Smart Move: Caterpillar Foundation Reaches for Advocacy Lever with Ebola Gift

Not long ago, we wrote about the big changes at the Caterpillar Foundation, and how its dynamo president, Michele Sullivan, has retooled the place to address the root causes of poverty.

More recently, Sullivan has swung the foundation behind advocacy efforts, with a $5 million give to the ONE Campaign and a $2.5 million grant to the Global Poverty Project. The investment with ONE was to support its public policy work in Africa involving access to power—or rather, the lack thereof.

Related: Root Causes: The Clarity of Michele Sullivan and the Remaking of the Caterpillar Foundation

Now the foundation is sending another $1 million to ONE, this time to support its efforts to mobilize a bigger response to Ebola. ONE is trying to bring pressure on the world's political leaders to do more to combat the epidemic.

"This disease can be stopped," ONE says. "We know what to do." All that's missing is the political will needed to mobilize resources against Ebola. 

Caterpillar's give to ONE sets it apart from other funders responding to Ebola, nearly all of whom have channeled funds to front-line responders. For example, Mark Zuckerberg's recent $25 million gift is going to the Centers for Disease Control Foundation to help cover operating costs. (See IP's coverage.)

So why did the Caterpillar Foundation opt for an advocacy strategy? It doesn't say, exactly, but the choice is consistent with Sullivan's evolving understanding of how best to fight global poverty with limited resources.

In an interview with IP last month, Sullivan said that backing advocacy "was a big change for us," but reflected the foundation's realization that it needed to affect the choices of policymakers and other actors, including the public, to achieve change.

Of course, Sullivan is exactly right on that score, and Ebola is a great example. The scale of resources needed to fight Ebola are well beyond what private funders can provide, with the UN saying last month that it needed $988 million to contain the epidemic. But as of last week, the UN had only collected 38 percent of that money from members states.

So the best way that private funders can deploy resources may be to get national governments to cough up more resources to the UN, as well as other organizations fighting Ebola. That's especially true of more moderately sized funders like Caterpillar, which will give out about $60 million in grants this year. The foundation couldn't afford to put the kind of money on the front lines that Zuckerberg did even if it wanted to. 

Why aren't other Ebola funders opting for an advocacy strategy? Probably for the same reasons that advocacy always gets short shrift from funders: People are drawn to direct efforts to reduce suffering, as opposed to funding work that feels one step removed. Ironically, the very same urgent empathy that motivates giving often undermines a more deliberative strategy to mobilize larger resources against a problem. 

One other interesting thing to note about Caterpillar's give on Ebola: The foundation has a keen eye on the economic effects of the epidemic, fearing that years of work to build up Africa's fortunes could be rolled back. 

The Ebola outbreak has led not only to thousands of deaths, but a breakdown in regional health systems, school closures, and agricultural market shutdowns. Economic growth benchmarks, especially in Ebola-affected countries such as Liberia, are dropping. Although many of the country’s largest employers are staying open for business, they are scaling back operations.

As long as Ebola is continues to wreak havoc across West Africa, economic growth in the area is likely to be stunted—an event West African countries can hardly afford.

In announcing the $1 million gift to ONE, Sullivan said: "Our work to address extreme poverty and its symptomatic ills will be deeply affected if Ebola is not stopped."  

Since 2010, the Caterpillar Foundation has invested over $30 million toward ending extreme poverty in Africa, and supports a variety of causes toward that end, including water and sanitation and girls’ empowerment.