Outside the Box: With Ebola, Funders Like Helmsley Move Into New Territory

One problem with philanthropy is that funders can be so intent on staying disciplined and strategic—for very good reasons, mind you—that they fail to act in the face of new emergencies. 

So we've been pleasantly surprised to see that the Ebola epidemic is emerging as a counterpoint to this stereotype. New funders keep stepping forward to help deal with the crisis, including many with no previous history of giving for humanitarian disasters or global health. Most notably, as we've discussed, three donors from the tech world have now put major money on the table—Paul Allen, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Page. None of these people had previously funded anything similar to the fight against Ebola.

What's compelled each of those funders to act is the logic of prevention: Better to shut down this epidemic now than to be dealing with it years from now, and at a much higher cost. That's a compelling argument, and a great way for funders to vet emergency requests: Can we help avoid bigger problems tomorrow by waiving our normal guidelines today?

A range of corporate funders have also gotten into the action, some with a history of humanitarian funding, others not. Just last week, Prudential Financial announced it was giving $6.7 million to fight Ebola, with much of that money going through UNICEF. 

That gift was unusual for Prudential, which normally focuses on improving people's economic opportunities. 

Meanwhile, a growing list of well known foundations have cut checks for Ebola efforts. Hewlett put up $5 million in September, even though responding to the crisis doesn't fit squarely within any of the foundation's program areas. 

More recently, the Helmsley Charitable Trust joined the list of big foundations fighting Ebola. Helmsley doesn't generally open its checkbook for humanitarian relief efforts, but it is big on funding medical and health projects, and does work in Africa, so its recent $2.2 million grant isn’t completely out of the trust’s giving wheelhouse. But nor is it inside, really. CEO John Ettinger explained the decision to step outside the trust’s giving box this way: “The enormity of this outbreak calls for action among all philanthropic groups that can play a critical role in saving lives.”

Helmsley chose nonprofit crowdfunder GlobalGiving as the recipient of the $2.2 million grant. GlobalGiving was founded by former World Bank execs Mari Kuraishi and Dennis Whittle in 1997 with the goal of developing new ways to fight global poverty. GlobalGiving now manages a community of NGOs of all sizes in over 160 countries worldwide and is big on supporting locally driven organizations. GlobalGiving is currently working with 24 partner organizations working on Ebola response efforts throughout West Africa.

According to Helmsley, a portion of the grant money will go toward the support of emergent priorities and provide direct medical response to West African regions impacted by Ebola. The remaining funds will go toward supporting programs promoting Ebola awareness and preparedness programs in neighboring countries that haven’t reported any cases of the disease.

Those familiar with Helmsley will know that it spends a fortune on its medical research funding priorities which includes diseases like Crohn’s, inflammatory bowel disease, and diabetes. The trust also gives heavily to education efforts, environmental conservation, New York City-based projects, and projects in Israel. Remember, though, Helmsley is a young foundation with deep pockets, and it's still a work in progress. Recently, it's begun funding in Africa, including for health challenges. 

Related: Behind This Mega Funder’s Give in Ethiopia is a New Push to Help Africa’s Most Vulnerable Children

In early 2014, Helmsley awarded a $7 million grant to the END Fund in support of the organizations Neglected Tropical Diseases Initiative. The grant was awarded out of the trust’s Vulnerable Children grantmaking program, which supports WASH, education, and neglected tropical disease projects. The Vulnerable Children program is relatively new at Helmsley, having only started last year, focusing on projects in Kenya, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Angola, and Ethiopia.  

Given that Helmsley makes vulnerable children in Africa a funding priority, it really isn’t surprising that the trust has decided to put up millions toward Ebola response efforts. Especially since the number of children in Africa being orphaned by Ebola continues to rise.

Still, our broader point stands about philanthropy and Ebola: This crisis has drawn a number of funders into new terrain, and is reassuring evidence that big foundations can respond to urgent crises. We'll be interested to see what the legacy of this is once the Ebola epidemic has been contained and fades from the news—an outcome that's become more likely, thanks to the responsiveness of funders.