Here and Now: Behind the Rise in Giving for University Public Health Initiatives

emory university. EQRoy/shutterstock

emory university. EQRoy/shutterstock

We typically view funder support for university health and medical initiatives as an exercise in “forward-looking” philanthropy. According to this familiar narrative, one that has been around since the earliest days of modern philanthropy, donors cut checks with the hopes of generating that next major medical breakthrough or meeting the demand for future healthcare jobs.

In these instances, the goal is somewhere off in the indeterminate future. However, growing health care inequities and an escalating premature death rate suggests that funders are beginning to focus intently on the here and now. A March analysis from the Trust for America’s Health and the Well Being Trust found that the number of deaths from alcohol, drugs and suicide in 2017 hit the highest level since the collection of Federal mortality data started in 1999.

Of course, funders have been tackling these challenges for years. Institutional players like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Kresge, Kellogg, and the California Endowment have long addressed healthcare inequities. Meanwhile, last December, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $50 million commitment to fight the opioid epidemic. It was a welcome development involving an issue that has received surprisingly scant philanthropic support.

In the higher education space, we’ve seen a corresponding spike in gifts earmarked for public health initiatives. Most recently, the O. Wayne Rollins Foundation pledged $65 million to Emory University toward construction of a third building at the Rollins School of Public Health, where students “learn to identify, analyze, and intervene in today's most pressing public health issues.”

It may sound like a run-of-the-mill capital gift, but a closer look at Emory’s press release provides evidence to the contrary. “For more than 25 years, future public health leaders have pursued their quest for social justice and the elimination of health disparities at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health,” it reads. This logic, framing public health as a means to accelerate social justice and combat inequality, helps to explain the recent surge in giving in the field.

Boom Times for Public Health Initiatives

Some big university public health gifts include Dana and David Dornsife’s $45 million gift to Drexel's School of Public Health, the Lee Kum Kee family’s $21 million to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s $41 million grant to the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, and Gerald Chan’s $350 million gift to the School of Public Health at Harvard.

The gifts continue to flow in 2019. In February, IBM Watson Health announced a 10-year, $50 million investment in research collaborations with Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School and Vanderbilt University Medical Center to advance the science of artificial intelligence and its application to “major public health issues.”

Nor is the university public health gold rush relegated to mega-funders. In March, the Zilber Family Foundation committed $2.5 million to support scholarships at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, while a month earlier, an anonymous donor pledged $15 million to St. Lawrence University, a portion of which will create two endowed professorships in public health. This gift finds a traditional liberal arts school doubling down on what president William L. Fox called its “innovative approach to the rapidly growing global field of public health.”

The O. Wayne Rollins Foundation’s gift comes four months after optometric physician, inventor and philanthropist Herbert Wertheim committed $25 million to create a public health school at UC San Diego. Wertheim’s comments eloquently synthesized why funders are drawn to the field of public health. “The most important thing we can achieve is making our communities healthier across the lifespan, and thus more productive,” he said. “Prevention is, and always will be, the best medicine.”

Reflecting on the mortality rate data, Dr. Benjamin Miller, the chief policy officer for Well Being Trust, alluded to just how complex this idea of “prevention” truly is. “There are two crises unfolding in America right now,” he said. “One is in health care, and one is in society.” Dr. Miller attributed increasing disparities in health care and inequalities in income as crucial factors in the feelings of despair, loneliness and lack of belonging that contributed to suicides among many Americans.

Dr. Miller’s comments suggest why universities and patrons are increasingly viewing public health through the lens of equity.

Emory isn’t alone in this regard. Last November, Chicago’s Loyola University announced the creation of the Parkinson School of Health Sciences and Public Health. The new school, which netted a $20 million lead gift from former Baxter International CEO Robert Parkinson and his wife Elizabeth, will “assist the poor and marginalized of our society” while “closing gaps in healthcare access and equity.”

An Archetypal Regional Funder

Established in 1967, the O. Wayne Rollins Foundation supports higher education, science research, public health, and well-being in the state of Georgia and particularly in Atlanta. The foundation is named for the family patriarch, Orville Wayne Rollins, who died in 1991. Rollins is the parent company of Orkin and one of the largest pest control conglomerates in North America.

As we note in our Southeast funder guide, the foundation typically sticks to large and well-established institutions in the Atlanta area, such as Emory. It also lacks a website, which will certainly flummox grantseekers.

The foundation has a long history of supporting capital projects at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, having funded the construction of the Grace Crum Rollins and the Claudia Nance Rollins buildings, which opened in 1994 and 2010, respectively. Back in 2015, the foundation pledged $10 million to the James W. Curran Scholarship Fund and $2 million over five years toward the endowment.

The foundation also supports programs in Emory University’s School of Medicine, Winship Cancer Institute and Candler School of Theology, and was instrumental in the construction of the six-story O. Wayne Rollins Research Center, which opened in 1990 and houses several university-based fundamental research departments. 

The foundation’s $65 million gift to Emory will increase the number of classrooms and faculty offices in the new facility, which will have a state-of-the-art conferencing and distance learning space. “We are thrilled to be able to build upon our strategic investments in Emory,” says Amy Rollins Kreisler, executive director of the O. Wayne Rollins Foundation. “Construction of a third building dedicated to public health will enable the university to continue its upward trajectory as one of the world’s leading schools excelling in public health scholarship and research.” Groundbreaking is tentatively set for 2020.

In related coverage, check out our take on the Robert W. Woodruff Foundations $400 million gift to Emory University for a new Health Sciences Research Building and the new Winship Cancer Institute Tower.