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James Wright, the chief of surgery at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, in an operating room that was built with funds he raised personally. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
James Wright, the chief of surgery at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, in an operating room that was built with funds he raised personally. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Science for sale: A new kind of donor is transforming medical research Add to ...

This is part of The Globe and Mail's in-depth look at the evolution of philanthropy. Read more from the series here.

The operating rooms at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children run like an airport. Patients roll in as patients roll out – up to 60 elective surgeries a day, 11,000 a year. They flow through 18 rooms where surgeons remove tumours, save limbs, vision and babies the size of their palms.

In 2005, the hospital's chief of surgery, James Wright, had to close four of them. He was tortured. “What if a school bus crashed off the Gardiner? What then? What would happen to the emergency cases?”

Closing the four rooms cut the hospital's capacity to operate by 25 per cent. But Dr. Wright felt that he had no choice. They were ancient ruins by modern medical standards, built in the 1950s for cart-and-trolley tools, not lasers and robotics. Even the air within them was a hazard, their antique ventilation increasing airborne exposure to infection and dangerous gases.

Dr. Wright had to find the money to renovate. But hospital budgets do not cover infrastructure, so he called the SickKids Foundation, the muscular fundraising arm of the institution.

Freddy DeGasperis Jr. happened to be a board member. One of the city's top builders, the DeGasperis family, and the family of real-estate developer Alex Muzzo put up $2.5-million off the bat. But it was construction – their business – and the business of many of their friends, and they could, they said, do more.

So began a two-year campaign over private dinners in homes around the city. Someone would call Dr. Wright with an address and tell him to show up. There would be engineers, architects, carpenters, drywallers, and Mr. Muzzo prepped him for the pitch like a prize fighter: “You've got to show passion, Jim. Passion!”

When the dinners were done, donors from the construction industry and beyond had given the hospital an additional $6-million. Dr. Wright's story typifies the new age of giving: donors championing a project of personal interest to plug the funding gaps of the 21st century.

“We couldn't be what we want to be, which is world-class, without community support,” Dr. Wright says.

Yet public institutions now rely on largesse not just to be leaders in their fields, but to keep the lights on. Drug companies are cutting support as their profits falter. Government grants are ever harder to get and many require researchers to find private backers. And as the need for philanthropy grows, so do uneasy questions about the power of wealthy donors to drive research agendas, by pushing pet projects or elevating others that have not earned funds on merit.

The fierce competition for philanthropic dollars has spurred doctors and scientists to become more savvy in wooing the wealthy, creating a system in which the best salesmen can win big and some causes lose out. Universities and hospitals have taken to schooling their staff in the art of selling – and figures suggest that it is paying off.

The Association of Health Care Philanthropy Canada reports that donations to hospitals and health-care facilities have swelled over the past 10 years, hitting $1.2-billion in 2010, a 7-per-cent jump from 2009 and the largest gain since the recession.

Donations and endowments to universities have grown 12 per cent over the past decade, to $1.2-billion in 2009, according to the Canadian Association of University Business Officers. About a quarter of these funds are directed to research.

The contributions still account for a small proportion of total revenues. But the benefits of philanthropy are striking – shiny new buildings, clinics, cutting-edge equipment, reductions in certain wait times and research projects that may well lead to future cures.

“[Fundraising]is becoming a huge part of what I do, huge,” says Samuel Weiss, a neuroscientist and director of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary. “A day does not go by where it's not part of my agenda, and some days, it's my whole agenda.”

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