Robust, hands-on philanthropy, what are the outcomes for the donor and the science?

Professors Geoff Lindeman (left) and Jane Visvader head the institute’s breast cancer research laboratory.

The Joan Marshall Breast Cancer Fund is established to provide funding for research projects that focus on targeted treatment outcomes, tailored to the patient’s genetic profile.

A donation with a caveat

It’s the conversation starter any chief of any research institution dreams of hearing. “I want to donate a large amount of money.”

But there’s a caveat, served up with the directness that no doubt underwrote John Marshall’s high-flying corporate life. “I want to participate in a research program. I’m not just going to give the money to you and leave you to it.”

Backing the right horse

This was the unconventional proposition the former venture capital chairman and corporate chief took to the institute in 2012. When he floated the concept with some other prospective partner organisations they’d hesitated – “they were very happy to take the money off my hands, but wouldn’t let me make any contribution beyond that”. But the Walter and Eliza Hall institute director Doug Hilton was receptive to having the conversation.

Mr Marshall wasn’t seeking to play scientist. But he did want to know precisely how his donation would be used, and believed his business experience could be enlisted to make a meaningful contribution to the project. “If you’ve got my background, you are going to say ‘I want targets. And I want to be in a position to review those targets’.” If the project was not proceeding as the scientists hoped, then he wanted to know that, and to retain the capacity to move his money to back another horse within the institute stable.

It might sound like hard-headed business mantra, but at the heart of it is a narrative of loss, grief, remembrance and hope. The result is the Joan Marshall Breast Cancer Fund, providing funding over five years to a project that ultimately hopes to develop targeted treatment regimes tailored to the genetic profile of each patient. It includes supporting early-phase clinical trials of anti-breast cancer drugs.

Capacity to influence efforts to beat cancer

Joan was John Marshall’s wife and the mother of their two daughters. The family was enjoying a four-year sojourn in Brussels, where Mr Marshall had a senior corporate contract, when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. They had another seven years before she died, back in Melbourne, in 1999.

It was not the family’s first cancer tragedy. John and Joan lost their first born, a son, Andrew, to an extremely rare cancer when he was six years old. “Until that time we knew nothing about cancer.” In the years since they learned altogether too much about it. Joan’s mother died of lymphoma, her father of bowel cancer, while her brother lives with myeloma.

In recent years, as he pulled back from full-time work, Mr Marshall found himself doing some deep thinking “about how I felt about it all, and what I wanted to do about it … having gone through the experience of dealing with cancer, having seen it close up”. He realised his wealth had the capacity to influence and hasten efforts to beat cancer, so with the support of his daughters he began to investigate the potential for practicing a kind of robust, hands-on philanthropy. He hopes it’s a model that might inspire and motivate others, like him, with the financial resources and personal or professional acumen to make a substantial difference.

Making a contribution, whatever the outcome

His motivation, Mr Marshall explains, is partly about honoring his wife. And it is partly about wanting to be actively engaged in the search for answers for the next generation, maybe even in his own family. “I’m not expecting this particular piece of research to benefit us. And Jane (the institute’s Professor Visvader, joint head of the project) will often say to me ‘you do understand this might not actually go anywhere’.

“I’d like to think I am sufficiently sophisticated to realise that there is no guarantee in any research project. But at least I can die knowing I’ve made as good a contribution as I could have made.”

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