundation? Did you know Fox or have a friend or family member who had Parkinson’s?
DB: Michael had a vision for what he thought could be an important role that he could be playing in the Parkinson’s community, and a vision for what could be done to address significant unmet needs that patients face in terms of treating their disease. I didn’t know him and I didn’t have a personal connection to Parkinson’s disease, but I was introduced to him through my former work network. I had worked on Wall Street at Goldman Sachs for nearly 10 years and had left to go to the non-profit sector, which is uncommon enough that when he put feelers out, my name was the only one that came up. As I heard about the opportunity, I was struck immediately by what a challenge but what a unique undertaking it would be to start something from scratch with someone like him.
This focus we took on funding research really defined our actions in the early days, and it ends up that focusing solely on speeding research is pretty unusual for a non-profit, for a public charity that’s focused on the disease area. So that’s what we do today. We have funded about $240 million of research in the last 10 years or so, and we fund research all over the world. We’re just trying to figure out what we can do with patients in mind and with strategic investments in science to speed [the research] process and make it more focused on patient urgency and patient needs.
TSD: You are a founding member of MJFF and were the CEO from its inception in 2000 until 2007. Did you have much experience in the non-profit sector prior to becoming involved with the organization?
DB: I had left Goldman-Sachs with the idea that I was going to go into the non-profit sector. So the first thing I did was I went and got a Master’s degree in social work. I had gotten an MBA earlier in my career, so I had the more traditional business path. More in a mid-career path, I thought, “I feel like there’s something more where I can be of service in a different way.
The thing that defined my interest the most was making a difference. I was drawn most to an opportunity where I felt the organization was set to make a difference and not just run on a wing and a prayer. [I wanted to] figure out how to tackle solving problems in a more systematic way. I had that in mind, but I didn’t know where I was going to find that. It became clear to me that while I could feel like I was make a difference by being a front-line person, providing direct services and working within an organization that was doing good work, it might be at the margin smarter for me to be in a position to actually run an organization.
I had done a little work in the Boston area, but I wasn’t at it for long when I had a call about [The Michael J. Fox Foundation]. I’d gotten my feet wet but I was still pretty new to the sector.
TSD: How does working for a non-profit compare to your business training and in particular, your work with Goldman-Sachs?
The biggest difference in the non-profit sector is that they’re under-resourced. So if I had an idea at Goldman Sachs about how to solve a problem, I never had to pause and wonder, “Can I afford to execute that strategy? Do I have resources?” Any time you’re problem-solving in the non-profit sector, you’re constantly bound by those kinds of considerations. You’re always weighing all the things you wish you could do, but what are the things you can do.
I get frustrated when I encounter non-profits that aren’t pausing and asking the big-picture questions to make sure that they are using their donor dollars in the most effective and strategic way. That idea of renewed strategic purpose sometimes gets lost in the non-profit sector, and I find that frustrating because I think it means that there’s redundancy of effort, I think it means that donor dollars can be wasted. A lot of money goes to sustaining organizations that may not behaving impact, so those kinds of big picture things to me can be a big difference.
TSD: Since you’ve been with MJFF, the foundation has raised $240 million to fund Parkinson’s research. What strategies did you implement for such successful fundraising?
DB: There are two things that our organization does: we raise money and we spend money. My focus as a businessperson was to create a product that has value, and in this case it was value to the mission, and it’s also [value] for whom that would make the most difference, because that’s your likely donor. I believe that a non-profit has its best chance for success by understanding the unmet needs and building solutions towards that. Really understanding the unmet needs and going out and talking to people about how you’re going to address those needs makes it a much clearer value proposition to a donor. We have been successful in raising money, but that’s because we go and we make the case to people for whom this matters most.
We don’t have an endowment, so I think that speaks to the urgency of our work and as a consequence, we are out every year face to face, pitching again. We are starting from scratch every year, and that really keeps you crystallized on what you’re doing and why you’re coming back and what’s the next set of needs. That style of transparency and direct interactions with key constituents resonates very much. We are really committed to that kind of dialogue, whether its in our newsletters or on our website or on our “Fox Flash.” We do the best we can to make sure people really understand what they’re connecting to and what they’re supporting.
TSD: In 2007, you took on a new role, moving from the position of CEO to executive vice chairman. What prompted the switch?
DB: I shifted my role when my family moved to Delaware. I had been the founding CEO, and we moved to Wilmington basically because we had young children and we wanted to raise our family here. Basically when I sat down with Michael and said, “This is not an easy decision to make, but I feel like I need to do this for my husband and my kids. I’m prepared to do whatever you’d like.” He basically said, “I want you to stay involved to the extent you can manage it.” I felt really grateful because I’m passionate and wickedly committed to what I do. I felt like I couldn’t run the day-to-day business in Delaware, but I could continue to do many of the things that I’d been doing all along that were essential and meaningful for the foundation. Many years later, I oversee the organization’s fundraising, all the marketing communications and the digital strategy, so I still work with a good part of the organization directly and frequently.
TSD: What are some of your favorite local restaurants and places to go?
DB: The garden café at Styer’s—Terrain—is a favorite of ours. We spend a lot of time at the pool. We go where our kids want to go. We actually just really enjoy being here, in this part of the country, being outdoors, having a great group of friends, great schools. There’s just so many things about it that to us add up to it being a terrific place.
TSD: Looking back over the past 10 or 11 years, what has been the most rewarding aspect of your work with the foundation?
DB: You go into the non-profit sector with this hope that you can be part of something that makes a difference. And I think a lot of what takes place in the non-profit sector is really hard to measure and hard to get a sense of. You don’t make sweeping progress, even in years. It takes awhile. I’m extremely gratified, 10 years into it, by a sense that I see it. I see what we’re doing and how it’s making a difference. We have emerged as the go-to org in the world, interacting with academic researchers, pharmaceutical companies, the U.S. government. every key group in the world now kind of works with us, interacts with us. We’re the one group who’s getting up every day, figuring out how to cure Parkinson’s. There was an article in The New York Times a couple of years ago, and one of the quotes from the business writer, Joe Nocera, that was a moment where I was like, “Wow, we’re on to something.”