The WHO Foundation, headquarters in Geneva, is an independent foundation dedicated to protecting the health and well-being of all people, in all parts of the world, and works with the World Health Organization. Your independence is of particular importance. As an international, independent foundation, it is looking for your equal. We found it very exciting to ask Karen Hitschke, who, as COO of this special organization, to ask motivation questions and to receive insides about the current focus.
Dannheisig: Dear Karen, you have now done groundwork in the new WHO Foundation in Geneva. How did that time feel?
Hitschke: I joined the Foundation in August 2021, and it has been an amazing journey every step of the way. Joining an organisation which supports the work of the World Health Organization (WHO) has been exhilarating. In addition we have an extremely talented and purpose-driven team, who are very inspiring to work alongside.
I feel that we have been able to make very fast progress, despite being very young. We were founded in May 2020, but our CEO joined as the first employee only in January 2021, and the actual fundraising activities began in March 2021. Much of the initial work was done by a team of consultants – in fact, I was only the second permanent member of the foundation. In these past 9 months, my work has been very much focused on building up the organisation, including onboarding new staff members, of which we now have 20. It is very exciting for me to see such a talented team with very diverse backgrounds and nationalities coming together.
At the same time, a lot of work is already being done on the fundraising front, which is our core activity at the moment. Since the beginning of 2021, we have already mobilised over 40 million US-Dollar for health. It has been certainly challenging but very exciting to be part of such a rapid growth journey.
Dannheisig: The WHO Foundation is an independent body that sees itself as a catalyst for funding initiatives to improve world health. What is the meaning of independence? Couldn’t the work have been done directly from WHO?
Hitschke: Independence means two things for the Foundation. First is in the legal sense: we are indeed an independent, Swiss-registered foundation, with our own, separate board and management team. We are legally independent from the WHO and manage our organisation accordingly.
Closely related to this is the second point that our legal independence grants us the ability to do a range of things that the WHO cannot do, being a specialised agency of the United Nations and a member states-driven organisation. In particular, the WHO Foundation’s mandate, and value proposition, is our ability to engage in areas where WHO is not traditionally structured to engage. Concretely, this includes three areas of fundraising: philanthropy with a focus on High Net Worth Individuals, private sector partnerships, and campaigns aimed at the general public. By fundraising across these three areas, WHO Foundation acts as a mechanism that can complement the WHO’s resource mobilisation strategy and strengthen its own financial position. At the same time, we support with this approach the WHO in maintaining independence from external influences, private interests and any potential conflicts of interest.
An exciting example of the power of this in action, is the Go Give One (GG1) Campaign. We launched the campaign in March 2021 in support of COVAX, a worldwide initiative aimed at equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines. This was the first time in history that the general public was able to donate directly to an initiative supported by the WHO. Likewise, we have been able to meaningfully engage with the private sector, which is an enormous untapped resource that can contribute substantially to global health. At the foundation we strongly believe in the importance of taking an ecosystem approach ensuring that we can deliver the best value to people across the world and ensure equitable access. The Foundation is therefore able to build a bridge with a range of diverse actors in this ecosystem, while at the same time not compromising the integrity of the WHO.
On a final note, it is important to highlight that while we are independent, we nevertheless share the same vision as WHO: A world in which all people attain the highest possible level of health. In these efforts, we work very closely with the WHO and make sure to align continuously to be able to understand and effectively direct funding to its greatest areas of need.
Dannheisig: What exactly is your role?
Hitschke: As a COO, Chief Operating Officer, I am effectively responsible for building up the organisation. Specifically, I am responsible for four functional areas – finance, legal, people & culture, and IT. In addition to that, I am the focal point for the Foundation’s relationship with the WHO.
At such an early stage the focus on building the organisation is critical. We want to ensure that we can build the backbone that supports everybody thoughout the organisation, that people are empowered through the right processes, role clarity and infrastructure to be able to effectively deliver. Another important aspect is culture-building. In particular, we want to recruit and build a team that aligns with our values: service, impact, innovation, equity, honesty, and joy in everything we do. I am aspiring to have an agile, creative and responsible team of bridge-builders who work closely together and not in silos.
My responsibilities here fit well with my past experiences, including 10 years in venture capital, and 10 years creating another impactful organisation, Yunus Social Business, from scratch. Having had this experience is incredibly helpful in this current challenge of creating a new powerful player in global health that strengthens and complements the work of the WHO.
Dannheisig: What is the vision of the WHO Foundation in its development work?
Hitschke: The WHO Foundation shares the same vision as WHO: a world in which all people attain the highest possible level of health. However, the WHO Foundation goes one step further, and brings the power of the private sector to WHO, driving innovation, impact, and a greater return on investment for partners in an unprecedented way. We want to seamlessly and efficiently mobilise private philanthropy, diversify WHO’s corporate partner portfolio and provide people who believe passionately in global health the ability to maximize the power of their giving.
However the focus is not purely on traditional donor giving model. We also want to be able to broker new partnerships and enable the WHO to unlock the non-financial resources that the private sector can offer, with a focus on co-creation of solutions to global health challenges. The Foundation is also exploring how it can create opportunities to mobilise investment in low-cost, high-quality healthcare solutions.
Dannheisig: How important is cooperation with German institutions for the Foundation?
Hitschke: Germany is a strong supporter of the WHO and more broadly an important player in global health. The country has made major contributions on the international stage in this area, including stepping up when the US had pulled back on financial and political support for the WHO, prioritising health throughout its G7 Presidency this year, and through bilateral cooperation.
This focus, currently guided by the government’s Global Health Strategy adopted in 2020, is supported by strong domestic institutions. These include healthcare and research institutions such as Charité, global platforms such as the World Health Summit, and numerous government agencies, foundations, and other types of players. We are very conscious and excited by the great potential of the German ecosystem. Strategically engaging with these institutions who want to support our work is an essential focus for us.
Dannheisig: What are the next steps in the further development of the Foundation?
Hitschke: Looking forward beyond our current live campaigns – WHO Covid-19 Response Go Give One and Health Emergency Appeal for Ukraine – we are working with the WHO at the headquarter, regional and country levels, to identify high-impact investment opportunities to power WHO’s work in critical areas. In particular we are working on aligning our grantmaking with six thematic areas within the scope of WHO’s Triple Billion Targets: health emergencies, climate change and health, digital health, primary healthcare, mental health and health equity. These will form the basis of our 2023-2025 strategy, which will guide the foundation’s investments and offer a partnership approach to funding these thematic priorities.
Dannheisig: The war that Putin is waging in Ukraine burdens us all and requires new thinking. To what extent does this also influence the work of the WHO Foundation?
Hitschke: Health emergencies, as mentioned before, is one of the 6 thematic priority areas of the Foundation, and therefore, the crisis in Ukraine is a big focus for us at the moment. Barely a week after the conflict began, the WHO Foundation launched a campaign to raise funds for WHO’s Health Emergency Appeal for Ukraine. The WHO asked for an initial amount of 57.5 million US-Dollars to fund the large-scale emergency response needed to deliver urgent healthcare and support the immediate health needs of those affected by the crisis, in Ukraine and surrounding countries.
In the first two months of the conflict in Ukraine, the WHO Foundation raised 7.5 million US-Dollars – ten percent of WHO’s total Ukraine appeal – to deliver healthcare inside the country, where the majority of the 13 million displaced Ukrainians remain. During this period, WHO delivered trauma and emergency supplies for use in over 15,000 clinics to ensure continuity of critical healthcare services, and enough medicines and healthcare equipment to serve 650,000 people.
While much has been done, the conflict is unfortunately far from over. Attacks continue, leading to a large number of casualties and significant damage to essential infrastructure, including hospitals. In response, on 12 May the WHO Foundation has called for additional funding for WHO’s Health Emergency Appeal for Ukraine. In total, it is now estimated that 147.5 million US-Dollar is needed to support Ukraine’s immediate healthcare delivery and help the health system stay resilient for the longer term. Supporting the WHO to raise funds for this essential work is an urgent priority for the Foundation.
Dannheisig: Which concrete projects are particularly important at the moment?
Hitschke: In addition to the Health Emergency Appeal for Ukraine, the Foundation continues fundraising efforts in response to Covid-19, in support of vaccine equity, and for health emergency response and preparedness more broadly.
Beyond our live campaigns, we are focusing on mental health and digital health as the immediate next priority thematic areas for fundraising. For both of these areas the focus will be on seeking financial support as well as tapping into non-financial resources through thought-partnerships and co-creation.
We are in the middle of a mental health crisis. Globally, close to one billion people have a mental disorder. According to WHO, the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted or, in some cases, halted, critical mental health services in 93 percent of countries worldwide, while the demand for these services is increasing. By working together, the public, private and civil society sectors have a unique opportunity to ensure mental health services reach one billion people.
On digital health, we will be working to support the WHO Global Digital Health Strategy which is intended to provide guidance and coordination on global digital health transformation and to strengthen synergies between initiatives and stakeholders to improve health outcomes and mitigate associated risks at all levels. These objectives are: (1) Promote global collaboration and advance the transfer of knowledge on digital health; (2) Advance the implementation of national digital health strategies; (3) Strengthen governance for digital health at global, regional and national levels; (4) Advocate people-centered health systems that are enabled by digital health.
Dannheisig: What do you currently wish for most in your job?
Hitschke: I am currently really excited about getting the permanent team in place, and to see them come together and align behind the WHO Foundation vision. I am really proud to say that in the last months we have been able to attract some incredibly talented candidates and I cannot wait to see them in action. We are still recruiting additional 10-15 positions, and I am keen to get them in place as soon as possible to continue developing our strategy together and build a coherent and aligned organisation. Likewise I look forward to making advances in developing the processes to make sure everybody can work smoothly.
Beyond our traditional fundraising activities, I am also excited to see how we can conceptualise and develop progressive strategies to scale solutions and bring in diverse stakeholders for best results in enhancing the global health ecosystem. Obviously, with my former background in venture capital and impact investing, this is an area I am passionate about, and I am eager to build bridges between the private sector, non-profits and government.
And finally, I am looking forward to learning more about the global health space, and getting to know the key players and making new connections here in Geneva. This is a new space for me and I am excited about expanding my horizon. Working at the Foundation is truly a unique opportunity to continue my learning journey alongside building up a new organisation and extending my network.