In conversation with Executive Director Frances Milner: Turning loss into a legacy

Cancer Research UK

When Frances Milner lost her father to brain cancer as a teenager, she made a defining decision – she would devote her time, energy and, later, career to fundraising for cancer research. Now she heads up our mighty Philanthropy & Partnerships directorate, which last year brought in a whopping £36m for life-changing science and policy work. Joanna Lewin spoke to Frances about her determined approach to fundraising and her route to the executive board of the world’s largest cancer charity.

You’ve devoted your career to improving the lives of people affected by cancer. What drew you to the cause and what has kept you committed to it?

Firstly, I’ve always been a fundraiser. I remember my first ever fundraising event at the age of seven – a family fun day on the Royal Air Force base where I lived. It didn’t raise very much but demonstrated at a young age my passion to bring people together to do something both fun and worthwhile. The reason I chose to work for a cancer charity is because I lost my father to brain cancer when I was 15. That experience made me want to do something with my life that was important and meaningful – that would help change things for others. After university and a very short career in banking, I became a fundraiser for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, which subsequently became Cancer Research UK. After many years funding research I wanted to do something in the cancer care world, so I went to work for Maggie’s – another incredible and inspiring organisation. But research has always been important to me, so I returned to Cancer Research UK. Because of what happened to my father, it continued to frustrate me that we’ve never been able to make progress in brain cancer. The treatment options have barely improved for years and survival in the UK is dramatically lower than the average of 50% survival for all cancers combined. With our new Brain Tumour Awards, we’re now bringing together funding, resource and brilliant research minds to tackle this terrible disease.

Why is philanthropy such an exciting and important area of fundraising for Cancer Research UK?

Our charity has always been brilliant at mass fundraising. We’ve been hugely innovative and had amazing success. But when we completed our campaign to raise £100m through philanthropic donations to help build the Francis Crick Institute – Europe’s largest biomedical research facility under one roof – it demonstrated to us that we should also invest in engaging high-net-worth individuals to support our cause. We had compelling, world-leading science and the fundraising capability needed to develop a philanthropy function, and we realised how exciting this area of growth could be for us.

I’ve fundraised for cancer causes for 25 years. In all that time, I’ve never seen a more exciting time for research...

Since that campaign, we’ve received several multimillion-pound donations from visionary donors. What makes Cancer Research UK so alluring to philanthropists?

We’re doing some of the most groundbreaking cancer research and we’re convening the best brains in the world to achieve that. So, as a supporter, not only do you have the opportunity to fund the greatest work and the greatest minds, you’re helping us to bring together global institutions and their researchers and facilitate collaboration in a brilliant, unique way. When I speak to supporters and those thinking about becoming a supporter, they’re visibly excited about our work and where it’s going to take us. They’re also confident of our credibility, governance and expertise as the UK’s top charity brand.

Why are corporate partners so vital to our success?

We absolutely love working with our partners and they play a critical role. When we redeveloped our strategy for corporate partnerships about three years ago, we changed our strategic question from ‘How do we raise money together?’ to ‘How do we work with partners to meet their business goals and achieve our mission of 3 in 4 people surviving cancer for 10 years or more by 2034?’ (Currently, the figure is 2 in 4). And that important change means we now ask things like, ‘How can we work together to improve the health of the nation?’ Or, ‘How can we raise awareness among partners’ employees and customers about the early signs of cancer?’ Of course, our partners also continue to help us by raising vital funds. And they have helped us double our corporate partnerships income over the past three years.

What would you say to other ambitious, talented women who aspire to senior roles?

At Cancer Research UK, I look around at all the incredible women I work with and sometimes I’ll see a lack of self-confidence, when what others see are talented, brilliant people. To any woman looking to develop her career, I’d say: get great people around you. Get great peer support. Get great mentors. Get people who will tell you you’re doing a great job and that they value what you do. But also find people who will really challenge you. I’ve had mentors over the years who have challenged me to do things I thought I couldn’t possibly do. And as you progress through your career, it’s important to bring others with you – champion your colleagues and support the development and success of others. That’s why I do so much mentoring now.

Why is now such a pivotal time in the fight against cancer?

I’ve fundraised for cancer causes for 25 years. In all that time, I’ve never seen a more exciting time for research, in terms of our understanding of the disease, the technology and the ability for researchers to collaborate, both in the UK and internationally. A great example is the Francis Crick Institute in London, for which we are the major funder. It is demonstrating the power of collaboration, the impact of taking a holistic view of disease and of bringing leading experts in different science disciplines together. It’s only 3 years old but we are already seeing many exciting discoveries emerging. On a personal note, we’ve also been able to provide substantial funding and build research communities for hard-to-treat cancers, like brain cancer. When I was a young fundraiser back in the 90s, I could never have dreamed we’d be in this exciting position now, with breast cancer survival having doubled since the 70s and outcomes for a whole range of cancers improving. When I lost my Dad, fewer than 2 in 4 people survived their cancer for 10 years or more. By the time I finish, I feel excited that we’ll be getting closer to 3 in 4. But we need the continued support of generous donors to make it happen.

When you’re not working, where are you likely to be?

I work in London but live in Leeds. So, my biggest priority at the weekend is spending time with my family. I love getting my wellies on and being outdoors. I walk a lot in the Dales and the Lakes and I’m also a keen gardener. One of the things that’s special about my garden is that a lot of the plants have been given to me by supporters, family and friends over the years. In that respect, my garden is a real sense of who I am. And then finally, I’m a Leeds United fan. On Saturdays, you’ll find me in the South Stand at Elland Road.

Joanna Lewin is Philanthropy & Partnerships Communications Manager and Editor at Cancer Research UK