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Journey of a Philanthropist, Part II

Sue Merrilees is a senior advisor at the Science Philanthropy Alliance. This is the second of a two-part blog.

When we left Ross Brown at the end of Part I, he had found a funding partner with the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Fellowship Program and was “embedded” with its operation to learn about its workings first-hand. To gather more information, he visited some west coast universities so he could float the “restless minds” program concept, suggested by Science Philanthropy Alliance president Marc Kastner, along with some other ideas. Although “institution agnostic,” Ross felt strongly that research universities were the only places that could execute his vision, so I helped arrange meetings for him in the fall of 2018. And while he didn’t say as much, I’m sure he also wanted to test those institutions for compatibility as future partners, to see if the alignment felt right. He met with faculty leaders at Stanford, UC-Berkeley and UC-San Diego and made a few gifts along the way, including endowing a chemistry fellowship at UC-Berkeley in his father’s name.

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In November, the Alliance had a members’ meeting in Palo Alto and we invited Ross to attend, as he had expressed interest in joining the Alliance. During breaks and at lunch, Ross asked some members and consultant Bob Birgeneau, former Chancellor of UC-Berkeley, their impressions of Marc’s program idea. Without preparation or prompting from Marc, all agreed that mid-career researchers were the group most in need of financial assistance. Once convinced of Bob’s (and of the others’) neutrality, Ross was also impressed enough by the former’s depth of experience to ask for a consultation after both had returned home. Ross had also appreciated conversing with Alliance board member Adam Falk and now had some more specific questions given what he’d learned from his fall university visits. He was aware that Adam, now president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, had recently been on the other side of the desk as president of Williams College, and Ross wanted to inquire about negotiating effectively with universities on issues such as indirect costs and equipment needs.

While Ross was in town, Marc suggested he return to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to meet with its president (and Alliance board member) Harvey Fineberg and Robert Kirshner, head of the science program. Ross also stopped by to update Ken Moore on his progress. I remarked that Ken must have been impressed with how far he’d come in such a short time, and Ross told me that was exactly Ken’s observation. I assured him the praise was well-deserved.

In the spring of 2019, Ross decided to go on an east coast university swing as well, so we helped arrange meetings as he directed, including ones to Penn, Cornell, Columbia, and MIT, and prepared each institution so that the visit was as productive as possible. Ross de-briefed with Marc and me afterwards, noting “I’m getting better at knowing what questions to ask.” In each visit, he continued to inquire, “What would you do in my shoes?” We were not surprised to hear that a few of the universities responded by saying, “Why not give it to us?” Marc commented wryly, “The development office is just doing their job.”

A Member of the Club

In April, Ross stopped by our offices after a meeting at the Packard Foundation and told Marc that he felt it was finally time “to become a member of the club” and asked for an official associate membership invitation. That June, the Ross M. Brown Family Foundation became an associate member of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. Ever the gentleman, Ross had expressed his gratitude for our assistance at every encounter, and again he told me how enormously grateful he was to the Alliance, and how much we’d accelerated his decision-making.

Over the months of working together, Ross and I had realized we were both opera buffs and that by coincidence, would be attending the same performance in Santa Fe that July. It gave me the opportunity to meet his wife Sherron who had gone on some of his university information gathering trips. Although Sherron was happy to leave the details of the foundation’s working to Ross, since she was a trustee, I wanted to encourage her to feel comfortable enough to engage with its work. Countless times I’ve witnessed philanthropy bring enormous joy and meaning to a donor’s life, so I hoped she would experience its satisfactions along with her husband.

The Big Reveal

The Packard Foundation’s advisory panel meets annually during the first week in September to make their final fellow selection. Marc and I were eager to meet with Ross shortly after the selection as Ross had told us that he had set that month as the deadline for the big decision about his own philanthropy. When he and Sherron arrived, Ross asked to speak to Marc alone for a few minutes, so I greeted her and chatted in our lobby and established she was more comfortable with her book than in the meeting. Once I got into Marc’s office, I could tell from his smile what the news was and Ross confirmed it by announcing, “I’ve decided to fund Marc’s plan—the restless minds.” He went on to tell us what a useful experience it had been at the Packard Foundation to witness the inner workings of the fellows’ selection process up close, especially the final deliberations. He admired the lean staffing of the Packard Fellows program, noting that it could operate with a small program staff in partnership with the legal, financial, and communications staff of the foundation. He planned to emulate the structure; program advisor Lynn Orr and program manager Xiao-Wei Wang were more than happy to share their knowledge as Ross launched his own program. Ross shared a number of decisions he’d made about how he wanted his program administered. He planned to launch in 2020 and build slowly by initially supporting at least two fellows in the first year of its existence, increasing to eight at full operation, which would be selected annually. A science advisory board of six would be chaired by Marc. The program would have a limited lifespan; by the end of its existence, Ross will have contributed nearly half a billion dollars to basic research.

The Importance of Basic Science

To celebrate the decision, we had lunch at the little bistro across the street with Ross and Sherron and he expanded further about his belief in the importance of basic science and on the logic underlying some of his decisions. Like David Packard, he felt his own business had benefited from science discoveries made many years earlier and, again like David, he wanted to create the conditions for future breakthroughs. Ross reiterated how strongly he felt about supporting curiosity-driven science, albeit science that might have practical applications at some point. While Ross understood and valued the longer-term payoff behind many basic science discoveries, he chose to invest his money so that it made an impact in generations, not centuries. This latter belief also drove his preference for certain fields, such as chemistry and physics, and not others, such as astronomy. With his goal of encouraging and supporting a distinctive kind of thinking within those fields, “finding the mavericks,” would be his next big challenge.

One journey might have ended for Ross Brown, but another was just beginning.