The Little-Known Foundation Helping the CDC Fight Coronavirus

The Little-Known Foundation Helping the CDC Fight Coronavirus

By Suzy Strutner, managing editor
⏰ 5-minute read

In short:

  • The CDC Foundation is a nonprofit that directly supports the CDC’s work, notably during emergencies like the current coronavirus outbreak.
  • The Foundation’s very existence is the result of smart planning: Congress established it as a way to get funds to the CDC sans lengthy, complicated government processes.
  • By preparing during downtime and maintaining a Rolodex of folks willing to donate, the Foundation can raise millions of dollars when emergencies hit.


Most Americans are familiar with The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the government’s health protection agency. 

The CDC Foundation is less well-known, but its work is just as vital. It’s a non-government, nonprofit organization designed to directly support the CDC’s work.

During global health emergencies, like the current coronavirus outbreak, the CDC Foundation channels money to the CDC to aid its alleviation efforts: Late last month, the organization announced a $1 million donation that would support coronavirus first responders via logistics and communications help, personal protective equipment and more.

The Foundation’s very existence is the result of thoughtful planning by the CDC. Its ability to move money quickly – sometimes in a matter of hours – is a testament to the nonprofit’s prowess in building relationships and learning from past crises.


Fuss-free funds

Congress established the CDC Foundation in 1992 -- it launched in 1995 -- as a way to get extra funding for CDC activities like data collection, community health programs and, of course, emergency response. Because the Foundation isn’t a government agency, it can allocate and spend funds more flexibly and quickly than the CDC itself, said VP of Communications Pierce Nelson. 

“Government organizations rightfully have rules in place related to how they spend their funding, and what they need to do to be able to spend it, and the time they’re able to spend it,” he said. “You’re spending taxpayers’ money, and there are lots of requirements and restrictions. The CDC Foundation has the flexibility of a nonprofit to meet needs for which government funding may not be available, or not enough is available, or it’s not available in the time needed.”

“Government organizations rightfully have rules in place related to how they spend their funding. ... The CDC Foundation has the flexibility of a nonprofit to meet needs for which government funding may not be available."

In the everyday, this looks like deploying surveys to track tobacco use around the world and piloting a program to combat teen substance abuse in the American Midwest. In a time of crisis, it often means transferring funds – donated by corporations like UPS and Amgen as well as individuals – to the CDC posthaste.

Nelson recounted the time during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak when the CDC called the Foundation requesting funds to support an “enhanced surveillance effort” in which health workers went door-to-door to search for new cases. Time was of the essence -- the CDC needed an answer within hours. The Foundation contacted an individual who had previously shown interest in donating to Ebola-related projects and got their approval to deploy $500,000 within a couple of hours.

Without that money, the CDC likely wouldn’t have been able to participate in the surveillance project, Nelson said. 

“There really were no funds for this purpose,” he continued. “… Those $500,000 played a large role in beating back the number of Ebola deaths that were occurring [in that region].”

The CDC Foundation gives money to the CDC for its response to emergencies like the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak.

Phoning a friend

Evidently, relationships are critical to the Foundation’s efficiency. Twenty-five years of operation has yielded a vast network of corporate partners and individual donors that both offer up funds and refer the Foundation to others who are willing to donate, Nelson said.

Other corporate donors include 3M and Bayer. Philanthropic partners include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies. Individual donors are not only wealthy philanthropists but also everyday folks “with an interest in health,” per Nelson.

“[The Foundation’s success] does relate to having those relationships and then having the dependability of people having worked with us before and knowing the work that we do and what we’re able to do,” he said.

“[The Foundation’s success] does relate to ... the dependability of people having worked with us before and knowing the work that we do."  

 When coronavirus became an issue of CDC concern, the Foundation reached out to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which had donated during the Ebola outbreak and 2010 Haiti earthquake. “Based on that relationship,” Nelson’s colleagues secured a $1 million donation from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to kick off their coronavirus response, he said.

Foundation leaders intend for this “catalytic donation,” as president Judy Monroe called it, to spark support from others, businesses and individuals alike.

The CDC Foundation is raising funds to support the CDC's response to coronavirus in China, the U.S. and beyond.


Chatting with the CDC

In addition to donors, the Foundation keeps in close touch with the CDC in both crisis and calm. They work on hundreds of programs together, Nelson said.

The usual flow of crisis-time communications, which played out last month as coronavirus escalated:

  • The CDC makes a request to “activate” the Foundation’s Emergency Response Fund (in other words, get money to help with its crisis-relief projects). 

  • The Foundation talks with CDC scientists and health experts to define their specific needs. In the case of coronavirus, these include funding for the aforementioned logistics, communications, providing of personal safety equipment and more.

  • The Foundation ensures those needs can’t be met by government funds, or can’t be met quickly enough due to government requirements.

  • The Foundation approves the CDC’s request and works with donors to raise funds (i.e. calling the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to ask for a donation, then publishing a statement about the need for more support).

  • The Foundation uses the funds that have been donated to support the specific emergency response needs that have been identified and approved.

  • The Foundation stays in touch with the CDC throughout the crisis and reports back to donors about how funds are being used. Reporting ranges from updates on the Foundation’s website for general donors to personalized reports for certain (high-dollar-amount) donors.

Like the CDC, the CDC Foundation tackles global crises from a headquarters in Atlanta.

Crisis team, assemble

Responding to an emergency like coronavirus requires summoning a “core team,” as Nelson called it, of leaders from Foundation departments including finance, communications, programs (which approves and tracks results of the CDC’s funding requests) and advancement (which liaises with partners and donors).

The Foundation might add staff based on the CDC’s needs: During the 2015-16 Zika epidemic, it hired experts to manage a CDC-backed health program in Puerto Rico. 

“It’s really critical that day-to-day work takes place” even during crisis, Nelson said.

To that end, the Foundation has made some changes over the years involving members of its programs department, who design and oversee how, exactly, funds are allocated day-to-day in non-crisis situations.  

“We used to have our program folks working on emergency responses,” Nelson said. “We changed that a few years ago, because we found that we were pulling our programmatic people to help fill some of the gaps that would occur [during a crisis]. Now, we have folks who are specifically responsible for emergency responses.” 

“We used to have our program folks working on emergency responses. ... Now, we have folks who are specifically responsible for emergency responses.”  

 This new team has other work to do during its downtime, he added, but emergencies have been plentiful since its creation. 

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The CDC Foundation combats coronavirus

The Foundation is currently seeking donations to safeguard the U.S. against coronavirus and support first responders around the world, throughout which there are now over 42,000 cases and counting. 

For founders and company leaders, the crisis provides a chance to bolster health and business worldwide, Nelson said. 

“There’s a saying that ‘a health threat anywhere is one everywhere,’” he continued. “The world is interconnected economically, as well. So something that happens somewhere in the world can have an impact in other places, like the U.S. … This is an opportunity for a business to have a role in making a difference.”

💪 Want to help? Join the CDC Foundation’s response to coronavirus.