How Can Philanthropy Help with America’s Opioid Crisis?

How Can Philanthropy Help with America’s Opioid Crisis?


Philanthropy has a potential to address a number of serious problems, from shifting demands on the American workforce to the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Very recently, individuals have begun exploring how philanthropy could help one of the most serious problems facing the United States today, the opioid crisis.

Calling Attention to the Problem of Opioid Abuse

Claire Fiddian-Green
Claire Fiddian-Green | Image courtesy Twitter

In 2015, Claire Fiddian-Green took over the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation in Indianapolis and subsequently carried out research to figure out what was at the heart of the poor state of the city’s health. One of the root causes turned out to be opioid misuse. As a result, Fairbanks jumped into the problem and has since been urging other philanthropic organizations, many of which have received criticism for failing to respond to this issue, to join the battle.

Fairbanks partnered with Eskenazi Hospital to create a program that would connect individuals to real help. Formerly, patients who were admitted for opioid overdose were provided information about addiction treatment and then released. Unfortunately, these individuals would often return to the hospital or, worse, die from a subsequent overdose. Fairbanks provided a grant of $700,000 to increase collaboration among healthcare workers and affect a significant shift in this pattern. Now, counselors work directly with patients to get them admitted to treatment facilities. They also deal with all of the insurance-related paperwork. Patients who do not want treatment receive a naloxone kit and training on how to use it.

Last year, Fairbanks issued a formal call to other Indiana foundations, as well as business and government officials, to come together and discuss the crisis. Together, these organizations looked at all the current approaches to the opioid epidemic. They also created the Indiana Funders Collaborative, which meets quarterly to facilitate the sharing of information among the various groups.

Recently, President Donald Trump drew attention to the opioid epidemic by announcing that he would donate his third-quarter salary to the Department of Health and Human Services to tackle the opioid crisis. The organization’s secretary, Eric Hargan, said that the money would go toward public awareness campaigns addressing opioid addiction.

The Scope of the Crisis and the Slow Philanthropic Response

Last year, more than 34,000 Americans (a much higher number than in previous years) lost their lives due to opioid overdose. Despite the shocking numbers behind this crisis, philanthropy has been slow to respond. In Indiana, it took leadership from a particular foundation to formalize a strategy. Perhaps President Trump’s donation will inspire more people to begin thinking about how they can use their money to deal with this problem. The real tragedy is that the death toll only tells a small fraction of the whole story. Beyond the tens of thousands of people who die, about 2.5 million people in the United States live with opioid addiction, which takes a terrible toll on them as well as their loved ones.

So far, very few national foundations have given grants to deal with the problem. Response has also been weak on the local level. A number of hypotheses have been posited concerning this lack of response. Some professionals say that foundations drag their feet to address a new problem because directing resources to a new problem usually means cutting current programs. Other people think that most foundations do not see the brunt of the epidemic since it is focused in rural America, not urban centers. In fact, the regions with the most active funders tend to be those most affected, which lends credibility to this second theory.

One example of this finding is the Independence Blue Cross Foundation (IBC) in Southeastern Pennsylvania, a region that has faced high unemployment rates and growing rates of opioid abuse. IBC started the Supporting Treatment and Overdose Prevention (STOP) initiative, which works to expand community resources and tackle the major barriers to treatment. STOP also focuses on education and awareness. So far, IBC’s strategies have been very successful and have potential for nationwide impact. In fact, IBC recently noted that it is working on a national “best practice” guide for implementing its protocols in other jurisdictions.

The Other Side of the Opioid Philanthropy Coin

Media outlets have recently focused on how the opioid industry is funneling money to philanthropy rather than how philanthropy is alleviating the opioid crisis. Both The New Yorker and Esquire have highlighted connections of the Sackler family, which has provided millions of dollars of support to arts and cultural organizations, to OxyContin, one of the drugs most commonly linked to opioid overdoses and deaths. According to these articles, some of the family fortune stems from Purdue Pharma, which produces the drug. This finding becomes problematic when considering that Purdue pled guilty in 2007 to federal charges of misbranding the drug with the explicit intention to mislead consumers. Now, the company faces more federal charges and several state lawsuits due to its role in the opioid crisis.

While the Sacklers were not personally accused of wrongdoing, the two articles questioned the degree to which museums and similar institutions have a responsibility to vet the money that they receive. When asked for comment, the vast majority of Sackler philanthropy recipients, including the Guggenheim, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, refused comment or simply ignored the question. As the opioid crisis continues to rage and more philanthropists become involved, this question will undoubtedly resurface again and again.


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