Last year, I wrote about Gates Philanthropy Partners as a beacon of hope during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly a year later, Jennifer Alcorn, a deputy director with the Gates Foundation and Gates Philanthropy Partners, is here to give an insider’s perspective on the organization and what it was like to rapidly scale up grant-making, what the funding supported, and philanthropy’s role in the pandemic.

Can you give us some background on how Gates Philanthropy Partners originated and an overview on how the organization has grown?
Gates Philanthropy Partners is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets in philanthropy. In 2016, Bill and Melinda Gates created Gates Philanthropy Partners in response to the $32 million in unsolicited donations the foundation had received since 2000. Much like Warren Buffett, who trusted Bill and Melinda Gates to steward his philanthropy, thousands of donors around the world similarly trust the Gates Foundation with their giving – whether that’s $10 or $10 million. Gates Philanthropy Partners staff have received heartwarming donations from kids’ lemonade stands to touching letters from individuals who are including the foundation in their will to support poverty alleviation long after they have passed.

In turn, Gates Philanthropy Partners works with experts at the foundation – from those working on malaria to maternal health – to identify existing grantee partners where additional funding can be directed. Since its founding, Gates Philanthropy Partners has channeled more than $130 million from unsolicited donations to grantee partners.

2020 thrust Gates Philanthropy Partners into the spotlight as the giving partner of the Gates Foundation as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded. As Bill Gates took center stage as an expert voice on pandemic preparedness and vaccine development, Gates Philanthropy Partners was flooded with questions of how donors could help. Within one week of the World Health Organization declaring a global pandemic, Gates Philanthropy Partners established the Combatting COVID-19 Fund, which provided a way for donors to give alongside the Gates Foundation’s COVID-19 response strategy.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has granted more than $1.75 billion in response to the pandemic. How does GPP work the foundation and what have your donors supported? 
In March, we very quickly set up a fund within Gates Philanthropy Partners as donors sought ways to respond to the pandemic. We wanted to respond quickly to donors that were trusting us – and the foundation – with their funding in such an uncertain time.

The foundation initially set up three core pillars of response: 1) accelerate research and development for vaccines and treatments, 2) contain the virus through testing and disease surveillance, and 3) protect the most vulnerable, particularly in Africa and South Asia where many communities do not have access to quality health care. Bill and Melinda also invested here in Seattle, supporting the local public health departments and organizations working to secure food and housing. Our grants directly align with those strategies and a significant amount of support was channeled to research and development for potential treatments, better testing, and to train and support health care workers in Africa.

In my 12 years at the foundation, I have honestly never seen grant-making happen so quickly. At Gates Philanthropy Partners, we made our first COVID-19 response grant in April and we’ve made more than 30 grants since, totaling more than $90 million. We are truly honored and, frankly, amazed at the outpouring of generosity from donors.

We are clearly still very much in this pandemic, but can you share some of the early successes or lessons learned?
Yes, we are still very much in this. We are briefed weekly by our colleagues at the Gates Foundation who are infectious disease experts, epidemiologists, etc. and they are carefully watching the variants that are making headlines. I’ll also say that we are all astounded at the pace at which the scientific community was able to develop an effective vaccine.

In terms of successes and lessons learned, 2020 was a blur and we are just starting to digest the early data from our grant-making. I would say there are two things that stand out:

  1. Funding research and development is tough. We know that it is high risk – and potentially high reward. But there is also a lot of failure. In terms of our grants focused on treatments, we were hopeful that there would be an existing drug that would come through, but many of those trials did not yield significant results. With vaccines, we were more successful thanks to our partnership with CEPI.
  2. Our funding to several partners in Africa like Alima, AFENET and Amref has been critical to building health systems. The first wave of the pandemic did not hit many countries in Africa the way that Europe and U.S. were hit, but this second wave is now resulting in increased cases across the continent. Our funding helped to lay the groundwork for a more coordinated response.

What projects do you anticipate the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gates Philanthropy Partners will support moving forward?
We are very focused at the moment on vaccine delivery to low-and-middle income countries. There is tremendous risk that these countries will not start seeing ramped up vaccination campaigns until 2022 – and that the majority of their populations will not be vaccinated until 2024. That is a risk for all of us. As we know, this virus does not care about borders. We cannot expect to significantly open up travel and trade until more of the world is vaccinated.

We also are going to double-down on research and development. We’re going to need the next generation of vaccines – particularly those that are less expensive than the current offerings from Pfizer and Moderna. We also need to continue to explore treatments, as even with vaccines, many people will continue to get sick – just like we see with the flu every year.

Finally, we need to start thinking ahead. The TED Talk video of Bill Gates expressing concern for the world’s readiness for a pandemic back in 2015 made headlines last year as the coronavirus spread throughout the globe. Experts have predicted that this will not be the last pandemic we see this century. What are we going to do as global community to prepare ourselves for the next one?

Support Gates Philanthropy Partners through Global Impact’s COVID-19 Relief Fund