The Little-Known Foundation Helping the CDC Fight Coronavirus

March 16, 2020

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 COVID-19 pandemic.
  • 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.


UPDATE: This post originally ran on Feb. 11. We reached out to the CDC Foundation after the coronavirus/COVID-19 was labeled a pandemic to get an update and have provided additional information here.

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

The CDC Foundation(opens in new tab) 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.

The CDC Foundation channels money to the CDC to aid its alleviation efforts during global health emergencies like the current outbreak of a new coronavirus that causes a disease called COVID-19. 


The CDC Foundation and COVID-19

Late in January, the CDC Foundation announced a $1 million donation(opens in new tab) that would support first responders via logistics and communications help, personal protective equipment and more. 

Donations from big-name companies have poured in since, seeing an uptick after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic last week. Wells Fargo(opens in new tab), SC Johnson(opens in new tab) and Kaiser Permanente(opens in new tab) each gave $1 million. Walgreens(opens in new tab) gave $100,000 and a bulk of thermometers to help with local testing for the new virus. Lysol(opens in new tab) announced it will match up to $2 million in donations from individuals to the Foundation. 

Donations from big-name companies have poured in: Wells Fargo, SC Johnson and Kaiser Permanente each gave $1 million to the Foundation last week. 

 Finally, Facebook(opens in new tab) announced it will match $10 million in donations when its joint campaign with the Foundation goes live “within the next few weeks,” according Pierce Nelson, the Foundation’s VP of communications.

While these donations are bringing attention to the Foundation now, the organization was designed to support the CDC in the everyday as well as crisis. Its 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.

CDC screenshot(opens in new tab)The CDC Foundation raises money to the CDC for its response to emergencies like COVID-19. 


Fuss-free funds

Congress established the CDC Foundation in 1992 -- it launched in 1995 -- as a way to get extra funding for CDC activities(opens in new tab) 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 Nelson.

It’s certainly not common for the president to free up billions in government funding(opens in new tab) to aid in a health crisis, as he did for the COVID-19 outbreak last week.

“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(opens in new tab) to track tobacco use around the world and piloting a program(opens in new tab) to combat teen substance abuse in the American Midwest. In a time of crisis, it often means transferring funds – donated by corporations(opens in new tab) like UPS and Amgen as well as individuals – to the CDC posthaste.

And now, in the current COVID-19 situation, the Foundation has raised more than $4 million so far(opens in new tab) to boost the CDC’s response, which includes developing awareness campaigns(opens in new tab), delivering food and medicine to quarantined individuals and helping communities with their on-the-ground efforts to prevent spread.  

The COVID-19 campaign echoes a crisis response from the Foundation’s past.

Nelson recounted the time during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak(opens in new tab) 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].”

Helper helpingThe CDC Foundation also channeled money to the CDC for its response to 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(opens in new tab) and Bayer(opens in new tab). 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 COVID-19 became an issue of CDC concern, the Foundation reached out to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation(opens in new tab), 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 COVID-19 response, he said.

Foundation leaders intend for this “catalytic donation,” as president Judy Monroe called it(opens in new tab), to spark support from others, businesses and individuals alike. Nelson said that has indeed happened. 

However, it’s most likely that COVID-19’s pandemic status -- and the fact that it’s affecting Americans close to home -- are what really drove donations in the last couple of weeks, he added. 

As opposed to when the campaign launched last month, “attention is extremely high right now as people throughout the world, including in the United States, have seen how the pandemic is affecting their daily lives and their communities,” Nelson said.

The Foundation also relies on corporate networking, and its response to COVID-19 is no different. Nelson said a previous corporate partner linked his team up with Charidy(opens in new tab), a crowdfunding platform that specifically helps nonprofits. The two launched a campaign(opens in new tab) with its own theme, logo and introductory video. Its landing page(opens in new tab) is a sizzly alternative to that of the Foundation’s emergency response fund(opens in new tab), which is also accepting COVID-19 donations.

The Foundation partnered with crowdfunding platform Charidy to create a branded fundraiser for COVID-19.

“Importantly, Charidy very generously offered their services pro-bono to develop the campaign and all of the creative materials,” Nelson said. “… diversifying how we raise support -- offering donors and potential donors a variety of options -- is very important.” 

When the Foundation’s Facebook-based donation portal debuts, there will be a total of three ways to donate, he added.


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 COVID-19 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 COVID-19, 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(opens in new tab)).

  • 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.

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


Crisis team, assemble

Responding to an emergency like COVID-19 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(opens in new tab), 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. 

Over the past couple of weeks, as the government’s response to COVID-19 changes daily, it’s necessary to keep organized as a team, Nelson said.

“We have found that early-morning daily huddles provide us with an opportunity to discuss new developments and what our team needs to be focused on that day and over the medium- and long-terms,” Nelson said. “This is a simple step, but important.”


Continuing to combat COVID-19

The Foundation is still seeking donations(opens in new tab) to limit the spread and effects of the new coronavirus in the U.S., in which there are now at least 3,500 cases(opens in new tab) and counting. 

For founders and company leaders, the crisis provides a chance to bolster health and business worldwide, Nelson said. It’s also a chance to combat economic panic with corporate kindness.

“While crises are very stressful and challenging times, they also present an opportunity to bring out the best in people,” he added.


Want to help? Join the CDC Foundation’s response to COVID-19(opens in new tab).

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