by John Trybus, Managing Director
If you’re anything like me you grew up watching Michael J. Fox on TV and the big screen. Back to the Future, Doc Hollywood, Spin City – Michael’s roles have been prolific and memorable.
But the entertainer’s world was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991. Upon public disclosure of his condition seven years later, Fox went from actor to activist through his decision to form The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
Through its mission to find better treatments and, ultimately, a cure for the debilitating disease (which approximately 1.5 million people in the U.S. suffer from), the Foundation has become the largest private funder of Parkinson’s disease research in the world, investing more than $304 million in research since its founding in 2000.
Of course, behind any effective organization is a social strategist. This week’s guest is Holly Barkhymer, the vice president of communications and marketing at the Michael J. Fox Foundation who helps to communicate the human side of research that can so often be confusing and complex, among the many other roles she plays.
Why is Holly so passionate about the work she does in cause-based communication and the Foundation?
“My job changes here so often. The Foundation has grown so rapidly while I’ve been here and the nature of our work is evolving so quickly that there isn’t time to feel complacent. It’s been a real privilege, blessing and lucky twist of faith that I found myself here,” Holly told me in our interview.
Here’s a preview of some other key takeaways from our interview:
- Balancing an iconic founder with organizational sustainability. Yes, Michael is a star and can generate headlines. But how do you take the value he adds as an iconic founder while positioning the Foundation as a sustainable organization? “This is something we think about all the time and is truly a core question for us here,” Holly says. One way the Foundation has done this is through the development of other organizational spokespeople and creating different Faces of the Foundation. “Our new tagline is ‘the answers in all of us’ and it’s meant to go directly to this notion [that our work is beyond just Michael, our founder],” she explains.
- Beg, borrow and steal: limitations can foster creativity. “I have a strong belief that limitations are actually great for creativity,” Holly says. “Sometimes when you have everything at your disposal it’s much harder to get started and when you’re really functioning in a limited environment, you have to really creative.” Despite having a rock star founder, The Michael J. Fox Foundation is a very nimble operation. “I had to get really creative about begging, borrowing and stealing. You would be amazed with what you can come up with when you just ask people,” Holly explains.
- Remember the psychology of storytelling. It can be hard to tell the story of a degenerative and ugly disease as well as the story of organization that has a research mission. Holly’s solution? She approaches storytelling with the psychology that learning about one person is what stimulates audience interest. “Telling the story of single individuals and how this disease impacts them is most effective,” she explains. “We’ve morphed our storytelling to more of a journalistic approach and made the disease a human story and relatable and then woven that into the research we’re doing.” Holly was inspired to take this approach from research in the seminal book, The Science of Giving and storytelling expert Andy Goodman.
Listen to my interview with social strategist Holly Barkhymer to learn more about the communications work of the Michael J. Fox and to hear what it’s really like working with the actor turned activist.