Pharma Philanthropy: Q&A with Pfizer’s Darren Back

By Christiane Truelove • [email protected]

Med Ad News asked Darren Back, VP, Global Health & Social Impact at Pfizer Inc. and executive director of The Pfizer Foundation, to give some insights on the Foundation’s strategies for programs and how it distributes grants. While COVID-19 accelerated giving, The Pfizer Foundation was active long before the pandemic and seeks to improve health worldwide through a variety of initiatives. The Pfizer Foundation is a charitable organization established by Pfizer Inc. It is a separate legal entity from Pfizer Inc. with distinct legal restrictions.

Med Ad News: The Pfizer Foundation has programs that are reactive—grants for disaster relief, COVID-19, and refugee relief) and proactive (SDOH grants trying to address mortality in African-American communities, and innovation grants for low-resource and underserved communities). Is the goal of The Pfizer Foundation to be balanced in its giving between the two types of programs?

Darren Back: At Pfizer and The Pfizer Foundation, our work reflects an enduring belief that better health is possible for everyone, everywhere. In collaboration with our partners, we apply our medicines and vaccines, knowledge, resources and people to help address the barriers to better health head-on. At The Pfizer Foundation, this primarily means deploying grants and investments to help improve health systems in low- and middle-income countries and improve access to quality healthcare for underserved communities in the U.S. and around the world. In times of crisis, we recognize we have a unique role to play and work alongside Pfizer to respond to natural disasters, deploying grants to partners working on the ground, providing product donations, and enabling our colleagues to also give to causes through our matching gifts programs.

Med Ad News: What are the qualifications that an organization’s program should have to be eligible for a grant? Can organizations directly apply for a grant or does the Foundation solely seek out possible recipients?

Darren Back: As a charitable foundation, founded by a multinational company, we have the breadth and scale to help improve health, but it is through collaboration that we are best able to connect with communities and create meaningful impact. To help us identify partners with the expertise to create sustainable solutions, The Pfizer Foundation has both a global health strategy and a formal set of programmatic and organizational criteria that we assess, depending on the grant program. This assessment mainly centers around the organization’s ability to make an impact. For our community-based grants – such as our Social Determinants of Health grant program – it’s important that the programs reflect and have a direct connection to the communities they are intended to serve. We also look closely at each organizations’ footprint and stakeholder network.

Most of the Foundation’s proactive funding is executed through invitation-only, competitive requests for proposals to ensure that applicants and their projects are in line with the Foundation’s charitable and programmatic requirements. An important part of our grant programs is developing and fostering a learning environment for our grant cohorts and the RFP process helps us to achieve this and allows the Foundation to better support grantee goals.

We are always looking to expand our network of innovative partners and connect with new organizations regularly to learn more about their work. During the COVID-19 pandemic we formed a number of new partnerships to respond to immediate frontline health needs. We also take a long-term view by investing financially and sharing our technical knowledge with partner organizations that help develop a pipeline of potential applicants and build capacity of potential grantees applying for funds.

Med Ad News: What is the average grant request amount?

Darren Back: We receive a broad range of funding requests, depending on the goals of the programs, time horizon and the capacity of the organization to deliver. While the size and scope of the grants deployed through The Pfizer Foundation differs, our multi-year grants programs are focused on supporting smaller organizations with big potential impact. Our Global Health Innovation Grants program, for example, which was launched in 2016 and provides $100,000 in seed funding and technical support to 20 organizations that are strengthening health systems at the community and primary care level. Through the program some incredible organizations have been able to refine a concept, evaluate and learn, and scale up successful health interventions. The grantees join an annual cohort, but many of the organizations have been part of the initiative since the beginning. We have built long-term relationships and learned collectively from each success and failure to create greater potential for expanded, scaled and sustainable solutions in the future.

Med Ad News: In addition to the Global Health Innovation Grants program that launched during 2016, what are some of the newer types of funding programs that The Pfizer Foundation participates in?

Darren Back: The Global Health Innovation Grants program launched in 2016 and is now in its sixth year, making it one of our longer-standing initiatives. More recently, we initiated several new grant programs to promote health equity in the U.S., which we hope to continue to expand. In 2020, we launched a pilot program to improve health outcomes in Black communities in the U.S. using a social determinants of health framework. This pilot program is supporting 10 community organizations working on health and livelihood needs in Black communities and in 2021 we expanded this program to a $4.5 million grant program supporting 15 organizations over a two-year period.

Darren Back

Additionally, in response to the increased demand for critical health care services provided by community health centers in the wake of COVID-19, we partnered with Direct Relief to launch the multi-year Innovation Awards in Community Health: Addressing Infectious Disease in Underserved Communities. The program provides funding to 11 community health centers and free clinics to support innovative approaches to infectious disease education, screening, testing and care for underserved communities.

Med Ad News: How has COVID-19 shifted the focus of existing grant programs?

Darren Back: In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic reaffirmed the importance of the work we were already supporting through The Pfizer Foundation to strengthen health systems and address the needs of those most underrepresented – especially with regards to infectious disease. So rather than shift our focus, we’ve doubled down. In the face of today’s global health crises, we’ve remained laser focused on our commitments, deploying additional resources to meet the needs of underserved communities around the world.

This meant, expanding our work in the U.S. COVID-19 underscored the very real impact of social determinants of health on people’s ability to access quality health services. Recognizing that enduring inequities have contributed to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic among ethnically and racially diverse groups, we’re partnering to address the root causes of health inequity through our Social Determinants of Health program and partnership with Direct Relief.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the disproportionate burden of infectious diseases on vulnerable communities, the persistent inequity of infectious disease prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care is unfortunately nothing new. This is why we have expanded our global health commitment in this space to build more resilient health systems, with a focus on key areas including childhood mortality, antimicrobial resistance, neglected tropical diseases, newly emerging infections and universal health coverage.