Passion — To lead a nonprofit successfully, you must be passionate about its vision. Actually, when you think about it, you probably can’t lead anything successfully unless you believe in the mission of the organization, whether profit or non-profit. I’ve been involved with MDA for 40 years. The mission of this organization has been a life-long passion for me.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Donald S. Wood.
Donald S. Wood, PhD serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA).
Dr. Wood previously was Vice Chairman of the Board for the MDA and Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness at Odessa College, which is one of the top-performing community colleges in the nation.
Dr. Wood has been involved with the MDA for nearly 40 years, and most notably launched and managed the organization’s Task Force on Genetics that led to the discovery of the gene that causes Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD).
In total, Dr. Wood has more than four decades of experience leading both nonprofit and for-profit institutions. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, he served first as an executive and then as President and Chief Operating Officer of IntegraMedAmerica, Inc., a medical services provider, where he helped take the company public and operated the company’s national network of reproductive science centers, driving profitability for 12 years without a single losing quarter. During this time, he also helped create a new genetic-testing company, Odyssey Biomedical, which was later sold to Integrated Genetics, a division of Genzyme.
Most recently, Dr. Wood served as Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness at Odessa College, where his work developing a Drop Rate Improvement Program is credited with dramatically improving student outcomes and helping to propel the college to national recognition for its high performance.
Dr. Wood began his career in neuromuscular disease research at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, where he served as a National Institutes of Health (NIH) postdoctoral research fellow in neurology. He holds a doctorate in physiology from Washington State University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Wood. Before we begin, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory?”
I went into basic science research as a graduate student. When I received my doctorate, I was fortunate enough to get into the neurology department at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. My research interest at that time was studying how muscle was regulated by calcium. One day, the chairman of the department asked me the question that changed my scientific life and my career: Why don’t you study human muscle? I have spent the rest of my life doing just that — taking basic research from the laboratory and applying that knowledge to human disorders.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to lead your nonprofit?
Very early on I received a research grant from the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) and that was my first encounter with the organization. Later, I became Director of Research for MDA and, most recently, Vice Chair of the Board of Directors. I have been involved with MDA in one form or another for more than 40 years. The opportunity to now lead MDA as President and CEO is incredibly exciting because it follows the trajectory of my life’s work. I began by doing research on human muscle, went on to directing MDA’s worldwide research and training programs in neuromuscular disease, and now I am privileged to lead the organization that has been a world leader in funding research and advancing new treatments, therapies and cures for muscular dystrophy and related diseases.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
My goal for MDA is to grow our mission to support research and advance care centers and advocacy on behalf of patients with neuromuscular disease so that ultimately, treatments and cures will be available to all patients. Of course, we can’t do this without funding. One of our most important fundraising programs — Shamrocks — is starting this month. The iconic MDA Shamrocks pinup program is one of the nation’s largest St. Patrick’s Day fundraisers. It has grown to thousands of retail locations nationwide and has raised more than $330 million for MDA.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your nonprofit so far?
MDA has been supporting programs to help people and families with muscular dystrophy and related diseases for 70+ years. Over those years, we have helped hundreds of thousands of individuals because we have provided the research and care to help people live longer. Where previously individuals with neuromuscular disease might not have survived past childhood or their teenage years, they now live into adulthood and live exciting lives as doctors, lawyers, judges, musicians, fashion designers and more. It is so exciting to see people doing so well because of MDA.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
To advance research, treatments and advocacy for those with muscular dystrophy and related disorders there are three major areas where our foundational challenges reside: education, communication and healthcare.
In terms of education, we need to help people better understand the nature and medical challenges related to genetic diseases, and the history-making role MDA-supported scientists and physicians have played in advancing our understanding of how to study and treat these diseases. Back when MDA began, in 1950, some medical textbooks dismissed genetic diseases as being untreatable. The effort to find treatments and cures for muscular dystrophy and related genetic diseases took MDA to a new medical frontier when, in 1986, MDA-supported scientists reported they had discovered the gene and protein defects underlying Duchenne muscular dystrophy — the most common childhood form of the disease.
With that discovery, research into treatments and cures for genetic disease started in earnest as MDA-supported investigators turned their attention to human DNA research and development of a new type of medicine — genetic medicine. Some of the first clinical trials in medical history to repair genetic defects were developed by MDA supported investigators. And some of the very first patients to experience improvement because of their participation in genetic-based clinical trials have been people with neuromuscular disease. Together, patients, investigators and countless MDA-supporters are re-writing medical textbooks as treatments and cures for genetic diseases are not only becoming a reality but, most exciting, are advancing at an increasingly rapid pace.
I am proud that MDA’s annual Clinical & Scientific conference has become a bell-weather for progress in genetic-disease medicine. This year’s conference will take place virtually from March 15–18, and will be attended by the world’s leading researchers, physicians and advocates in the genetic neuromuscular disease arena.
For communications, we can never tell enough people what a great time we live in for helping transform genetic medicine and improving lives. Each of us is a creature of our genes. If you would like to be tall but your parents are short, it’s unlikely you will be tall. In this regard, everyone on the planet has some sort of limitation that can be traced to their genome. Some limitations are more “limiting” than others and those that are most limiting we call genetic “diseases.” MDA-supported scientists and clinicians are at the forefront of progress in understanding and treating those diseases and the more people who know about the great work that is going on in this very important field of medicine, the better.
And finally, we need a better healthcare system to support people with genetic diseases and to provide appropriate financial incentives for pharmaceutical companies to conduct clinical trials into potential new therapies and cures. But that is very hard to do. In general, a single infectious disease can often affect millions of people. A single genetic disease, on the other hand, may affect only a relatively small number of people — ten thousand to a hundred thousand or so. These numbers tell the story: the financial incentive for developing therapies and treatments is in infectious rather than genetic disease. Amazingly, however, despite the possibility of relatively low financial return more biotech and pharmaceutical companies are entering into drug discovery and clinical trial research for genetic diseases like muscular dystrophy. And this 21st century progress is creating major challenges for a 20th century healthcare system.
Our healthcare system in the U.S. did not evolve with genetic disease in mind. In fact, the debates over treating pre-existing conditions simply ignore the science of genetic disease where, by definition, people with an inherited disorder have a life-long pre-existing condition. We need a healthcare system that responds appropriately to supporting people with life-long conditions, many of whom may require life-long treatment.
How do you define “Leadership?” Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I’ve adopted part of my leadership philosophy from Management Consultant Peter Drucker. To me, leadership is lifting an organization to a higher level, raising employee performance to a higher standard, and doing this consistently over time. It is different from management.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to lead a nonprofit.” Please share a story or example for each.
My view is that if you do the first four you probably won’t need a fifth.
1. Passion — To lead a nonprofit successfully, you must be passionate about its vision. Actually, when you think about it, you probably can’t lead anything successfully unless you believe in the mission of the organization, whether profit or non-profit. I’ve been involved with MDA for 40 years. The mission of this organization has been a life-long passion for me.
2. Vision — If the mission can be considered “The Grand Dream” — finding the causes and cures for muscular dystrophy and related disease, for example, then the vision can be considered as the path to realizing that dream. My vision for MDA is that we will continue advancing genetic medicine by being among the first in the nation to develop treatments and cures for people with genetic diseases.
3. Data Driven — In my experience, there are two types of leaders. One works from quantitative data to understand what works and what doesn’t work. I believe it’s fair to say that except for just plain luck, organizations that have a reputation for moving forward, for leadership in their sphere of activity, are organizations that work at making data-informed decisions. Yes, they make mistakes, but with data showing when, where and how a mistake occurred, they rarely make the same mistake twice. Leaders who rely on their experience are generally the first to say, “That’s not how it has been done before.” There’s a well-known aphorism that “an organization is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” Absent data to inform one’s experience generally leads to doing the same things repeatedly, which is the definition of a status quo organization.
4. Supportive Board of Directors — No CEO can function effectively without having the support of the board. Nothing hurts an organization faster than when there is tension between the CEO/management team and the board. I am blessed that the board of directors of MDA and I are aligned and enthusiastic about working together.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share more about your nonprofit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I have a big vision for MDA — to lead national progress into advancing genetic medicine — so I’d like to talk to someone who also has a big vision. One such person I’ve never met but who has been in the news a lot is Laurence Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager. Mr. Fink has a global vision for environmental change and has publicly stated in his annual letter to CEOs that his firm would avoid investments in companies that “present a high sustainability-related risk.” In other words, he is addressing the climate crisis by reshaping finance in ways that grow assets in line with improving the climate.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
“If you can dream it, you can do it.” I’ve lived my life this way. I always want to be number one, and I want to staff my team with people who want to be number one. We have a vision at MDA and I’m going to see that everyone who works at MDA has this same vision and believes along with me that we can get there.