News and analysis
July 23, 2014

$650-Million Mental-Health Gift Targets Neglected Area

Kelly Davidson Photography

A researcher at the Broad Institute's Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research. The organization received a pledge of $650-million from billionaire Ted Stanley to study the genetics of psychiatric disorders.

Ted Stanley’s $650-million gift to study the genetics of psychiatric disorders comes at a crucial time for those who care about the issue, with states reducing funds for mental-health programs and nonprofits in the field struggling to raise funds.

The billionaire businessman’s recent pledge to the Broad Institute, a biomedical research center, is one of the largest individual donations ever to medical research.

Mr. Stanley ranked 18th on The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s most recent list of the 50 most generous donors in the United States. He also made the list four previous times.

About one in four adults suffers from a mental disorder, and one in 17 people live with a serious mental illness like major depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, according to the National Institute on Mental Health. The World Health Organization estimates 450 million people worldwide suffer from such diseases.

Nevertheless, from 2009 to 2011, states cut more than $1.8-billion from their budgets for services helping children and adults who have mental illnesses, states the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Support for scientific research has dwindled, and what remains is difficult to obtain because of increased competition for scarce dollars.

The need for such services continues to grow, and advocates hope Mr. Stanley’s gift will spark a flurry of additional donations to mental-health causes.

The question at least until now has been, why does a problem that affects so many people fail to raise much money?

‘Just Scraping By’

Stigma is an oft-cited reason for why mental illness does not draw as much attention as other health conditions.

Benjamin Waxman, executive director of the Mental Health and Addiction Network, a group that helps mental-health charities raise money, says more fundraising expertise is needed.

"We have consistently seen that mental-health organizations invest less in the fundraising infrastructure than primary care does," Mr. Waxman says. "They tend to be smaller organizations than hospitals, so they don’t have an executive leadership team that’s looking at the whole operation."

He adds, "They’re just scraping by."

In a survey earlier this year, the Mental Health and Addiction Network found that fundraisers at mental-health organizations listed inadequate staffing as their top challenge.

Mr. Waxman says these groups feel pressure to keep administration costs low, placing the burden of fundraising on chief executives who cannot devote enough time.

The lack of fundraisers, Mr. Waxman says, means missed opportunities.

"When you have someone out there telling your story, you find people that are interested in giving."

Family Connection

The complexity of mental-health issues may be another impediment to fundraising, said Ken Duckworth, a psychiatrist and medical director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Foundations often prefer causes with more immediate prospects for success, Dr. Duckworth says. Progress in mental-health research, he says, can take decades.

"Because understanding the brain is such a hard task, some foundations would say they’d rather pick up something they could put in the ‘win’ column for its annual report," he says.

Furthermore, public awareness of the widespread impact of mental illness on society is lagging.

"People are slowly waking up to the fact that the leading causes of disability are psychiatric," Dr. Duckworth says. "That’s something people have been to slow to understand and slow to appreciate."

Winning grants to support mental-health research has become far more competitive. A decade ago, he says, "an A-minus project" would have secured funding, but that is not the case anymore, and promising research is abandoned.

Dr. Duckworth echoes Mr. Waxman in emphasizing the power of personal stories. Mr. Stanley’s gift was inspired in part by seeing his own son Jonathan struggle with bipolar disorder as a college student.

"It comes down to a family connection," Dr. Duckworth says. "Loving someone makes a difference."

Inspiring Other Gifts

The size of Mr. Stanley’s gift has the potential to spark additional much-needed giving to the field.

"Leadership gifts are amazing wherever they happen," Mr. Waxman says. "They inspire others, draw attention, and make other people have faith that something is there."

And that faith is crucial, Dr. Duckworth stresses, because effective treatments for mental disorders could be many years away.

Anthony Wood, executive director of the Ittleson Foundation, a grant maker in New York that supports mental-health groups, says the boldness of the gift could inspire other philanthropists uncertain of how to give away their money.

"If someone is willing to walk out on a limb and plunk down $650-million, that is going to be seen by others," he says. "People do follow leaders, and when they read of a commitment like this and understand what’s behind it, that should excite some other donors."

Regardless of whether additional donations follow, Mr. Stanley’s gift will soon transform the field by allowing the Broad Institute to build a high-caliber team of researchers, Dr. Duckworth says.

"Some of the best scientists are going to go into this field right now," he says. "They have the money now to attract the best thinkers."

Send an e-mail to Caroline Bermudez.