Philanthropy Helping Public Health Achieve Its Objectives

Article excerpt

Feelings about the Affordable Care Act were mixed in Illinois when the health reform law passed in 2010. Many state leaders opposed the law, and members of the public health community were unsure where to turn for the best information about how to implement the changes it required.

"We couldn't look to government to set the stage that we would really need," said Claudia Baier, MPH, an APHA member and program officer with the VNA Foundation of Chicago, a philanthropy that funds health efforts in under-served populations in the city and surrounding counties. "So we came together as a group."

VNA Foundation and a number of other funders joined with public health advocates and providers to form Starting Strong in Illinois, a collaborative that directs public health funders to health reform work where the funds will be best used. Baier presented on Starting Strong's successes at APHA's 141st Annual Meeting and Exposition in Boston in the fall.

The effort is one of many that seek to match the needs of public health groups with philanthropies. One benefit of working with philanthropic organizations is their ability to fund smaller projects than those typically addressed by federal funders.

According to a recent report from the California HealthCare Foundation, in 2012, more than a dozen U.S. grantmaking foundations made investments in programs intended to make health impacts. The worth of those investments ranged from less than $100,000 to $10 million, and 57 percent were for less than $1 million.

Philanthropies are also nimble -- better able to see a need and react quickly, said Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, a former APHA Executive Board member who funds two APHA philanthropic efforts.

"Foundations who make a priority out of an issue...they call attention to that issue," she told The Nation's Health.

In that role, philanthropies can fund new research or programs that have not yet been proven. Once that research or those programs show a real ability to improve public health, those organizations can go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or another govern-mental entity, with data needed to secure further funding.

Haviland highlighted former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's work on international traffic safety: His charitable foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, has funded more than $130 million for work on projects focusing on traffic policy and road safety. Such safety matters were often overlooked until he called attention to them, at which point CDC and other groups took up research.

"It's like the canary in the mine," Haviland said. "It's a signal that something is important."

Foundations and other philanthropic groups also have the ability to delve into politically difficult subjects, such as gun violence, Haviland noted. The federal government can be limited by what Congress will allow funding for, but a philanthropy can respond without fear of alienating an electorate, she said.

Brian Castrucci, MA, chief program and strategy officer at the de Beaumont Foundation and a participant at the Annual Meeting session, noted that approaching Congress or federal agencies for funding can be difficult without a record of proven successes.

"But philanthropic boards are there to take some risks," he told The Nation's Health. "We tackle some of the hardest problems with money given to us for that purpose."

Starting Strong is implementing its plan in three stages. The first involved convening local funders and funding advocacy groups to map strategies and short-term plans in consultation with state public health agencies. …