A Supermodel’s Quest to Make Childbirth Safe

It’s pretty easy to overlook nonprofit organizations established by celebrities as pet causes or a way to get good press. And while there are, in fact, a number of celebrity-led outfits that are doing good work—Matt Damon’s Water.org comes to mind—supermodels aren’t typically amongst that charitable group. One exception to that general rule is Christy Turlington Burns.

(For our deep dig into what entertainment figures are doing in philanthropy, see our Glitzy Giving blog and funders guide.) 

Those of us of a certain age recall Turlington Burns as the face of Calvin Klein’s Eternity perfume, and for a while there, it seemed as though her face was everywhere. But Burns is more than just a pretty face. In the mid-1990s, Burns applied to NYU, graduating cum laude with a degree in philosophy and comparative religion. From there, she co-founded a couple of companies and studied public health at Columbia.

In 2003, Christy Turlington married actor/director Ed Burns, and soon after, she gave birth to their first child. And it was the complications she suffered during their daughter’s birth that catapulted the former supermodel into the world of maternal health.

While giving birth, Turlington Burns suffered from postpartum hemorrhage—the leading cause of maternal mortality the world over. Of course, Turnlington Burns had vast resources at her disposal as well as access to world-class healthcare facilities, doctors, and healthcare staff. Women living in least-developed and low-income countries are not so fortunate.

And so began the former supermodel’s effort to bring maternal health matters into the global spotlight. At first, she made public service announcements and even testified before Congress on the importance of quality maternal healthcare. Eventually, she established Every Mother Counts (EMC).

In the beginning, EMC served only as an informative website regarding maternal health, the complications that can arise from birth, and how the vast majority of women around the world who suffer from postpartum hemorrhaging die needlessly. Dipping her toe further into global maternal health, Turlington Burns directed and produced the documentary No Woman, No Cry “about the health challenges that impact the lives of girls and women around the world.” The film received critical acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival. But there was still something missing for the supermodel-turned-activist.

That missing piece is what led Turlington Burns and company to evolve EMC from an informational website to a nonprofit in 2012. The newly minted foundation would focus on what she refers to the “most relatable” obstacles pregnant women living in least-developed countries face: transportation, education and supplies.

Related: Every Mother Counts: Grants for Global Health

EMC didn’t waste any time jumping into the grantmaking game, and awarded its first grant in 2012 of $54,000 to Midwives for Haiti. The grant funded training and education programs for Haitian midwives. Since then, EMC has increased its grantmaking, giving $135,000 to the organization in 2014 and $147,000 in 2015. Funds supported the organization’s capacity building efforts, which include training skilled birth attendants, the development and operation of a community clinic to deliver comprehensive maternal healthcare to pregnant girls and women, and emergency transport when necessary. According to EMC, those grants have impacted the lives of nearly 26,000 mothers and babies.

Much of EMCs grantmaking follows suit and stays largely within the lines of Turlington Burns’ goal of addressing those common barriers of transportation, education, and supplies. Here’s a quick look.

Baylor Children’s Foundation in Uganda has received over $1 million from EMC since 2012. That money was spread over four grants, the most recent grant being a $520,375, which is also the largest grant EMC has awarded Baylor to date. The funds provide transportation vouchers for pregnant women for comprehensive prenatal care, safe deliveries, and postnatal follow-up visits. Women living in rural Uganda have to travel on average at least 13 kilometers to reach the nearest public health facility.

Circle of Health International is a relative newcomer to EMCs grantee list, having received a $40,350 grant in 2015 to support its work to recruit a handful of professional Syrian midwives to provide emergency obstetric and trauma care to pregnant women in the conflict-riddled country. The grant also funded home visits for kids and the purchase of critical supplies and medicines to ensure safe pregnancies and deliveries in Syria.

Another relatively new grantee at EMC is the Hope Foundation for Women and Children of Bangladesh, which received a $74,750 grant in 2015 to provide some 1,000 women with comprehensive prenatal care, access to emergency care, safe pregnancy education materials, and training skilled healthcare workers to safely identify and pre- and postnatal complications.

The most recent grant coming of EMC is a $90,000 give to Asociación Corazón del Agua in Guatemala City, Guatemala in support of its midwifery training program aimed at indigenous rural students.

Overall, EMC tends to back groups that are working within its main topics of interest, but the foundation does color outside the funding lines on occasion. For example, it awarded nearly $100,000 over two grants to Nazdeek, an India-based outfit that is training key players such as activists and lawyers on documenting maternal health rights violations and securing legal judgements mandating quality healthcare for mothers. As well, the foundation has supported We Care Solar in the past with a $113,470 grant to install portable solar power sources in 40 rural clinics and health centers in Malawi.

Every Mother Counts isn’t a large outfit—its asset size typically ranges between $2 million and $3 million—and it doesn’t award a large number of grants each year. However, according to the foundation, it has impacted over 200,000 women around the world.  EMC may be on the small side, but in terms of impact, it packs a big punch.