The Tropical Disease Program: Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, 1974

Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society (Duke)



Case Study Sector


The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation first became interested in international grant-making in the early 1970s. The Foundation searched for a niche in which it could leverage a modest commitment of funds for the achievement of maximum impact. Health care seemed too broad a field, but the senior staff felt that tropical disease research could be just such a niche. To that end, EMCF convened a workshop of practitioners to identify which disease(s) should be targeted. EMCF chose the chronic illness schistosomiasis and, several years later, two infectious causes of blindness—trachoma and onchocerciasis.
Throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation—in an effort to eradicate schistosomiasis, onchocerciasis, and trachoma—provided major research and development support. During these years the Foundation was the dominant funder of efforts to prevent and control these diseases. EMCF collaborated extensively with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (a division of NIH) and the World Health Organization, but the Foundation’s own appropriations for this work were always at least twice those of the WHO. A significant body of research was produced, a cadre of scientists was recruited to the field, and progress toward vaccines was advanced.
However, the Foundation did not meet its primary goal in either schisto or oncho research: the development of a vaccine. Inspired by advances like the Salk vaccine for polio, the Foundation underestimated the difficulty of developing a vaccine. To its credit, however, EMCF learned from past mistakes and continually refined its strategy.



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