James Thomas, MD, professor of Medicine in the Division of Cardiology (third from left); Irene Pritzker (third from right); and Robert Bonow, MD, the Max and Lilly Goldberg Distinguished Professor of Cardiology and vice chair for development and innovation in the Department of Medicine (second from right), with other Northwestern scientists.

Why I Support Feinberg

A Q&A with Irene Pritzker, president and chief executive officer of the IDP Foundation, Inc.

written by LAURA PATON

Irene Pritzker first became involved with Feinberg in 2008 when she formed the IDP Foundation, Inc. “One of the things we realized quickly as a foundation was that we wanted to make sure that our grants were going to be leveraged for more funding through organizations like the National Cancer Institute. I was impressed with the work being done at Northwestern then, and I still am now,” she says.

Here, she shares more about her foundation and giving philosophy.

Please tell us a bit about the IDP Foundation and its mission.

IDP’s mission is to look at sustainable solutions for large global problems, including health and education. We accomplish this through program-related investments as well as rigorously ensuring that we always invest for impact. It’s important to note the initials of the foundation — IDP stands for innovation, development and progress. Those are more than just nice-sounding words — they really drive a lot of what the foundation is about.

Some of the hardest grants for institutions to get are those that fund postdocs, fellows and protected research time. I think that our support of these areas has helped other foundations to follow in our footsteps and put their confidence directly into scientists at Northwestern.

You initially supported research at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University but have broadened to other areas at Feinberg. Why have you chosen to strengthen and diversify your support across areas including cardiology, Parkinson’s disease, neuro-gastroenterology, ophthalmology and cancer, among others?

I had a healthy interest in Parkinson’s disease because of a strong family history of the disease. I started to talk to Department of Physiology Chair D. James Surmeier, PhD, who helped me to understand the complex science and causes behind this illness, and I got very excited about what Jim was working on.

Over the years, I became connected with doctors across Northwestern, particularly through various medical appointments. I would talk to them about their clinical, research work and funding needs, and ask, “What do you wish you could be doing?” One such area is the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, where for some time clinical research physicians have wanted to use virtual reality solutions to relieve pain and reduce symptoms. It’s being done in California but it’s a new and tricky science to use. The IDP Foundation agreed to help fund this work at Northwestern under the leadership of Darren Brenner, MD.

As a donor, what advancements do you want to see through the IDP Foundation’s charitable support?

I’m already seeing it — the increasing recruitment of cutting-edge scientists, clinicians, programs, clinical trials and beyond. I am seeing it rapidly escalating and, as a donor, that is exactly what I want to see.

Why do you give to causes that you care about?

I think that people give to causes they care about because there is passion there. In the case of a foundation like IDP, it is important to assemble a strong senior management team whose members become experts in those areas of passion. Then we try to give strategically. My philosophy is to give “smart,” to see our grants and investments as catalytic seed stage funding and to always strive for future scalability, replication and sustainability of any program we support. It is true that scientists are eternally dependent upon funding, but bigger funding often comes as a result of smaller funding. At Northwestern, we see what we are doing as creating stepping stones, but we always want to see where those stepping stones are leading. We have not been disappointed!

What would you say to encourage current supporters and new supporters of the medical school at Northwestern?

If they are genuinely interested in supporting an area, they should get involved and follow that interest. Meet with the scientists, meet with the development office, and let them know you’re interested. While there is a protocol to this sort of thing, it’s incredibly helpful to show interest to the doctors and commit all the way through.

I would also tell people that you don’t have to give millions for your gift to matter. Every gift matters, and I think donors should strive to really understand the institutions and causes they want to support.

What words would you use to describe Northwestern and the faculty members that you support through your philanthropy? How important is it for you to connect with the people behind a research program or new effort and learn about their progress?

The faculty members at Northwestern are passionate and dedicated people, and I count many of them as friends. Dean Eric G. Neilson, MD, is definitely responsible for the caliber of Northwestern’s faculty. As executive director of the Lurie Cancer Center, Leon Platanias, MD, PhD, has made many extraordinary contributions to the center and its new direction. When we compare Northwestern to others, these people are the cream of the crop, the top-notch scientists and doctors that are continually amazing us. It’s evident that they are committed and at the top of their class, and that is why they are the ones in whom we invest. At Northwestern, if someone writes that they are a hematological oncologist on their business card, you know that they are a well-trained specialist — the best of the best.

It is important for me to connect with the physician-scientists behind a research program. I love visiting their research labs and seeing them come alive when they talk about their work.

On a number of occasions, you have generously supported Northwestern by hosting events in your home. These events have helped us showcase our faculty and our progress in research, patient care and education. What do you hope to accomplish through these gatherings?

I host dinners in my home for patients and friends of the university to get together with physicians and scientists so that the findings and the latest research can be shared. That way we can perhaps encourage some of the patients, their friends or their families to support some of the amazing work that is taking place. Northwestern has been quickly gaining more national recognition, and the hope is that by spreading the word about the wonderful research happening, it will inspire others to give.