What's Up With the ExxonMobil Foundation's Big Health Give?

The ExxonMobil Foundation is one of the biggest corporate funders around, but it's not well known for large-scale health giving in the United States. Rather, the foundation has made a big push to combat malaria overseas, putting millions into this effort. 

So it was something of a surprise to see the foundation's recent pledge of $18 million to Houston area healthcare organizations, a give that it practically shouted from the rooftops.

The MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas is getting $10 million for a pilot community chronic disease-prevention program; the Texas Heart Institute is getting $5 million to push its cardiovascular disease research along; and the Texas Children’s Hospital is getting $3 million to support healthcare research and services for children. Also, EMF’s grant to the Children’s Hospital provides expansion of services for children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Of course, in a way, these grants should be no surprise: The EMF has a long history with Texas, and has given widely to Houston-area programs since its early days. Last year alone, ExxonMobil and its employees contributed over $13 million to the United Way of Houston.

But the health focus for the foundation's grantmaking is interesting. It’s not that EMF hasn’t done health-based grantmaking in the past—as we said, it has a huge global anti-malaria program. It’s just that in the past, EMF’s domestic health giving has been quiet and modest. In the past nine years, it gave 132 healthcare grants to U.S.-based organizations, and the only ones to crack the $1 million mark were part of EMF’s anti-malaria campaign. It gave $3 million to Malaria No More in 2007, for example.

Meanwhile, the foundation's grants to Houston-area health causes have been, well, sort of piddly: Mainly small gifts of a few thousand dollars to local nonprofits. (Although lots of other money from the company's employees has reached area healthcare organizations through individual gifts.)

This big announcement raises the question of whether EMF’s giving strategy may be changing. We don't see any signs of that, with grantmaking for anti-malaria work and other priorities—like global empowerment of women and STEM education—going strong last year.

We did notice that the foundation got a major boost in assets in 2013, mainly through donations of property from its parent company. So one explanation of this major healthcare give is that EMF decided to put some of that money back into the community, and chose health as a focus.