This past August, Sharon Colle, President and CEO of the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB) announced that she will be retiring at the end of 2018.
We recently sat down with Sharon to discuss her more than 27-year tenure with the FFB and what her hopes are for the future of the organization.
Q: What brought you to work at what was then the RP Foundation, and what led you to stay for almost three decades?
Sharon: The Foundation was a small organization with irrepressible energy. I met with a few of the directors and was intrigued by their optimism and determination. It seemed almost fanciful that they would find treatments and cures, but their passion was contagious. I kept in touch with the founders through the years—Jay Marin, Syd Collier, and I spoke to Sam Zunder and Grant Duff just last week. None of us understood how challenging it would be, but here we are today, with clinical trials to halt blindness underway. It is important to remember our past, but to make breakthroughs, we need to be forward-looking in the fight against blindness. It’s been an incredible journey and such an honour to be part of this history.
Q: Describe the organization when you started here. How has it changed?
Sharon, laughing: Six desks, a motorcycle rally and big dreams for the future. Today, we have a talented staff of 15 individuals, national fundraising and educational programs, innovative research programs, and sophisticated systems. What hasn’t changed is our focus on accelerating the development of treatments and cures for Canadians. We’re committed and excited for the future, and we must keep growing to accomplish our dreams. That’s why we’re here.
Q: Looking back, what do you see as the single biggest challenge you faced?
Sharon: We’ve dealt with our fair share of challenges through the years, but certainly money is a challenge for all charities, now more than ever. We want to restore sight, and that means having up-to-date technologies and exceptional people to run systems and programs, to fundraise and do the research. We can’t do it alone. The task at hand is too large. That is why we are always looking for partners in the private sector or government who want to share funding, knowledge, and capacity. With our recent Vision 20/20 grants, we are managing new partnerships and hope to do even more internationally. Our confidential database, the Patient Registry, is world-recognized and supported by individuals and partners across various sectors. What hasn’t changed are the individuals who are the backbone of the Foundation. They’re the ones who will continue to accelerate research and someday end blindness.
Q: What has been the accomplishment that you’re proudest of?
Sharon: Last year, I met Dr. James Till, who with Dr. Ernest McCulloch discovered stem cells in 1961. It’s a Canadian discovery, as Canadian as hockey, and “Till and McCulloch” would revolutionize research around the world. Dr. Clem McCulloch was the Chief of Ophthalmology at U of T at the time and set our course on research. Dr. Till reminisced with me about the early days and reminded me that “you can’t stop now.” Our research has always been on the frontiers of discovery and is now leading us towards treatments. It is remarkable. Artificial vision, gene therapy, and stem cell treatments are no longer science fiction. The determination of researchers and physicians has been matched by the families and friends of those affected. Together, we built a powerful community. That’s the accomplishment that stands out most to me, and it’s a shared one: the creation of a community of families and researchers that fight blindness every day.
Q: What is one of your fondest memories as President and CEO of the Foundation? What will you miss the most?
Sharon: My fondest memories are of the people—their passion and integrity, their belief and determination, their hopes. My inspiration was found in them. Through the years, we built a community with no boundaries. Our Vision Quest meetings bring people together from across Canada, and the participants are our spokespeople, advocates, and donors. The annual Young Leaders Summit gives us the chance to pass the torch to the next generation. Our future is in their capable hands. Whenever I faltered, they fueled my determination. I have made so many friends—Donna Green and Andrew Burke are great leaders. Oh my goodness, I am going to cry if I keep going!
Q: What is the first thing you’ll do when you’re officially “retired”?
Sharon: Sleep in! Then spoil my grandchildren. Seriously, we often joke that nobody really leaves the Foundation, and I hope that I can continue to contribute in a meaningful way. The best is yet to come.
Q: What would you like to say to the Foundation’s supporters?
Sharon: Helen Keller said, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence. Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” My heartfelt thanks to everyone. Together, we grew a little charity into a national force.
Sharon is leaving a dedicated Board of Directors and very talented staff with her trademark optimism about the future, and with boundless confidence that exciting new leadership will guide the FFB into a bright future that is closer than ever to bringing an end to blindness.
The Board has been working with Sharon for some time on an orderly transition plan, and a process to find the new President and CEO of the FFB is well underway. Over the next few months, we will be conducting a formal search for an individual who will realize our revitalized vision, mission, and strategy for the FFB.
We look forward to building on Sharon’s great legacy and thank you for your continued support as we work together to fight blindness.