An Enduring Mission Needs Enduring Support: A Conversation With Nancy R. Daly and Dr. Allen S. Lichter

Mar 12, 2024

As Conquer Cancer recognizes its 25th anniversary, Nancy R. Daly and Dr. Allen S. Lichter discuss the foundation’s origins, its present, and its future. 

After forming as a professional membership society in 1964, ASCO later achieved 501(c)(3) status, opening philanthropic doors with the possibility of tax-deductible giving. Fundraising has long played an important role in the realm of scientific research, where publicly available funds often fall short of demand. Today, a commitment to research funding is integral to ASCO’s identity, much like education, professional development, and promoting high-quality patient care around the world.  
Decades ago, however, the Society was still shaping its approach to fundraising and learning what worked—and what didn’t. In the years immediately after granting its first Young Investigator Award (YIA) in 1984, ASCO’s fundraising strategy continued to grow, and, with it, the Society’s Grants and Awards Program. That single YIA grew into a portfolio of more than a dozen, along with several Career Development Awards (CDA), Advanced Clinical Research Awards, and grants for translational research programs. 
Still, there remained much that ASCO leadership wanted to provide for its stakeholders—more than could be accomplished from membership dues alone. So, in 1999, ASCO leaders committed to addressing the longstanding question of how best to amplify the Society’s ability to raise much-needed funds for groundbreaking cancer research, along with other ASCO programs and offerings.  
The answer was the organization known today as Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation.   
As Conquer Cancer celebrates 25 years, current CEO Nancy R. Daly, MS, MPH, was joined by Allen S. Lichter, MD, FASCO, who served as the first chair of the foundation’s Board of Directors as well as past ASCO president and past ASCO CEO. Together, they discuss the history behind the organization, its achievements and successes, and their hopes for Conquer Cancer’s future. 
ND: You were president of ASCO when the foundation first formed. Can you talk a bit about the catalyst for establishing it and what ASCO and its leadership hoped to accomplish?   
AL: The impetus to do this came from Dr. John Durant, who was then the executive director of ASCO. We were already a 501(c)(3) organization and had been receiving gifts for many years, but the donor lists were heavily dominated by industry sources. Dr. Durant wanted to broaden our appeal beyond commercial companies, and he recognized that most foundations and individuals were unlikely to contribute to a medical professional society. His idea was to establish an independent charitable foundation that might have a better chance of attracting the interest of a diverse set of supporters. And so, the foundation was launched.  
ND: Of course, as you know, we started out with a much different name. Tell us about how the foundation ultimately became Conquer Cancer.    
AL: We started out calling ourselves The ASCO Foundation. But, of course, the problem was that if you stop the average person on the street and ask them what ASCO is, they’ll look at you like you’re talking about a colony on Mars. No one outside of the oncology space knew who we were.   
We decided to add the word cancer to our name, so at least people would know that we were focused on cancer. But calling ourselves The ASCO Cancer Foundation didn’t exactly knock the ball out of the park either.   
One day, Dr. Sandra M. Swain [a past ASCO president and current Conquer Cancer Board member] was talking to one of her patients, and the patient said, “We need to conquer cancer.” Dr. Swain thought it had a ring to it, brought it forward as an idea, and everyone said, “We like it.”  
ND: What do you remember most about your role as the first chair of the Board? Are there specific accomplishments that occurred during your tenure that you’re particularly proud of?   
AL: I think perhaps my greatest contribution as chair was simply not allowing the idea to die. Getting the foundation off the ground was hard work, and at one point, ASCO’s Board actually discussed disbanding it. But we were able to convince them to give us more time to find the right approach.   
One thing that proved absolutely critical was bringing in people from outside the oncology sphere to the [foundation] Board—people who had the resources and fundraising knowledge we needed to progress. That was transformational because we now had people who knew about fundraising, who were willing to give their own money, and who were willing to talk to others about giving as well. That started us down a path that I don’t think we would have been able to navigate had we limited ourselves to only having oncologists on the Board.   
ND: You played a crucial role in establishing Conquer Cancer’s Mission Endowment, which has enabled us to create a stable flow of funds to support a wide range of initiatives, grants, and programs. What was the catalyst for that, and what are your thoughts about how it’s grown and progressed over time?   
AL: From the beginning, we committed to raising serious money in support of this mission, and we set the bar high. That included doing something that a lot of people considered impossible: we decided to seek endowment dollars.   
An enduring mission needs enduring support. Our mission never stops, and neither can the funding. It’s not enough to just live year to year; we needed the underpinning of endowment dollars that will be there in perpetuity. A lot of people said it couldn’t be done. They said no one was going to give that amount of money and that it was a waste of time.   
ND: Suffice it to say, the Mission Endowment turned out not to be a waste of time after all. Right now, it stands at $33.5 million.   
AL: It wasn’t a waste of time at all. It didn’t happen overnight, either. But we started to raise money. We had a compelling pitch. We were funding young investigators, and those investigators are the lifeblood and the future of cancer research. Now, 25 years later, we’ve hit our stride and really made a difference in supporting not only ASCO programs but a large cadre of young investigators. We now have hundreds of academic research oncologists who got their start with one of our grants. That’s the story, and it’s a story we can be proud of.   
ND: Which brings us to the present day. We’ve started to endow a range of individual grants and awards, including multiple YIAs and endowed Merit Awards. Then there’s our campaign to ultimately endow 25 new YIAs this year to celebrate our 25th anniversary. What advice do you have for us as we begin this endeavor?   
AL: There are very few things in life that you can do that will last forever and have an enduring impact. But that’s exactly what an endowment is. When you have the right mission, and you make the right case, and you can demonstrate that people can make a lasting impact, donors will be interested in the work you’re doing.   
The ability to make an impact that lasts forever is a very powerful thing. Asking for endowments is a bold step, but you’ll hit your goal. You’ll get the 25 newly endowed YIAs you’re looking for. Then the next campaign will be for 50.  
ND: And then on to 100! 
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