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The Brain Trust

By Don McNamara - May 1, 2010

Assemble a lineup of heavy hitters who know each other well and care passionately about the cause. Work hard to cultivate major gifts. Turn what would usually be a fundraising bash into a simple thank-you event. What Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles got from all of that was $11 million to support its Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. Brain Tumor Center in the Department of Neurosurgery at the Maxine Dunitz Neurological Institute. The powerhouse group goes by the name of The Brain Trust, six African-American women who devoted themselves to raising funds and awareness of brain tumors and neurosurgery.

The women who comprise The Brain Trust are Dale Cochran, Pauletta Washington, Keisha Nash-Whitaker, Gloria Mitchell, Angelia Sanders and Carol Bennett. Cochran is the widow of Johnnie L. Cochran, the famed lawyer who defended O.J. Simpson and who died as the result of a brain tumor in 2005. Washington is an actress and activist and the wife of actor Denzel Washington. Nash-Whitaker is a model and philanthropist and wife of actor Forest Whitaker.

Mitchell is the owner of a medical center in Los Angeles and Sanders is vice president of the Recording Academy (The Grammys). Bennett is chief of urology at the Greater Los Angeles Veterans’ Hospital Healthcare System. She is also the wife of Dr. Keith Black, a nationally-known neurosurgeon who is the director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute, which he founded in 1997 with an endowment from Maxine Dunitz. Raising $11 million started with a small base of people who were acquainted with each other but who, more importantly, cared deeply about the cause.

“We have all known personally or knew of Dr. Black and the work he was doing, even at UCLA in the area of research,” Mitchell said. “We have all known or known of each other in social circles just as friends over the years. We became aware that Dr. Black had moved to Cedars and it was a cause we could get behind and feel passionate about. People have to feel passionate about their goal, about their case,” said Mitchell. The passion is important, and Mitchell said channeling the passion has brought attention to Dr. Black’s work. “Brain cancer has not gotten the research funds and priority we think it should,” said Mitchell. We think Dr. Black has put together a stellar research team. We’ve seen it happen and we’re excited about it.”

According to information released by Cedars-Sinai, Black performs hundreds of brain tumor operations each year, including removing tumors that had been diagnosed by others to be inoperable. In addition to his surgical schedule, he has conducted research and devised several innovative methods for treating brain illnesses. “The story of The Brain Trust revolves around the loyalty and connection to one of our pre-eminent members by a group of women who wanted to see him be successful,” said Arthur J. Ochoa, senior vice president of community relations and development for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.  “It starts with the recruiting of Keith Black, a successful and renowned neurosurgeon, one of the most prominent African-American neurosurgeons in the country,” he said.

Ochoa explained that many of the women had a “grateful patient experience” at the hospital, not neurosurgery, but something like childbirth. “And some know Keith and Carol socially and wanted to see him succeed and to help him succeed in building a world-class neurosurgery program,” he said. How did they manage to be so successful in their fundraising? “Initially it was small events, but they smartly realized that the way to raise serious money was through major gifts,” Ochoa said. “The way to get prospects and cultivate prospects and donors was through major gifts.”

They use events, “but essentially it was a case of turning the old gala model on its head,” Ochoa said, noting there was one huge gala that proved to be more than a fundraiser. “They said, “There’s a role for tuxedos and ball gowns, but we’re going to use it as a thank-you event’ (instead of a direct fundraiser). And that’s what we’re particularly impressed with.” Exceeding goal has become routine. When the group set out to establish the Cochran Center, for example, it set a goal of raising $5 million. It raised $6 million.

Although most of the experiences that brought the women together were happy, hospitals still deal with sickness and death, and that is what brought Dale Cochran into the fold. “I joined The Brain Trust after my husband passed,” she said. “He was a very good friend of Dr. Black, and also we knew he was the leading neurosurgeon in the country.” Cochran had heard of the Brain Trust prior to her husband’s illness and knew it was dedicated to working to cure brain tumors. She bolstered Ochoa’s observation that the big gala, held in 2007, paid big dividends. “We said we’d do our best to raise money before we even had the event,” Cochran said. “We just reached out primarily to people who were connected either to my husband or to Dr. Black or to Cedars, and we went about raising the funds so that when we had the event, we were not trying to raise all the dollars that night,” she said.

A key sponsor was Union Bank. “They donated $50,000 to help us kick it off. That was a big help so that we could put on a nice small event and put the word out that we would be reaching out (for donations) later on,” said Cochran. Ochoa said the event did much to raise awareness of the Brain Trust and the Cochran Center. Small it might have been, but it was not without glitter. “It was fabulous, a real kind of glam gala,” Cochran said. “Larry King was there, Sidney Poitier, just so many people. People we knew came in from across the country. My husband’s law partners committed a significant pledge. To me it was a tribute to Johnnie, also because so many people felt it (cancer) just got him too soon.” Cochran said another attraction for her was the Pauletta and Denzel Washington Family Gifted Scholars in Neurosciences Award, established by the couple to promote interest in the sciences among promising youth.

Recipients work during the summer with physicians and scientists. Graduate students receive $2,500 a month and undergraduates receive $2,000. The idea is to provide scientists, particularly African-Americans and other students of color, an opportunity to develop their talents and acquire first-hand experience in patient care and research. For Mitchell, as for Gloria Cochran, there is also a personal connection. “My sister, who lives in a small town in Illinois, was diagnosed with a brain tumor,” she said. “I was away on vacation at the time. The doctor in Illinois estimated it would take 18 hours for surgery. We got her to Dr. Black, and he performed the surgery in three hours. In her case, it was not brain cancer, but a debilitating brain tumor.”

According to Ochoa, “They really understand, as well as anyone who doesn’t have a medical background, the science of what’s being done. This helps them when they are out there (fundraising),” he said. Ochoa also emphasized the necessity of volunteers, even high-powered volunteers, working well with paid staff. “For a lot of reasons, including just their own willingness to do the right thing, they really have a good partnership. They have worked well, for example, with our senior principal gifts officer,” Ochoa said.

“This has been a great relationship all around,” he added. “There can be groups of well-meaning volunteers who, for one reason or another, find that their individual efforts run counter to the mission of the organization. This has been an exception to that. There has not been a single time when we’ve ever had an issue or even a glimmer of an issue. This is a great example of everybody’s interests being aligned. They are dedicated people who are passionate about what they’re doing.” Passion and commitment are essential, but it’s also a case of using your bean. “Maybe to be successful you have to set limits, you have to focus on your cause,” Mitchell said. “We are connected in our communities and connected to our cause. When you focus on the cause and see that this is going to effect the lives of people, you can set priorities and make it your primary goal.”

Mitchell said another part of the goal was raising unrestricted research funds. She compared the efforts to an individual who already has money having a better chance of getting a bank loan than someone who does not. “If you can go to a cancer organization with something proven, they’ll give you the money,” she said. “But if you’re a researcher who wakes up in the middle of the night with a great idea, you’re lost. We want to help those researchers who wake up in the middle night with that great idea. We want to fund people who are working so tirelessly.”

Mitchell said that getting acquaintances involved makes sharing the passion easier. And because many people have been affected in various ways by brain diseases, there is an added element of personal connection that can be a huge benefit to fundraising. “We’re able to see the results, able to see the strides that have been made, the life-saving principles,” she said. “We can personalize the fact that we’re raising these funds for people who have benefitted from our efforts — brain cancer, Parkinson’s, stroke, other brain diseases that affect our lives or the lives of our loved ones.”

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