Fox, others on non-profit challenges



The first annual Benjamin Franklin Leadership Symposium, hosted by the School of Social Policy and Practice Oct. 19, gave the school formerly known as the School of Social Work a golden opportunity to practice saying its new name. It also offered a public venue to spread the word about its new master’s degree program in non-profit/NGO leadership to an impressively large crowd, drawn in part by the promise of seeing actor Michael J. Fox, the symposium’s keynote speaker.

The irrepressible Donnie Deutsch—advertising man extraordinaire and a Wharton grad—lent a talk-show informality to the morning session on challenges facing non-profits as he moderated a lively discussion featuring, among others, Sister Mary Scullion of Project H.O.M.E., the People’s Emergency Center’s Gloria Guard and Deborah Brooks, president of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Disease.

Richard J. Gelles, dean of the School and the Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence, took over in the afternoon, moderating a session on educating the leaders of tomorrow which brought together SP (as the school calls itself) and Fels faculty, as well as students enrolled in the new M.S. program and representatives from the for-profit world of Omaha Steaks and Sheraton Hotels.

On the question of whether there’s a tangible difference running a non-profit as opposed to a for-profit, the panel was divided. SP associate professor Kenwyn Smith insisted that, “There’s work that needs to be done in society that’s different from making a profit,” but conceded that the two worlds “have to live in harmony … the business model is necessary but not sufficient.” Alan Simon, CEO of Omaha Steaks, agreed with fellow businessman William Meyer, chairman of Meyer Jabara Hotels, that essentially there is no difference—both must successfully deliver a product or a service—with the important exception that, “if a non-profit does too good a job it puts itself out of business.”

Michael J. Fox reprised that theme for his keynote address. “We started with one idea,” said Fox of the foundation he started with the goal of finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease in 10 years. “Get the job done and get out of business.”

For Fox, the impetus to form a non-profit was personal—the 44-year old actor was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991—though he said he shared his urgency with six million Parkinson’s patients and, from the very beginning, was driven by both the desperation of the patient community and the excitement of scientists.

Physically shaky, Fox remained fully in control of his comic timing, charming the audience as he made a theatrical performance out of his struggle to turn the pages of his speech. “We’re not at our ultimate goal yet,” he said, “or I’d be turning the pages a lot faster.” To an audience member who questioned his use of his celebrity status to raise money, Fox responded that he had wrestled hard with that issue, initially arguing for keeping his name out of the foundation’s name: “I wanted to call it PD Cure—but my wife said it sounded like ‘pedicure.’” In the end, he said, “I just said, ‘Screw it, it’s coin and we’ll spend it.’”

Fox, who has been vocal in his support of stem cell research, expressed frustration at the lack of progress on that front. “I shake my head at the lack of respect for science right now,” he said. Still, he remains committed to his cause, convinced that those with a passion for what they do will eventually prevail despite the odds. If you apply energy, he concluded, things move forward. “They have to. You can’t apply energy and have something move backward.”

Originally published on November 3, 2005