Jay Wenger, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

TITLE: Director


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IP TAKE: A doctor with a background in global health policy, Wenger and his team dole out about $300 million per year in grants to large, ambitious organizations working to wipe polio off the planet.

PROFILE: In 1988, the international community, led by the World Health Assembly, committed itself to ridding the world of polio. At the time, the disease was endemic in 125 countries and was paralyzing hundreds of thousands of children annually. After decades of coordinated prevention and immunization efforts, there is significantly less polio in the world. Polio is only considered endemic in three countries— Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—and fewer than one thousand incidences of the illness are reported each year. But the condition persists. And it will continue to persist, or even spread, unless global health workers and policymakers stay focused on their campaign to eliminate the disease.

The Bill & Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, international health philanthropic giant that it is, devotes considerable resources (about $300 million in grants annually) to polio eradication efforts in the developing world. Leading the foundation in its anti-polio crusade is Jay Wenger, a doctor by training and an accomplished global health change agent.

Wenger has a medical degree from Temple University, and trained in epidemiology at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). He spent a significant chunk of his career with the World Health Organization, working with the Indian government to introduce vaccines and perform polio surveillance to control the spread of the disease. (Not incidentally, India was declared polio-free in February of 2012.) Most recently, Wenger served as Associate Director for Science in the Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections at the CDC, where he focused on surveillance, prevention, and control of invasive bacterial diseases.

Wenger also has a strong history as a researcher and co-author of more than 130 published journal articles, and is still very active in that game, with a recent focus on vaccinations, the diffusion of polio, and invasive disease.

At Gates, Wenger oversees grants that focus on polio-related advocacy, research and development, and resource mobilization. The projects Wenger and his team funds are large, almost always receiving more than $1 million each, and are dedicated to transforming polio prevention delivery systems in countries where vulnerable people are still at risk of contracting the disease. The foundation—and Wenger himself—get some press in interesting places, including an official report when Wenger visited Afghanistan in September 2013 and met with President Karzai.

For a better sense of what kinds of polio work Gates funds, here is a list of recent grants:

  • $2 million to Nigeria's Kano state government to strengthen regional child immunization and health services.
  • $2.9 million to the Fundación para Estudios Biomédicos Avanzados de la Facultad de Medicina for polio eradication strategy development and implementation in Chile.
  • $4 million to the World Health Organization Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean in support of community-centric, locally led polio eradication initiatives in Islamic countries.

Gates prefers to work with prospective grantees to develop a successful project rather than to fund projects with well-established details. The foundation regularly posts open grant opportunities on its website, and if you believe your organization is doing work Gates might be interested in supporting, you can submit a letter of inquiry for consideration. If the foundation likes what it sees, it will support you through the development of a formal proposal. Gates grant opportunities change periodically, but as of this writing, the foundation is calling for inquiries on any projects related to global health.