Headquarters of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. EQRoy/Shutterstock

Headquarters of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. EQRoy/Shutterstock

For the first time, the World Health Organization has established a fundraising and grantmaking entity. Its founders say the new WHO Foundation will provide the U.N. agency with more flexibility in its spending—currently, 80% of the money WHO receives is earmarked by member countries.

In late May, President Trump announced that the United States will no longer pay some $400 million in annual dues to the World Health Organization, after criticizing its handling of the coronavirus crisis and threatening to cut ties with the agency in weeks prior. But the new foundation is not a reaction to that news, officials said.

Instead, they say the WHO Foundation is the result of a nearly two-year effort to broaden the international health organization’s donor base. WHO was founded in 1948 as an agency of the United Nations and receives the bulk of its funds, nearly $2.5 billion annually, from member states.

The new foundation, incorporated in Geneva, Switzerland, was founded by Thomas Zeltner, a former Swiss secretary of health and a visiting professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is serving as the chair of the new foundation’s board, along with trustees Clare Akamanzi, an international trade and investment lawyer from Rwanda, and Bob Carter, an American fundraising consultant who has worked overseas for decades.

“I’m very excited to be part of this effort to create a strong, independent, external advocate that can support WHO’s mission to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable,” said Carter. “Now, more than ever, the world needs this international health organization.”

As it begins to raise money from the general public, major donors and corporations worldwide, Carter said that for now, the WHO Foundation will not approach private foundations because WHO already has well-established relations with private health grantmakers worldwide. It will be interesting to see if the entity ramps up fundraising from foundations as it grows, as there’s surely a lot more potential among philanthropic institutions looking for ways to respond to this crisis and prepare for those in the future.

The WHO Foundation is now embarking on a search for a chief executive and also plans to expand its board to 11 members. The new foundation will distribute grants from the money it raises in accordance with WHO’s health priorities.

“One of the greatest threats to WHO’s success is the fact that less than 20% of our budget comes in the form of flexible assessed contributions,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a speech to introduce the WHO Foundation in Geneva. The new foundation, he added, “can help the organization, or WHO, to improve the quality of funding, to increase the amount of funding, to serve the people we serve in a better way.”

The WHO Foundation is a new entity, but the United Nations has been making efforts more broadly to draw in private donations for some time. In 1998, the U.N. Foundation was launched with a $1 billion pledge from media magnate Ted Turner.

And as a sign of its fundraising potential, Tedros pointed to an effort at the outbreak of the pandemic nearly three months ago, led by WHO, the United Nations Foundation and the Swiss Philanthropy Foundation. The joint COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund has already raised more than $217 million from 439,000 donors—mostly individuals, but some corporations and foundations.

Even as the WHO struggles with its fractured relationship with the White House—and the murky future of the U.S. as a huge funding source—there’s clearly still a lot of goodwill out there for the agency and the work that it does.

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