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Whether tackling society’s most pressing public health crises or working to quicken the pace of research and innovation to find cures for life-altering diseases, a number of philanthropists today are focusing on health-related causes. This may be because, in the words of Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Of all the injustices in the world, injustice in health is the most inhumane.”

The philanthropists we interviewed who focus on public health are motivated primarily by a desire to improve health outcomes, typically by working to improve the  health of impoverished people. They set ambitious goals—such as reversing the U.S. obesity epidemic by 2015 or eradicating malaria globally—and promote innovative collaborations across the nonprofit, for-profit, and public sectors to achieve such goals. They find that the act of establishing and announcing ambitious goals can play an important role in galvanizing others to action.

Most of the philanthropists we interviewed who focus on medical research have either personally or have had a family member afflicted by a disease and are frustrated by the slow pace of traditional approaches to research and drug development. They believe that philanthropy can accelerate research and collaboration by helping to break down the silos that have historically existed among researchers, the private sector, and government. To do so, our interviewees are changing the long-established rules of the game—which traditionally have been driven by government and pharmaceutical companies—by using innovative techniques such as increasing public awareness to prompt government funding for research; investing in “translational” research that bridges basic science (funded by government) and later-stage research (funded by the private sector); and promoting collaboration between researchers and institutions to bring cures to market faster.

No matter what health issue our interviewees tackle or where that issue falls in terms of scale or cost, they are convinced that working independently has severe limitations. Their ability to work across sectors and fill essential yet underfunded steps in finding a cure or advancing medical understanding is key to their success. 

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