A Passion for Philanthropy

Fueled by a desire to honor her mother’s memory and a lifelong commitment to philanthropy, Sherry Lansing brings skills honed as power player in the movie industry to her role as a dedicated cancer advocate.

By Diana Price

When philanthropist and former film industry executive Sherry Lansing was a little girl, she assumed that “everyone had an empathy gene.” “I always watched my mother,” she says, “and she was always the woman who was there for people, whether she wrote a check or, more importantly, gave her time.” At the end of the day, the message Sherry took away was that people were meant to help one another.

It was a powerful lesson for a young child, and it forged a way of life that defined her character from an early age. “My mother always said, ‘there but for the grace of God go I,’” Sherry says, “and she never, ever turned her back on anyone or anything. Seeing that as a child, I just thought that was part of life.” Among Sherry’s first fundraising memories is collecting $180 in quarters for an after-school program for underserved kids—one of many efforts that mark her early dedication to philanthropy.

Early Advocacy

Her commitment didn’t wane, through her graduation from Northwestern University, her early career as a teacher, and her work as a model and an actress—all of which preceded her executive roles in the movie business. In 1980, at age 35, Sherry was named president of Twentieth Century Fox, the first woman to head a major film studio. Sadly, several years later her mother, Margot, passed away after battling ovarian cancer. From that point Sherry knew that cancer research would become a focus of her philanthropic efforts.

“When I watched my mother struggle,” Sherry says, “I watched the hopelessness and the cruelty of the disease. From that time on, I knew I wanted to do something to honor her memory and make sure others didn’t have to suffer like that.”

Over the next 20 years, as Sherry continued to enjoy phenomenal success in the movie business—ultimately becoming chairman of Paramount Pictures and overseeing the production, marketing, and distribution of more than 200 films (including Forrest Gump, Braveheart, and Titanic )—she pursued her passion for cancer advocacy.

“I started in very modest ways,” she says. “I went to visit scientists to see what they were doing.” In fact, these efforts to learn about cancer research were part of a partnership that Sherry created with the philanthropist and entrepreneur Armand Hammer, MD, who was at the time working to fund cancer research. She asked to be Dr. Hammer’s “eyes and ears,” visiting cancer researchers and advising his foundation on funding priorities. In 1988 the two united to form Stop Cancer, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising funds for cancer research. Though Dr. Hammer passed away in 1991, under Sherry’s leadership Stop Cancer has gone on to raise more than $50 million to fund cancer research.

A New Chapter

Though Sherry’s dedication to cancer research was significant during her years as a studio executive, it was necessarily overshadowed by her career. She was in her fifties, she says, when she started thinking about making philanthropy her primary mission. “As I thought of my legacy and what I wanted my third chapter to be,” she says, “I became more interested in philanthropy than in making the next move.” Having come to this realization over time, she made a promise to herself: “I vowed that when I turned 60 I would leave the movie business, set up a foundation, and devote my life to giving back, in particular to cancer research in honor of my mother.”

In 2005, at age 60—as she had promised herself she would—Sherry left Paramount and founded the Sherry Lansing Foundation, with the mission of “making the world a better place by funding and raising awareness for cancer research, health, and public education.” Finally at a place where she could devote herself full-time to philanthropy, Sherry found many parallels between her work in this new chapter in her life and her film career.

“I think that when you move from film to philanthropy, you actually have the opportunity to use a lot of the same skill sets,” she says. “When you make a movie, the first thing you do is think of an idea that you’re passionate about. Maybe you’ve read a book, maybe you’ve read a script, maybe you’ve just thought of an idea—but you have to be passionate about it. Then you have to bring it all together. In film this means bringing together the writer, the producer, and the director.” In philanthropy, she says, you are often similarly bringing together a collaborative group—and keeping them together through the inevitable challenges that arise. Finally, in both cases, you are forced to fight for your idea and raise the money to make it happen: “You have to keep going when everyone tells you you’re crazy and it’s never going to work,” Sherry says. “You have to never take no for an answer. And then, in both cases, you have to find the money.”

Stand Up to Cancer

These similarities were especially evident as Sherry became involved in a new initiative that would truly marry her experience in the entertainment industry and her passion for cancer research. Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), which Sherry co-founded with eight other women (Laura Ziskin, Lisa Paulsen, Kathleen Lobb, Noreen Fraser, Rusty Robertson, Ellen Ziffren, Sue Schwartz, and Katie Couric) who were also entertainment industry professionals and had also been touched personally by cancer, was created to accelerate groundbreaking cancer research and to deliver therapies to patients more quickly. Sherry was attracted by the powerful energy of the group, bonded by both personal and professional experiences, and the opportunity that the project offered to raise awareness and funds.

To achieve their goals, the group knew they would need to do something different, something that would have a big impact and would deliver results to patients. “We all had backgrounds in the entertainment industry, and initially we said, ‘Maybe we should do a telethon—maybe we can get one network.’ Then it became, ‘Maybe we could get all three networks’; then, ‘If we get the networks, why can’t we get cable?’” As they worked to get the various media outlets to collaborate, Sherry says, the group started thinking about the need for similar collaboration among researchers. “The research was being done in silos,” Sherry says. “We thought the only way to really move the needle would be to break down those silos. If we could get the doctors to come together and collaborate, we would really be doing something different.”

From this idea grew the unique SU2C funding model, developed around the idea of Dream Team grants, awarded to multi-institutional groups of researchers who work collaboratively, and Innovative Research grants, which support groundbreaking, potentially high-risk research projects that have great potential in affecting patient care. It is the funding model, Sherry says, that she feels passionately about promoting. “I’m proud of everything we’ve done, but, from my point of view, it’s the funding model that I’m most involved with. I care most about getting the scientists the money they need to do the research.”

It’s the researchers, she says, who have inspired her from the beginning of her work in cancer advocacy. When Sherry initially began spending time in labs, meeting with researchers as part of her work with Stop Cancer, she was awed by both the scientists’ intelligence and their dedication: “They had a dream, they had a passion, and they never gave up. They just keep working away at it, without any attention or public approval.” It is this work, Sherry says, that she is so proud to be able to fund through SU2C.

And the funding has been significant. After an initial history-making simulcast on September 5, 2008, which raised more than $100 million, SU2C went on to produce a second simulcast in 2010 that aired across 17 major networks—bringing the total donations pledged to date to $180 million. A partnership with the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization established in 1942 by Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Samuel Goldwyn, and other Hollywood luminaries to “raise awareness and funds for critical health, educational and social issues in order to make a positive impact in our community and throughout the nation,” provides the philanthropic infrastructure for SU2C. Sherry chairs the EIF board of directors.

Looking ahead, Sherry hopes that SU2C will continue to grow and that other organizations and the government will consider adopting a similar funding model for cancer research. And despite her passion for the organization, ideally, she says, she’d love to see the need for their work become obsolete—to see cancer become a chronic, manageable disease. “I hope that you and I are talking in the next decade—to be really optimistic—and saying, ‘Do you remember when everyone was afraid of cancer?’ Is that an unrealistic hope? No. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when the research was more poised to make breakthroughs.”

Philanthropy Finds You

In listening to Sherry talk about her commitment to cancer research and philanthropy in general, it’s so clear that she is propelled by the idea of the greater good. Her commitment to making the world a better place, ingrained in her at an early age and fostered by years of philanthropic work, is marked by determination, optimism, and a deep sense of responsibility to honor both her personal “empathy gene” and its source—her mother. In every project she champions, she is fueled by her passion for ideas that can make a real difference.

So, when asked how she would advise other women interested in embracing philanthropy, it’s no surprise that she speaks again about the necessity of passion: “Philanthropy is not about money; it’s about good ideas. Each and every one of us has something that’s close to our hearts, something that we care about. Identify that first. If you have a good idea and you never give up, it will happen.”

Sherry says her own story is indicative of the way that this personal passion can have a great impact. “I think that philanthropy finds you,” she says. “When people ask me, ‘How do you know what to do?” I always say, ‘You know because it’s in your heart.’ Something happens to you personally or to someone you love—in my case to my mother—and you’re motivated to help. Your heart will tell you what to do and how you want to give back.”