'Part of the solution': Donors take action to advance COVID-19 research

Philanthropic support for research grows even as the coronavirus forces creative reimagining of traditional fundraising activities

It's spring, and for Tanner Swanson spring has always meant baseball. But this year is different. As the weather warms, and the flowers bloom, and the ballfield beckons, the New York Yankees quality control coach and catching director is more than 2,000 miles from the Bronx. He's at home in Washington state and hunkered down, like many of us are, against the pandemic. 

We've all felt it. There’s a sense of despair that can creep in when you’re stuck at home without access to beloved activities or friends, all while taking in wall-to-wall coverage of a scary new threat. Swanson felt it too.  

So he, and a growing number of others, are facing down this feeling through action.  

For some, taking action has meant participating in COVID-19 research studies. For others, it’s meant making personal protective equipment or donating laptops to students.  

For more than 1,200, it's meant donating a total of more than $5.5 million, so far, for COVID-19 research at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.  

“This was a way to feel like I could contribute in some capacity for something positive, whether contact tracing, or a vaccine, or whatever work the Hutch believes is most necessary,” said Swanson, whose own effort — a series of informational webinars hosted by baseball coaches like himself — has raised more than $25,000 for Hutch COVID-19 research.  

When the novel coronavirus appeared, Fred Hutch scientists jumped at the opportunity to tackle this new challenge and fulfill the world’s desperate need for knowledge of how to control it. Since the Hutch’s COVID-19 fundraising began in earnest in April, people and organizations from Seattle and beyond rose up in support to help make that science possible. More than half of them had never before given to the Hutch.

The generosity from people everywhere to the COVID-19 response, including the Hutch’s COVID-19 research, has been amazing, said Kelly O’Brien, Fred Hutch’s vice president of Philanthropy. 

"Truly, I have worked in fundraising for 30-plus years and there's been absolutely nothing like this," O'Brien said.

And that support is despite the fact that all of the Hutch’s typical spring donor events have been canceled or reimagined in a virtual space. 

Advance the leading edge of COVID-19 research.

“The thing that ties all of our Hutch donors together is truly the belief that research, and science, and discovery, are so, so important," O’Brien said.

COVID-19 changes, and inspires, fundraising

As spring 2020 neared, O’Brien’s team of fundraisers had a busy schedule planned. Brand-new Hutch President and Director Dr. Tom Lynch was to go on a series of visits with Hutch supporters, and then there were all the typical spring events like the annual Hutch Award Luncheon.  

“All of that shifted the first week of March,” O’Brien said. That was the week the Hutch announced a mandatory remote work policy for all staff who could do their jobs off campus and the immediate cancellation of travel and in-person events of more than five people.

That week, COVID-19 got very, very real. 

So the team adjusted, and adjusted some more, O’Brien said, shifting meetings into the virtual space and reimagining large events like the luncheon (which will have a new flavor as a virtual event on May 27).

photo of Kelly O'Brien wearing Obliteride jersey and riding a bicycle with similarly clad cyclists
Fred Hutch Vice President of Philanthropy Kelly O'Brien (front) participates in the 50-mile route of the 2017 Obliteride, an annual fundraising event for Fred Hutch research. This year, Obliteride will be a virtual event. Photo by Chad Coleman for Fred Hutch

A similar scramble has been going on within nonprofit organizations the world around, which have been forced to rethink their typical operations in the wake of COVID-19. In a recent study by an independent research firm for Fidelity Charitable, 96% of the 300 nonprofit employees surveyed said that their organization’s fundraising work would be affected by the pandemic, with more than half expecting the virus to have a serious impact on those activities.

As O’Brien’s team rethought everything, Fred Hutch scientists were springing into action. 

Although Fred Hutch has “cancer” in its name, the organization has decades of experience in infectious disease research. It has top scientists in HIV vaccine development, in flu evolution, in infection control.

When COVID-19 emerged, many of those scientists dropped everything to tackle this new challenge. Early insights by Hutch researchers, for example, helped shape the world’s understanding of the virus’s origins and spread and informed the development of models to predict its impacts.  

headshot of Dr. Trevor Bedford
Research by Dr. Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Fred Hutch, has informed the world's understanding of how the virus that causes COVID-19 emerged and spread. Donors have helped to fund his team's continued work. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Not only was COVID-19 racing around the world, claiming lives everywhere, there were few existing sources of support for the science that would help stop it. Nimble philanthropists could make a huge impact.

"The sooner we raised the money, the more quickly a number of researchers would be able to get studies up and running," O’Brien said. 

Gifts of all sizes started coming in from donors who had known the Hutch for years, and from those who had just heard about it that day from people in their networks or from one of the many news stories about the Hutch’s COVID-19 research.

“Everyone was experiencing this at the same time,” O’Brien said. “In cancer, we say someone's life changes the minute they hear the words ‘you have cancer.’ Well, everyone is hearing ‘people have COVID’ simultaneously. And so that sense of urgency and impact I think donors really, really understood." 

Support COVID-19 and cancer research

Join our community for Obliteride 2020 and take action to raise money for research on COVID-19 and cancer at Fred Hutch. Have fun, get inspired and stay safe with a totally reimagined event.


Learn more at obliteride.org.

The Hutch’s donors aren’t alone. The Fidelity Charitable report found that more than three-quarters of nearly 2,000 U.S. donors surveyed would maintain or increase their giving in light of COVID-19 (with younger donors most likely to be planning an increase). A sizeable subset of these planned to shift their giving to organizations responding directly to the crisis. The Seattle community, too, has seen an outpouring of generosity for a variety of local causes inspired by COVID-19. For example, the #AllInSeattle campaign raised over $30 million from gifts of all sizes to support different facets of the local response.

Donors to the Hutch’s COVID-19 research have spanned from grassroots gifts — such as those brought in through Swanson’s initiative — through major, leading gifts from longtime Hutch supporters. Notable among these are a $2.6 million gift from the Bezos family to fund a Fred Hutch study to inform the Hutch's back-to-campus efforts as well as back-to-work initiatives at other organizations. Other key gifts are $500,000 from the Bank of America to COVID-19 relief efforts at the Hutch and its partner Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, and a $500,000 match from Beth McCaw and Yahn Bernier for #GivingTuesdayNow/GiveBIG on May 5-6, which helped inspire others to give more than $800,000 to Hutch COVID-19 research. Ninety percent of donors to the Hutch's COVID-19 research gave gifts between $1 and $500.

No matter the size of their gift, donors have given because they wanted "to really feel that while they’re not the one that's solving the problem, they're helping the person who's solving the problem," O’Brien said.

photo of a woman in surgical mask and lab coat using a pipette under a fume hood
Hayley Glantz, who works in the Fred Hutch lab of Dr. Julie McElrath, processes COVID-19 study samples earlier this month. The lab's COVID-19 research has received donor funding. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

That was the case for longtime Seattle-area philanthropists Dean and Gwenn Polik. Dean Polik said the couple saw COVID-19 as the world’s biggest problem to solve at this moment, so they targeted their giving accordingly. The Poliks gave $100,000 through their family foundation to fund COVID-19 research at Fred Hutch, to which they’ve given regularly for years, though never with one gift at this level.

“This would be the time, in my mind, for the world to come together and say, we’ve got to do something,” Dean Polik said. The couple’s hope is that their gift helps not only with the response to COVID-19 but also help us prepare for the next viral pandemics. 

“Maybe this is the wake-up call for the U.S., or the world. There’s a lot of COVID-19s out there, and if we don’t find remedies in advance, this is going to happen again and again and again,” Polik said. 

“There are brilliant researchers at the Hutch. They could definitely be part of the solution." 

Leading the way

Thanks to the Poliks and the other donors, COVID-19 science across the Hutch started accelerating. 

Those projects span a wide range. Some are mining the immune system’s response to the coronavirus to find clues pointing the way to potential future treatments or preventive strategies. The Return to Campus Study — the Bezos-funded study designed to inform back-to-work efforts — is carrying out extensive testing of Fred Hutch scientists as they start coming back to work in labs. There's a half-dozen pilot studies testing out-of-the-box ideas.

One such pilot: Hutch scientist and microbiome expert Dr. Neelendu "Neel" Dey received a donor-funded grant for a "fail fast" study of whether it might be possible to target the microbiome to help patients recover more quickly or reduce the virus's chance of spreading through fecal transmission. If the pilot suggests this approach could bear fruit, Dey said he'll be able to seek funding to take his research to the next stage of development.

"Donors were critical in facilitating this type of funding, due to enabling a very quick turnaround time and funding research without strong preliminary data, at least in our case," he said. “We aren’t a virology lab, and the fight against SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19] isn’t our fight, but we have some tools and resources in place to quickly answer a possibly helpful question."

pull quote photo

'Donors were critical in facilitating this type of funding. ... We aren’t a virology lab, and the fight against SARS-CoV-2 isn’t our fight, but we have some tools and resources in place to quickly answer a possibly helpful question.'

— Dr. Neelendu “Neel” Dey

And there’s a lot more science to come.

The Hutch’s goal for this phase of fundraising is to raise $10 million for COVID-19 research by summer.  

After that? 

“We set our first goal at what's needed to start and get this going,” O’Brien said. “Because then the science will lead the way.” 

The community will be there, alongside.

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