DONATE: How Cure Brain Cancer Foundation CEO Lance Kawaguchi gets it done

An ambitious leader, new to the fundraising game, on the importance of pace, collaboration and promoting Australia on the global stage.

DONATE: How Cure Brain Cancer Foundation CEO Lance Kawaguchi gets it done

Most people’s path into nonprofits probably doesn’t start with a parent telling them they need to be a better person, but for Lance Kawaguchi, that’s exactly how it played out.  

In 2016, the then-financier’s mother fell ill and, in her dying moments, she asked her son to promise her three things:  

“One, you need to take care of your father,” Lance recalls. “Two, you need to spend more time with your two boys and your wife because you’re always travelling. You need more work-life balance. 

“And three, you’re kind of an A-hole! I’d like you to please promise me that for at least five years, you leave corporate and finance to give back. It can be charity, it can be something else, but it needs to be something that helps someone other than yourself.” 

“From that point forward, I started living out that promise,” says Lance.  

Pay cuts and pastures new 

Still based in his senior executive role for global bank HSBC, Lance began to involve himself in work for diversity and inclusion, particularly supporting LGBTIQA+ and neurodiversity causes. But career commitments spared him only enough time to dedicate himself to this work once or twice a month. And so, in 2020, recognising that the world was in both a state of crisis and an era of compassion, Lance convinced his wife it was time to take a hefty pay cut, “go all in”, and take on the leadership of a charity.  

With an interest in both biotechs and cancer, Lance leaned towards medical research-based nonprofits and, in January 2021, he became CEO of Australia’s Cure Brain Cancer Foundation (CBCF), relocating his family from London to Sydney.  

Lance acknowledged that CBCF had travelled a bumpy road when it came to leadership, with short CEO tenures peppering the organisation’s recent history. “So what I wanted to do was make sure we could pivot the narrative to the future, not the past,” he says.  

The new figurehead’s future-focused mindset was bolstered by several years of nonprofit research and due diligence, which had started back in 2016. When, in his initial weeks, he provided an interview with Third Sector, the interviewer asked why he seemed so confident as he commenced in his new role. “I said: ‘Because I prepared properly. I’ve researched what works, what doesn’t work, board interaction and so on. I have a clear idea of what I wanted to implement.’”  

And implement he did, at pace. In his first 12 months, Lance delivered, along with his team, some of the most significant funding distributions for brain cancer research CBCF has ever administered. It is these major milestones that helped the flourishing leader win top spot in the CEO of the Year category at the 2022 Third Sector Awards and CEO Magazine’s Not-For-Profit Executive of the Year 2022.  

There is a sense of urgency about Lance, and this is reflected in his professional delivery. “Brain cancer patients and their families don’t have the luxury of time,” he says, “So we need to move quickly – they need treatments and support, and we need more research. 

“I don’t look at things as problems, I just try to figure out solutions as quickly as possible.”  

Time waits for no one  

When Lance reflects on what skills he brought with him from the finance sector, he puts instancy at the top of the list. “In the last nine months we have distributed $11 million [for medical research and support], which is more than the last six years combined.” In fact, the number is higher, because the organisation has also committed $8 million to bring the revolutionary clinical trial, GBM AGILE, to Australia (more on that later).   

“The mindsets are completely different because in for-profit you want to move at pace. You want to focus – you’re going to figure out a solution because it’s a competitive market. Not-for-profit seems to work at a slower pace; it does struggle with being bureaucratic – decision making is often based on what people don’t want, because if anything goes wrong, they don’t want to be held accountable.”  

“I don’t look at things as problems, I just try to figure out solutions as quickly as possible.”

So, Lance has an appetite for speed and calculated risk that, in the NFP space, may cause a degree of discomfort. At times it posed an issue for him as he searched for his first charity role. “When I was interviewing, several Australian charities told me: ‘We love your enthusiasm, but we think you’re going to move too quickly for us’,” Lance shares. “I replied: ‘But don’t you want to have positive change quickly?’ And the response was: ‘Well, we don’t want to rock the boat too much and upset people.’” 

“If we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing and working towards our mission, wouldn’t it be better to move quickly?” Lance asks (rhetorically). “I think some [nonprofit] boards may need a change in mindset – the focus should be on achieving positive change, not about making everyone feel comfortable.”  

So what change has Lance instigated since those early days in 2021 and what impact has it made to date? 

All change  

Commencing in his new role, there was one outcome that Lance firmly set his sights on. He was keen for everyone to understand the significant need for a revolutionary clinical trial called GBM AGILE. GBM – or Glioblastoma – is a highly aggressive and fast-growing form of cancer that attacks the brain and/or spine. GBM AGILE (Glioblastoma Adaptive Global Innovative Learning Environment) is designed to rapidly evaluate new therapies and connect patients with global research expertise.  

Since 2013, both the government and interested nonprofit parties have expressed their desire to bring GBM AGILE to Australia. In September 2021, (then) Minister for Health and Aged Care Greg Hunt announced that the government, along with Cure Brain Cancer Foundation and the Minderoo Foundation, would provide $12 million of funding over four years for researchers to participate in GBM AGILE.  

Fast forward to March of this year, and Lance – not one to wait around – announced that CBCF would be the sole funder bringing the product to Australia. And for a price tag that was $4 million less than the aforementioned $12 million.  

“I bring an understanding of how to run a business, but more importantly, I understand personalities, the politics involved, and the finance involved. 

“And I find that’s very important to understanding the commercial reality of how to run a business, because it’s not a social club. And I push against the pace [of government and nonprofits].” 

Whilst he says it’s not a social club, the value of relationships is not lost on Lance, and one area he has poured tireless effort into throughout 2021 and 2022 is friend-making.  

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know (well actually, it’s a bit of both)  

If you hadn’t realised by now, Lance does not hail from Australia. Born in the US and raised in Hawaii, he spent many years working in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and his home country. Now, it’s Australia’s turn, and he is keen to put us firmly on the world map for cancer research.  

One of his tactics is to position himself on several international boards for cancer research – as a director on the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) board (Washington-based), as Chair of the Asian Fund for Cancer Research (AFCR) (Hong Kong-based) and as a strategic advisor for the AIM-HI Accelerator Fund (a Maryland-based nonprofit, born out the NFCR, that seed funds start-up oncology companies).  

Lance’s strategy behind these roles makes sense. “If you look at the people who sit on the board with me at NFCR, they all sit on the GBM AGILE board,” he explains. “And the reason I joined both the AFCR and NFCR boards is because they were the only organisations several years ago that invested seed financing for GBM AGILE.” 

He is also cognisant that much of the current global innovation in brain cancer treatment is happening overseas – particularly in the US – and that causes inequity in treatment options (“Only high-net-worth Australians who have a couple of million can fly to the States for treatments”) and leaves us behind in the research stakes.  

“You’re not going to know if you’re not in the room.”  

“Instead of taking Australia there, I’m bringing [research from] Harvard here,” Lance shares. “We’re looking to bring over at least three or four treatments within the next six to seven months. That’s something we would not be able to leverage if we didn’t have connectivity with the US, or with Asia or Europe. 

“When I’m on these boards, I’m going to be able to get that intel, that information and bring it back to Australia where we would never have had access to it before. You’re not going to know if you’re not in the room.”  

When he joined CBCF, Lance also took a close look at the organisation’s scientific advisory committee which was, at time, represented mainly by Australian experts. Their knowledge and credentials were in no doubt, but an international presence was lacking and so Lance began to recruit brain cancer researchers and clinicians from across the globe – including representatives from Harvard Medical School, UCLA and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. From home shores, the committee includes members from Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Parkville Cancer Clinical Trials Unit and the Center for Cancer Biology, South Australia.  

“Cancer is a global problem. When I’m in the US, I’m American. US people think it’s always about the US. But I’m the vocal person saying ‘Well, why not Australia, why don’t we do this trial in Australia? We have a great ecosystem for supporting biotechs.’ If you look at all my [social media] posts, that’s all I talk about – Australian biotechs, Australian early-stage researchers, everybody should come to Australia.  

“Because, you know what, you guys are too modest!”  

The global approach doesn’t stop with research. It has flow-on effects for fundraising and Lance is taking the unique approach of targeting Antipodeans overseas.  

“We got everything set up so we can tap into Australians living abroad, meaning we can channel [their] money back to Australia,” he says. “So that we, as an Australian charity, are not cannibalising the same 26 million people all the time. The US has 350 million people, so why not go after some of that? Why not go after Hong Kong?” 

Which brings us nicely to fundraising. Because if CBCF distributed a record-breaking amount of funds last year, it follows that the organisation’s income generation needs to keep up.  

Putting the house in order 

“Everything was on an Excel spreadsheet. None of the systems communicated with each other. Multiple people would reach out to one person,” Lance laments as he recalls CBCF’s backend fundraising and marketing systems in early 2021.  

“We created a digital strategy from scratch, and I leveraged my contacts to help with digital and marketing, which are not my strengths.  

“We moved to Salesforce as our one source of truth and connected with APIs to things like Stripe. Everything is now very consolidated. It’s very focused on how different donors like to be communicated with. We can actually pull a report to understand who our donor base is. Because that was one of my first questions – who is our donor base?” 

Lance is keen to get to know what he calls the CBCF ‘community’. “Every quarter I sit down with specific community members and ask ‘What do you want to see more of from us?’, ‘What is important to you, because you’re giving your money, so you’re a stakeholder.’ 

“People might tell us they want more funding for NDIS-related supports. Or that that they want to support more early-career fellowships.”  

So, a combination of clearing up the data, getting to know the donor base and finessing digital has been at the forefront of Lance’s fundraising approach. And the latter consideration – getting digital up to speed – played a starring role in CBCF’s continued success during COVID-19, particularly for the organisation’s flagship event Walk4BrainCancer.  

A flagship event’s journey from in-person, to virtual, to hybrid  

Walk4BrainCancer was established in 2013. With a dedicated microsite, the event encourages participants to join a hosted walk – or do their own walk – in the months of October and November, to set up a fundraising page, and to get fundraising! It’s bread and butter peer-to-peer activity, but it delivers significant return for CBCF and the pandemic hasn’t hurt the event one bit.  

In 2020 and 2021, Walk4BrainCancer was fully virtual (by ‘virtual’, we mean participants selected a physical walking route of their own choice), bringing in $1.7 million and $2 million respectively. That is compared to $585,000 in 2013. This year, CBCF has a $2 million target for the campaign (currently tracking at a promising $1.3 million) and 4000 walkers are expected to participate across 18 to 20 physical events, with virtual participants adding additional numbers. In keeping with Lance’s international focus, virtual events will also take place in Hong Kong, Qatar and the US.  

The numbers are undoubtedly boosted by the efforts of some incredible top fundraisers, shown on the microsite’s ‘Wall of Hope’. Many of them have their own story of cancer tragedy.  

Walk4BrainCancer’s Wall of Hope.

Digital aside, what of good old fashioned donor stewardship. How are relationships managed within the team?  

A divide and conquer approach  

First off, it is Lance’s belief that the board is there for governance, that they volunteer, and that their time should be occupied by organisational oversight, not fundraising (although several members of the board are actively engaged in Walk4BrainCancer). This is a view that differs from many nonprofit CEOs who feel their boards have a responsibility to contribute to fundraising – whether that be through contacts or contribution. But it is Lance’s opinion that the accountability sits squarely with him and his small fundraising team of three. 

Next Lance believes it is his responsibility to make himself fully available to his fundraising staff. “Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do” he says. “For example, if they want me to go to Accenture and talk to all the employees, I’ll do it. If they want me to be in video, I’ll be there. Whatever – any time, any place, anywhere, I’ll do it. It is part of our collaborative environment.” 

That collaborative approach extends to relationship management and it is something that Lance feels strongly about, fearful that leaving the management of a donor relationship to just one person leaves the organisation exposed should that staff member leave. Whilst he and Sani Dowa, CBCF’s Director of Philanthropy, may hold many of the major donor relationships, Lance tries to introduce those supporters across the team where he can.  

“I want to make sure that the organisation is not dependent on individuals,” says Lance. “I see too many times that there are single points of failure in charities because people focus too much on one staff member and then the moment that person leaves, the charity falters. I’m not in that business. 

“The more team members that know about the relationship, the more people that care about the relationship.”

“I’m trying to build something sustainable, so I’d like everyone to understand that, at CBCF, if someone leaves – including me – the support we receive will continue and our mission will remain on track. 

“I’ve seen it too many times with fundraising that people feel that if they have the relationship, they have the control. That’s a very detrimental mindset. I always try to expand. If I have a connection, I try to introduce them to everyone possible. The more team members that know about the relationship, the more people that care about the relationship.”  

And what is one of the key components of those relationships? Transparency says Lance.  

Clear and accountable  

There are certain moments when Lance speaks that you are reminded he is from a finance background. Referring to the need to ‘reconcile’ donations is one of them. “I try to make sure our donors know ‘You’ve donated X, it’s going to this and so it reconciles’,” he says. Whilst not all giving – and not all program expenditure – is as straightforward as this, what Lance essentially means is: no smoke and mirrors.  

“Because when I researched a lot of not-for-profits I noticed there’s a lot of silos – fundraising’s here, marketing’s there, no one has oversight of what each other’s doing.  

“Most recently in finance, I oversaw 753 people across 23 countries managing $9 billion in funds. And what I tried to ensure is that we were always going in the same direction, we were always working together. It can’t be silos; it must be lateral. We need to communicate, we must be very clear on what we’re trying to achieve, and we must give the donor confidence we are doing what we say we’re doing.”  

It’s not just internally that Lance strives for this collaboration, but across the nonprofit sector as well. 

“I respect that many cancer charities were started by a loved one who experienced loss. But my concern is that if we have 20 different charities for cancer going in 20 different directions, we’re not going to get very far. Why don’t we pull together? 

“I don’t care who gets the credit – if we each have $1 million, and we pool it, then we get $20 million. Now we’ve got some power.” 

At a time when the Australian community, funders and the ACNC look to nonprofits for a more collaborative approach, and less duplication of effort, let’s watch this space as Lance continues with his tenacious approach: “I keep asking people ‘Can we collaborate?’. If they say no – and they often do – then I go to the next person.”  

Like so many things with Lance, it’s a ‘what comes next?’ scenario. So much has already been achieved in less than two years, but this ambitious leader has plenty more he wants to tick off the list. But before he moves on – at speed – we ask what he has learned during his early years at CBCF.  

Learn from the lessons

“It’s always about the relationship,” starts Lance. “Next, move quickly. For brain cancer patients, the time they have can be days. If I speak to someone and they tell me they can’t smell anymore because of their tumour, or they can’t walk and they are miserable, how can I justify moving slowly? 

“And I’ll say one more thing,” says Lance. “I sometimes notice that when I speak to not-for-profits, fundraising is like a dirty word, like it’s not important or it’s something to be hidden in a corner.”  

“I try to instil in the team that everyone is equal. But that fundraising is the lifeblood of what we do. I point out – your salaries, the research we’re funding – that is from fundraising. 

“So yes, fundraising is critically important.”  


To read Lance Kawaguchi’s 2021 article about Walk4BrainCancer’s virtual pivot, click here 

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.