Kelly O’Brien, the newly named vice president of development for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has long been fascinated by the twin traits of perseverance and resilience.
In 2009, she took over as director of development for the Philadelphia Museum of Art – one of the country’s largest and most prestigious art collections – just after both the Great Recession and the unexpected death of the museum’s internationally respected chief executive. Despite these challenges, she completed a successful endowment campaign by shining a light on the museum’s stellar staff, extraordinary collections, and economic impact on the city. During fiscal year 2014, philanthropic support exceeded $75 million.
Now turning her focus to fundraising for cancer research, O’Brien, 48, sees Fred Hutch as “more of an opportunity than a challenge,” with a “magnetic” new president and director, Dr. Gary Gilliland, wrapping up his first year and a development team with “an enviable tradition of fundraising success.”
It is cancer itself that demands the utmost in perseverance and resilience.
“With great enthusiasm, I join the extraordinary team working on behalf of one of the most important causes of our day,” she said in an email that Gilliland shared with the Hutch faculty and staff in advance of her Feb. 1 start date. “The toll of cancer is immeasurable, but so too is the impact of gifts and grants made to support research toward cures and advances in treatment and prevention.”
O’Brien worked her way up to the top development job at the Philadelphia museum, starting as a major gifts officer in 2001 after four years as a development officer at the Seattle Art Museum. She steadily advanced, becoming director of major gifts and director of individual gifts, “jumping at the chance,” she said, to take on new responsibilities.
Timothy Rub, the Philadelphia Museum of Art director and chief executive officer, called O’Brien “an inspirational leader and a great fundraiser.”
“A key to her success at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was a deep passion for the mission of the institution and a keen understanding of the role that it played in the community,” Rub said. “She believed that the museum mattered and that everyone should invest in its future.”
After 14 years at the museum, having grown her team from 24 to 40 and with a $425 million comprehensive campaign well underway, O’Brien was facing a number of personal milestones: an approaching 50th birthday, a 25th reunion of her Emory University class, a 20-year wedding anniversary, a decade since the death of her beloved father. On a hike up Colorado’s Pikes Peak with her husband in September 2014, she decided the time was right to do something else. And she resolved to take the next year to decide what that would be.
“I knew I couldn’t interview and determine what was next while living and breathing the art museum,” she said. So after giving four months’ notice, she planned to spend the spring and summer “figuring out what’s next, but also just enjoying some things.” The longest time she’d taken off in 20 years was three weeks to trek with her husband to the Mount Everest base camp in Nepal. That trip would turn out to be a pretty good predictor of what “time off” meant for O’Brien.
True to form, her goal was to climb Mount Rainier in Washington. Unfortunately, poor snow conditions forced her to turn back. (Perseverance and resilience: She will try again.) First came a yoga meditation retreat and some winter ascents of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington.
Then, in late April 2015, a devastating earthquake struck Nepal, a country that had won a place in O’Brien’s heart the previous year. A second earthquake sent her scrambling to find a way to help. After contacting two nonprofits, she flew to Nepal, where she spent all of June dividing her time between clearing rubble for All Hands and volunteering in the offices of Restless Development.
“It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life,” she said.
She also gained a ground-floor view of how philanthropy is changing in these days of do-it-yourself fundraising and online giving, and how these changes have made donating to causes a much more personal transaction.
“People want to be so much more hands-on,” she said.
Her time in Nepal reinforced O’Brien’s commitment to fundraising and sharpened her focus on where she wanted to put her skills to work: for an “extraordinary world-class institution” with both local and global impact.
The connection to cancer was personal.
“My personal experience of loss also informed my desire to devote my professional talents to this area,” she said.
In 2003, her father, Joe O’Brien, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died eight months later. He was 57.
From the outset, doctors offered little hope, which O’Brien, a self-described daddy’s girl, found particularly difficult. Her mother, a nurse, concentrated on providing comfort and the best quality of life possible in those final months. O’Brien and her brother, Tim, spent as much time as they could at their parents’ Fort Lauderdale home.
“Eight months doesn’t sound like a lot,” O’Brien said, “but it was a gift. It really was.”
Today, she approaches her new job at Fred Hutch with a hope she wasn’t allowed 12 years ago.
“That’s one of the most motivating things about working for a cancer research organization – the pace at which cancer discoveries are evolving,” she said. “The emotion of what we will be raising money for, what those funds will go towards is very personal. The stakes are so very high.”
A year into his tenure as Hutch president, Gilliland has made no secret of the sense of urgency he feels to build on dramatic advances in immunotherapy and other innovative and curative treatments.
“Kelly joins us at a pivotal time,” he said. “This may be the most exciting time ever in the research of cancer cures: Our only constraint is resources. Kelly is the right leader at the right time as we work to enhance our philanthropic programs.”
O’Brien, in turn, said that Gilliland’s passion will be an asset in fundraising and friend-raising for the Hutch.
“He’s like a magnet,” she said. “You want to attach to him.”
The more she talked with people at Fred Hutch, the more impressed she was with the caliber of the work, whether the innovation in the laboratories or the dedication of the staff in the development department.
The biggest challenge, she said, is making sure that prospective donors in Seattle, the state of Washington and beyond understand not just the discoveries being made at the Hutch and the impact they will have on cancer care but also how funding works and why private giving matters.
Federal funding, which has declined in recent years, is essential to cancer research. But private funding, O’Brien pointed out, makes an enormous difference in funding gaps between grants and in supporting cutting-edge research.
“People respond to excellence and want to give to a place where their funds are joined with others and making a difference,” she said. “A city like Seattle, with its entrepreneurial roots and history of angel investing, is primed to understand how a donation can rapidly move the needle in things like precision medicine,” which focuses on targeted treatments for patients.
O’Brien understands that philanthropy “is a voluntary act.” But what makes her new job more opportunity than challenge is her belief in the people and the work at Fred Hutch.
“Everyone who lives in Seattle should consider Fred Hutch a treasure,” she said.
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Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.