Inside Merck Company Foundation's Strategic Planning Process

Many big foundations are like old trees. Mostly, they’re dead wood, sturdy and sound in their giving priorities and not really changing on a day-to-day basis. They grow in the same direction they’ve been growing in since their inception, and can be counted on to stay their course—unless or until someone launches a Strategic Planning Process. Then, it’s time for all grantseekers’ ears to prick up, because the big old tree is making big changes. Sometimes, a strategic planning process is just a few thoughtful tweaks made to existing programs; sometimes it’s a total overhaul.

The Merck Company Foundation, founded by pharmaceutical giant Merck in 1957, undertook a fairly significant strategic planning process in 2012. They made a lot of changes, including the decision to phase out science education support at the K-12 level (this change is mirrored by an increase in support of grad and post-grad scientific research), and the “narrowing scope” of their healthcare giving. The Merck Childhood Asthma Network, MCAN, will wrap its work in 2014, and be replaced with support of smaller community-based initiatives to limit exposure to environmental risk factors for the condition. But by the far the biggest change was in their overall organizational transparency.

Before 2012’s strategic planning, Merck very much fit the “big old tree” definition. It was big then, and it still is today, but the difference is in how it communicates with potential grantseekers and the world at large. Before, Merck’s transparency was pretty typical of big pharma corporate foundations—there really wasn’t much to go on for anyone eager to learn about their giving priorities and programs. Post strategic planning process, though—HELLO—Merck’s transparency now is among the best we’ve seen. Their new website is clear, modern, and absolutely loaded with useful information. Each of their initiatives—and they have a bunch—are thoroughly and thoughtfully described; giving priorities are clear; a huge table contrasting Merck’s corporate responsibility to the national norms will be indispensable to anyone taking time to craft a proposal.

Here at IP, we hope this sort of strategic planning process will be a trend among the biggest and oldest philanthropies around, because this kind of transparency is exactly what we need more of—and exactly what we’re here to provide.