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5 Questions for...John Kordsmeier, President, Northwestern Mutual Foundation

October 21, 2014

In August, the Northwestern Mutual Foundation marked the two-year anniversary of its Childhood Cancer Program, an initiative to raise awareness of pediatric cancer and generate additional funding for research on treatments and a cure, by announcing a $900,000 grant to the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. Earlier this month, PND spoke with John Kordsmeier, the foundation’s president, about the program.

Headshot_john_kordsmeierPhilanthropy News Digest: When did the foundation decide to focus on childhood cancer? Describe the process that led to that decision.

John Kordsmeier: Over the years, we've supported a number of causes in our hometown of Milwaukee and have provided assistance for families and individuals in the surrounding communities. In 2012, we refined our strategy and created a vision that identifies tangible social outcomes where we can make the greatest impact through our funding and the volunteerism of our employees. To help us realize that vision, we reviewed more than fifty social issues and narrowed the list to issues that are closely aligned with the company's support of children and families. We then further narrowed the list based on feedback from employees and company leadership.

As a result of that process, today childhood cancer is our signature cause. Cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children under the age of 15 in the United States, yet research on pediatric cancer remains underfunded compared to other cancers. We're focused on accelerating the search for a cure for childhood cancers and helping children and their families receive the assistance they need to fight this terrible disease.

PND: The foundation commissioned a national survey of childhood cancer researchers in the fall of 2013. What did you learn from the survey?

JK: We commissioned the survey so as to better understand the state of childhood cancer research. Among other things, the survey found that one in five respondents – 21 percent -- would consider leaving the field of childhood cancer research and that their number one reason for leaving was lack of funding. More than a third of respondents – 34 percent – know a colleague who is considering leaving the field in the next two years, and of those who know a researcher who is considering leaving the field, the top reason, again, is lack of funding. Seven in ten respondents know of a researcher whose project is in danger of not getting additional funding, while nearly four out of five are concerned that future advances in finding better treatments and cures for childhood cancer will suffer due to lack of new researchers going into the field. Overall, nine in ten respondents are concerned that researchers are not pursuing research in childhood cancer due to a lack of funding.

Childhood cancer research is a field filled with hope, passion, and promise. There are research projects under way that have the potential to help children. That is why Northwestern Mutual is committed to increasing research funding to find life-saving cures for this disease.

PND: Who are your nonprofit partners in the effort, and how did you end up partnering with them?

JK: We looked at a variety of organizations when we initiated our Childhood Cancer Program, and after much consideration we chose to partner with the Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, which raises funds for childhood cancer research, and the Starlight Children's Foundation, which helps children who are sick deal with cancer through distraction therapy. Both these organizations are best in class and extremely committed to the cause.

A second factor in our decision-making process was ensuring that our partners would be able to help us have an impact in communities where our employees and financial representatives and their staff live and work.

PND: What else are you doing to accelerate the search for a cure to childhood cancer?

JK: In the first two-plus years of the program, our commitment has exceeded $6 million. We've funded more than forty-one thousand hours of childhood cancer research and have touched the lives of more than three thousand families. We've been able to create that kind of impact, in part, by leveraging Northwestern Mutual's network of financial representatives and its employees. We also funded the creation of the Northwestern Mutual Day Hospital at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, providing an attractive and comforting space for children and their families who are receiving outpatient treatment for cancer and blood disorders. And, through the Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation and Children's Hospital, we are sponsoring a variety of research grants and symposiums for promising young researchers.

PND: Is Northwestern Mutual in this fight for the long haul?

JK: Absolutely. Funding childhood cancer research is a long-term proposition. Every dollar we invest has the potential to change a child's life for the better – both today and in the future. We know the journey is long, but we're committed to delivering help and hope that will make a difference for families.

-- Mitch Nauffts



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