John Merck Fund: Boston Area Grants

OVERVIEW: The Merck Fund awards grants in program areas often overlooked by Boston-area foundations. Boston-based non-profit organizations working in the areas of developmental disabilities and the environment are given the most consideration.

FUNDING AREAS: Developmental disabilities, clean energy, environmental health, and regional food systems.

IP TAKE: The Merck Fund takes an unconventional approach to grantmaking. Although the fields are totally unrelated, pitch a program to Merck for child developmental disabilities or the environment. Large, well-established organizations need not apply.

PROFILE: You've only got a few more years to get a grant from the John Merck Fund because its last awards will be made that year and the foundation will close its doors in 2022. Initial estimates suggest that there's about $100 million in grants to be moved before the end.

Serena Merck started the foundation in 1970 and named it after her son, John. Initially, the sole purpose of the foundation was to support research programs for children with disabilities. However, the foundation's focus began to expand in 1986 based on other areas of concern she and her husband, George, cared about.

Between the World Wars, George oversaw Merck's involvement in developing synthetic vitamins, antibiotics, and hormones. He was heavily involved in war research during World War II and has even been featured on the cover of Time magazine for his role in the American drug industry. Surprisingly, healthcare and medical research programs are not funded by the Merck Foundation.

Instead, there are four program areas that the Merck Fund awards grants in: developmental disabilities, clean energy, environmental health, and regional food systems. Merck's clean energy program aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent and reduce fossil fuel expenditures in the New England area. The environmental health program funds governmental policies that move away from petroleum-based chemicals for disease prevention. The regional food program expands entrepreneurship in growing sustainably grown food in New England. And the most prominent developmental disabilities program funds research and care for children with Fragile X or Downs Syndrome.

The Merck Foundation is run by a small staff based in Boston and has given out between $7 and $10 million each year. Grants have been awarded to organizations in Vermont, California, Washington, and Virginia in recent years as well. 

Merck has been a leader in solar energy initiatives, teaming up with the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority and SmartPower to simplify the process of solar panel installation. Boston-centered organizations always fare well with the foundation, but you will be facing competition from around the country as well. Past grants can be viewed here.

You'll need to email in a brief letter of inquiry before getting too entrenched in Merck's application process. Unlike many foundations in the area, Merck does fund individuals who are working on projects in its focus areas and actually encourages individuals to apply. Merck is also willing to fund start-up projects, advocacy initiatives, and litigation to protect important precedents. Most Merck grants are made on a single year basis, but three-year repeating grants are sometimes made as well. This is a great foundation for smaller non-profits to get in touch with because Merck refuses to fund large organizations that are well-established and receiving plenty of funding from other sources.

After submitting your letter of inquiry, feel free to get in contact with the Executive Director, Ruth Hennig or the Program Officer, Christine James. As you can see, the Merck Fund is a pretty unconventional foundation so programs a little off-the-grid have the best chances for funding success. If your organization is little unconventional, you very well may find a friend in Merck.


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