John Seffrin, president and chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society (ACS), doesn’t golf. “I have no intention of taking up fishing,” he said. Seffrin’s idea of a good time during his impending retirement is fighting non-communicable diseases around the globe.
“I taught at a university and might do some of that. There’s consulting but I’ll most likely work with the United Nations on non-communicable diseases,” said Seffrin. He and his wife Carole will be staying in Atlanta, though.
Seffrin, 69, announced he’s retiring after 40 years with the organization, 20 of them as the boss. A committee is being assembled to launch a national search for his successor. Tara Peters, ACS’s vice president of media relations, said there is no timetable for the retirement. Seffrin will stay through the search and a transition period, she said, before retiring from the Atlanta, Ga.-based organization.
The ACS chief executive has always come from the volunteer ranks. Seffrin was a volunteer in various capacities for 20 years. This search might widen because ACS has been undergoing a transformation and the board was reduced from 43 members to 21. It has five officers and 16 directors. There had always been a layperson as chairman with the board president being from the medical field. While there is a vice chair of the board, the board president position was eliminated during the reduction. There is now a board scientific officer.
Seffrin cited the World Health Organization’s 2011 Political Declaration on Noncommunicable Disease (NCDs) as something with which he’ll be involved. There are nine global targets for 2025, including reducing premature mortality from NCDs by 25 percent. Worldwide, 80 percent of cancers are NCDs, Seffrin said. Another of the WHO’s goals is a 30-percent reduction in tobacco use.
Turning something on its ear is nothing new for Seffrin. He initiated a transformation of the 100-year-old charity in 2010 that led to a restructuring that merged 11 divisions into one central organization while the 143-member National Assembly voted itself out of existence. The transformation centralized virtually all back-office services, eliminated some individual fundraising, and cut its 6,000 employees by roughly 5 percent through buyouts.
Total revenue for ACS last year was $916 million, No. 20 on The NonProfit Times’ NPT 100, a study of the nation’s largest nonprofits. Seffrin earned total compensation of $762,994, including $79,364 as part of a supplemental executive retirement plan (SERP), for the fiscal year ending August 2012. He also earned $69,361 as CEO of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), the affiliate advocacy organization.
Seffrin’s first encounter with cancer dates to his childhood. His grandmother, who was living with his family at the time, died of cancer when he was 10 years. He has lost his mother to cancer and Carole, his wife of 45 years, is a breast cancer survivor.
Seffrin has been on the front lines of the war against cancer for many years, not only as CEO of the American Cancer Society, but also – for many years before that – as one of the Society’s roughly three million volunteers nationwide. Under his leadership, the ACS has become the world’s largest voluntary health organization fighting cancer.
In the political realm, Seffrin has transformed ACS into one of the world’s most progressive public health organizations and a leading advocacy organization. He spearheaded the creation of ACS CAN, the society’s nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy affiliate. He serves on the White House Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health, as well as the Advisory Committee to the Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a Secretary-level appointment.
Seffrin is a past president of the Geneva-headquartered Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), the first globally-oriented cancer non-governmental organization (NGO), and has served as chairman of the board of Independent Sector, the largest coalition of nonprofit groups. He helped to create the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids (now the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids), among his collaborations and affiliations. He is also a member of the Leadership 18 of United Way Worldwide.
In 1999, Seffrin was selected to be a charter member of C-Change (formerly known as the National Dialogue on Cancer) Steering Committee, which was co-chaired by former President George H.W. Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush. In 1997, he was appointed to the National Cancer Policy Board of the Institute of Medicine, and in 1999, was appointed by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to co-chair the National Cancer Legislation Advisory Committee.
Seffrin is a contributing author to more than one dozen books and has written more than 100 articles and other publications. He was awarded the 2010 James F. and Sarah T. Fries Foundation’s Elizabeth Fries Health Education Award.
Seffrin holds a B.S. degree from Ball State University, a M.S. degree in health education from the University of Illinois, and a Ph.D. in health education from Purdue University. Ball State University, Purdue University, Thomas Jefferson University, and Indiana University have also bestowed honorary doctorates upon him in recognition of his more than three decades of leadership in the worldwide fight against cancer.
Prior to being appointed the ACS’s top staff executive, Seffrin served at Indiana University as professor of health education and chairman of the Department of Applied Health Science.
The ACS goal is to have 1,000 fewer people dying daily unnecessarily from cancer because treatment and preventative measures are in place. Teaching people not to start smoking is key to saving those lives, he said. Seffrin also pointed to vaccines for Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Hepatitis C as big wins in the communicable disease area. Still, there needs to be more education on the NCDs, he said.
What kept him awake at night, he said, was the number of people suffering needlessly from preventable or treatable cancers. “With all the progress we’ve made — we know there are 1.2 million people who have a birthday this year who wouldn’t have had one — there are still people needlessly dying,” said Seffrin.
“I never lost sleep worrying the American public wouldn’t support us. We are in 5,300 communities, virtually every community. People know the brand. They don’t know enough about what we do,” said Seffrin. That’s something to add to the retirement to-do list. NPT
NPT Senior Editor Mark Hrywna contributed to this story.