8 Questions with Susan Braun, CEO of the V Foundation

With so many charitable endeavors being top-of-mind these past few weeks, I thought there was no better time to talk to Susan Braun, CEO of the V Foundation. Formed by ESPN and Jim Valvano in 1993, the V Foundation has raised over $120 million for more than 450 cancer research grants in 38 states and the District of Columbia. Jim’s dream of finding cures for cancer is one shared by millions. Although we have not yet achieved this goal, every day we get a little bit closer and the V Foundation will continue to honor his inspiring words, “Don’t Give Up . . . Don’t Ever Give Up!” 

Brandon Steiner: You’ve worked for several non-profits over your career. What got you into interested in working with these types of organizations?

Susan Braun: I began my career in for-profits.  When I was a young mother, my college roommate was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she died leaving two small children.  I was hurt, angry, sad, and really surprised -- I didn't realize that young women died from this disease.  I began to help raising funds for breast cancer causes and then was recruited to run The Komen Foundation in 1996.  I was there almost 10 years, and realized that I am meant to be doing this work.

The V Foundation Staff
Susan with the V Foundation Staff

BS: What has the experience of being the CEO of The V Foundation meant to you thus far?

SB: I LOVE The V Foundation.  The Board, staff, donors, and community have all been very welcoming and supportive.  And it is a perfect place to follow my mind and my heart -- to do whatever I can to put an end to cancer.

BS: What makes The V Foundation such a special organization?

SB: The V Foundation is a great steward of donor gifts.  We have a scientific advisory committee who selects our research grants, and the members are truly rock stars of cancer research. And our Board was very wise, many years back, to establish an endowment that funds our operating expenses.  That means 100 percent of direct donations made to the Foundation fund cancer research.  But of all of its strengths, I think the greatest is that we take this very personally -- we are all devoted to this fight at a very personal level.

BS: What’s your relationship like with the Valvano family?

SB: Pam Valvano Strasser, Jim's widow, has become a dear friend.  She is a lovely person on every level, and we see each other often.  She is strong and yet very gentle, a great combination.  Nick, Jim's older brother who was the CEO of the Foundation before me and is now President Emeritus, is a friend, a mentor, a guide, and he makes me laugh.  A lot!  People often worry about transitions in nonprofits, and particularly when there are founders and/or family members involved.  I think I'll write a book about how very well this transition has gone -- it's a model for others. And Jim's little brother Bob, although living further away, is a great help in his community and as a board member.  He's got great ideas, and he loves to put them into practice!

BS: As CEO, what future initiatives are you planning to implement?

SB: We're doing new things in overall Foundation governance, in fundraising and, critically, in how we do cancer research.  Governance is the kind of thing all good nonprofits do -- things like bylaws, committees, policies, and ethics.  In fundraising, we are increasingly working with corporate partners to create cause-related marketing programs that reach a broad segment of the population.  We have added a lot in the social media arena.  And our events are taking off.  Watch for us at the New York City Marathon!  In cancer research, our sole mission focus, we have completed a seven-year plan to target our funding into areas that we believe will support our understanding of cancer and how to eradicate it.  As an example, we've just announced a new program called convergence grants -- an exciting new concept -- and we have high expectations.

BS: Talk about the importance of the relationship between The V Foundation and ESPN.

SB: ESPN started The V Foundation with Jim and Pam Valvano.  They've been there from the start, and continue to be a huge supporter.  I often say, "How can you go wrong with ESPN as your best friend?"  They help us raise money, they contribute, their CEO and immediate past Executive Chairman, other executives and journalists serve on our Board, and they're actively engaged.  They support us throughout the organization, throughout the year, and at every turn.  It is an extraordinary partnership that benefits the Foundation and cancer research in very tangible ways.

BS: How much closer are we today to achieving Jimmy’s goal of eradicating cancer than we were when the foundation started?

SB: I'm a little bit of a science nerd, for a layperson, and I have to say I'm more excited about the science now that I ever have been.  Many people thought that mapping the human genome would provide us with all the answers to all diseases.  It can't and won't, but what it does do is give us a map for recognizing how to understand how cancers work differently in individual human beings, so how we treat even the same cancer differently in two people (individualized therapy).  And understanding how genes change over time is also providing a great basis for research that will lead to prevention.

BS: What can we all do during our daily lives to help limit our risk of getting cancer?

SB: Many of us know the key things to do -- don't smoke or quit if you do smoke.  Limit exposure to sun, radiation, and toxic chemicals.  Eat well and exercise.  Get a good night's sleep and learn to deal with stress.  If a person is diagnosed with cancer, I believe that the healthier they are and stay through the treatment can be a big factor in a good outcome.  Someone diagnosed with cancer didn't necessarily NOT do these things, but they can help.  I hope the next time I write about this, we'll have a much better understanding of how to prevent this huge array of diseases we call cancer.

To learn more about The V Foundation for Cancer Research, visit: www.jimmyv.org

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