Non-Profit Leadership: Aiming High

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“Usually when I’m invited to speak somewhere, my first thought—aside from ‘Are they nuts?’—is ‘What do we have in common and what do I have to say?’” Michael J. Fox was saying. “I know this is the first group [I’ve spoken to] that spent the day talking about nonprofit leadership.”

Fox was the keynote speaker at the School of Social Policy & Practice’s (SP2) first annual Benjamin Franklin Leadership Symposium, whose focus was the leadership of nonprofit organizations. Given that the former star of Spin CityFamily Ties, and the Back to the Future films is the founder of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (, his appearance at the Annenberg Center in October was hardly a stretch.

Though his famous face, framed by dark-rimmed glasses, was still boyishly handsome, and the puckish humor still slipped out on occasion, the shaking limbs caused by his Parkinson’s disease were a sobering reminder of the seriousness of his subject matter.

“When we started the foundation, we had one idea,” Fox told his audience. “Get the job done, get out of business. We didn’t want to build a legacy or an endowment. Instead, we wanted to raise money and put it in the hands of scientists as quickly as possible.

“Our goal was nothing short of planned obsolescence,” he added. “And the time frame was ambitious: Find a cure within a decade.”

Noting that his foundation has helped fund more than $55 million worth of research projects around the world, Fox said, “We want to set a new standard for accountability. We asked scientists to focus on outcomes, not just experiments.”

He urged any nonprofit leaders in the audience to “aim high: focus your energy, and color everything you do with a sense of urgency,” adding: “You may not reach the moon but you could end up on the roof.”

But his most urgent bit of advice was: “Surround yourself with smart, dedicated people—or be smart enough to know the people that are smarter than you, and keep them close. I must say I continue to be amazed at the intelligence, commitment, and dedication of our advisory board and staff, many of whom devote considerable time and resources even though they had no connection with Parkinson’s disease.”

A “lot of” those board members, he noted, are Penn alumni, which didn’t hurt the school’s efforts to bring him in for the symposium. One is Donny Deutsch W’79, chairman and CEO of the Deutsch Inc. advertising agency and host of CNBC’s The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch, who moderated the morning panel discussion on “The Nonprofit Sector: The Challenges of Leadership in Uncertain Times.” Other Fox board members include Curtis Schenker C’80, managing partner at Scoggin Capital Management in New York (who according to Fox “helped formulate the idea of applying a business model to funding Parkinson’s research”); Douglas Ostrover C’84, founding member of GSO Capital Partners; and Fred G. Weiss W’63, managing director of FGW Associates.

It’s no accident that Deutsch and several other high-powered Wharton alumni serve on SP2’s board of overseers. The school recently joined forces with Wharton and the School of Arts and Sciences to launch a master’s degree program in nonprofit/nongovernmental leadership, and under Dean Richard Gelles it has made a strong push to tap the resources of the private sector and broaden the school’s academic mission [“Gazetteer,” September/October 2005].

The fact that the school chose a famous actor to be the keynote speaker at the inaugural Franklin Symposium was simply a way to bring some visibility to the relatively unheralded subject matter.

“We had thought about having a ceremony to unveil the [school’s] new name,” Gelles told the Gazette last summer, “but we decided instead to have a symposium to honor the substance of what we’re doing.” Given that there are some 9 million people employed by the nonprofit sector in the United States, and that nonprofit and nongovernmental foundations tackle a vast array of issues vital to society, there’s no lack of substance.


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