Why the Global Health Council closed

By Jaclyn Schiff, special correspondent

Originally posted at Devex, where it is available for free after registration

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Twenty-twelve marks an important year for the Global Health Council — 40 years since it was founded.

But instead of celebrating that milestone, GHC will shut its doors in the coming months and forgo its annual conference for the first time since 1973.

The council’s announcement Friday, April 20, that it will cease operations leaves a vacuum in the global health community. Described as the professional association for groups involved with global health and the convener of the community, GHC members will be left without a neutral broker, inviting questions about what went wrong and what comes next.

The simplest explanation for why the council is shutting its doors is money. GHC’s operations were largely funded by membership dues in the 1980s and ’90s, but the organization relied more heavily on grants over the last few years, including a three-year Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant that made up the majority of GHC’s budget.

Changing priorities at the council and the Gates Foundation made it clear that the grant wouldn’t be renewed once it ended last year, insiders say. So to make up the shortfall, the council approached organizations like the Macarthur and Hewlett foundations as well as its own members for funding, according to Susan Higman, GHC’s director of research and analysis who became interim co-CEO last August.

“We heard a lot of positive responses, but it was hard to have that translate into dollars,” Higman says. Initial donations would have been used to go ahead with the conference.

Writing on the wall?

Why the council ended up in such a desperate financial situation has to do with a leadership void after its former CEO and President Nils Daulaire left at the beginning of 2009, some industry experts suggest. Under his leadership, GHC helped groups work together with U.S. policymakers.

His replacement could not replicate that success, says Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Sadly, GHC could not survive [Daulaire’s] departure,” she says.

Asked if he thought his successor mismanaged the organization, Daulaire points to Obama administration ethics rules, noting that his current role as director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Global Health precluded interacting with his former employer.

“Looking after the business of keeping the GHC viable and sustainable was a 24-hour-a-day job when I was there,” he says. “I really can’t say what went wrong afterwards.”

But Daulaire acknowledges the “loss of internal capacity” — due to management decisions — played a role in the council’s demise. He says after the membership staff was let go, it became increasingly difficult for GHC to focus on its bread and butter.

Some in the global health community also say GHC suffered from a lack of focus in recent years. Between the conference, advocacy round tables and other efforts, the council might have been spread too thin.

Daulaire readily admits there was some miscalculation while he ran the show, but he says that comes with the territory.

“Any organization that is going to succeed is going to misfire,” he says, “but you have to learn and adjust quickly.”

Jeffrey Sturchio, who succeeded Daulaire at the council and left in August 2011, and members of GHC’s board of directors did not respond to interview requests for this article.

GHC, for its part, has pointed to the general shift from a “broad-based health agenda” toward disease-specific approaches as a reason for its shutdown.

“The fundamental shifts in the health landscape have led the Board to revisit the relevance of the organization and determine that the Council’s current operating model is no longer sustainable,” the press release on its imminent closing reads.

Higman, who joined GHC in 2007, acknowledges the council might not have done enough to adapt over the years.

“Organizations can get locked into their own way of doing things,” she says. “To some extent, that happened with the council.”

Read the rest, about what’s next, at Devex.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • Melinda

    This is indeed a critical event because it shows that the world is evolving and that all groups must continue to show worth and value that mesh with the priority needs of their communities. That said–this was a hatchet job on Jeff Sturchio who took over as CEO. His challenges were enormous and I am not surprised they could not be overcome in the context of a changing environment for advocacy in global health.