Global health gets global business make-over by Foster MBAs

With more than $4 billion in activity among 190 nonprofit organizations, such as PATH and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle has become a magnet for people driving solutions to the health and wellbeing of the poorest people on Earth.

Since the University of Washington Foster School of Business also attracts individuals who seek to make a difference, it was only a matter of time before those crowds mingled.

Take winter quarter 2010, when the Foster School’s year-long Global Business Forum focused on global health and development. Among the 20 speakers brought into the MBA-level forum was Lisa Cohen, executive director of Washington Global Health Alliance, an organization established in 2007 to promote issues and improve collaboration between the dozens of Washington-based global health groups.

“There has been a tremendous increase in funding of global health activities,” Cohen said in a recent interview, “but the great struggle for a nonprofit in global heath is sustainability. When I told that to the class, they asked, ‘What can we do?’ I said, ‘I need a business model.’ ”

“The Foster Four” create road map for global health

In addition to a Gates Foundation grant, the Alliance is funded through membership dues of other well-known organizations such as Seattle Biomedical Research Institute and the University of Washington Department of Global Health.

Three full-time Alliance employees, including Cohen, operate like a start-up with early investors who want results – a start-up with a bold mission: “… engage in, and advocate for, Washington state as a center for global health on the world stage.”

When Foster MBA students Bala Balamurugan, David Cohen, Colin Hanna and Jason Moll (aka “The Foster Four”) heard Lisa Cohen’s talk about the Alliance, they were immediately intrigued with the possibility of putting their business education to work for the nonprofit.

“There is a lot of buzz about global health in Seattle and we saw an opportunity to get to know that whole sector through one very influential point of contact,” said Hanna (Evening MBA 2010).

“We want to make a bigger impact than just working for an organization that is trying to maximize profit,” said David Cohen (MBA 2010). “This was an opportunity to add life to an organization that is trying to make a much bigger difference in the world.”

Not only did The Foster Four (who were given the nickname by leaders in the Seattle global health realm) spend 15 hours a week for nearly 12 weeks consulting for the Alliance and meeting with the organization’s crew and community supporters, but they produced a final report that Lisa Cohen says will be a road-map for growing the nonprofit.

“I have been astounded by their personal dedication,” said Lisa Cohen. “I felt so confident that I had them present their report to my executive board, which is all the top leaders in global health in this region including the Gates Foundation.”

Making a difference (squared)

“It became clear to us right away that the Alliance is making a ton of impact but, with relatively minor changes from a business standpoint, they could do a lot more,” David Cohen said.

“It is a classic start-up environment,” said Balamurugan, who works at Microsoft while attending Foster’s Evening MBA Program. “How do you sustain it? How do you deliver value and keep going?”

The Alliance is not resting on the assumption that its grant from the Gates Foundation will be renewed. Lisa Cohen and her team plan to continue to push for success and prove their worth.

The Foster students’ eight-page report, titled “Roadmap to Sustainability” and signed “The Foster Four,” is a succinct and elegant analysis with recommendations covering everything from a new membership model and performance metrics to the Alliance’s nonprofit legal structure. For example, on the revenue generating side, the students propose increasing fees for the executive members. Some of those members have agreed that was the right move. They also propose adding a basic membership for other nonprofits with fees on a sliding scale, as well as opening doors for companies to sponsor events.

“There is a real push to achieve impact at scale,” Lisa Cohen said. “Rather than just a single project in a single village, the challenge is, What can we do for a country? What can we do for a continent?”

That incredible challenge – improving the lives of potentially hundreds of millions of people – held a deep attraction for The Foster Four.

“I think there is increasing interest among MBA students in this blurring of the lines between the business world and the nonprofit world,” added Hanna.

About the project, David Cohen concluded: “This has been the most rewarding and worthwhile experience of my MBA.”

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