Thinking Forward: Reflections From Ruth Hennig

August 14, 2017
Ruth Hennig, Executive Director, the John Merck Fund

HEFN and this funder community are deeply grateful for Ruth Hennig’s many contributions to the environmental health movement – and the philanthropy supporting it.  Her HEFN leadership roles included service as a Steering Committee member and as co-chair of the Catalysts group, which collaborated for over a decade to advance transitions from toxic to safer chemicals and materials. We are delighted to share Ruth’s reflections and advice as she prepares to move on after almost 30 years with the John Merck Foundation and step down as its executive director on Sept. 29.


I missed HEFN’s inaugural meeting in 1999 because I was in the midst of breast cancer treatment. Given my work in environmental health, it wasn’t much of a leap for me to blame toxic chemicals for my health crisis and I spent a lot of mental energy inventorying all the exposures to carcinogens over my lifetime as an already aging baby boomer: Atmospheric nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s; my childhood chemistry set; pesticides sprayed liberally – and literally – everywhere in the pre-Rachel Carson era; seeking out the sweet aroma of gasoline; carcinogens in my first post-college workplace as a technician in medical research labs; and who knows what in personal care products.

In the intervening almost 20 years, I’ve come to realize that chemicals in the environment are only part of the reason that I got cancer and that genetic status and lifestyle choices may also have been causes. While environmental exposures can be critical, they are often not the only factors in determining health outcomes either at the individual or at the population level. And the role that poverty and stress play in health status can’t be overstated.

What does this mean for us as funders at the intersection of environment and health? On the environment side, climate change now dominates much of the moral- or value-based philanthropy; on the health side, disease prevention is proving to be a tough sell for donors drawn to the promise of cures and more effective treatments for dreaded illnesses. So, what can our hardy band of HEFN members, who are supporting very talented, dedicated but seriously under-resourced NGOs, do to grow and strengthen our often-overlooked field?

Build on Our Strengths

We are coming off of an eight-year fight to reform TSCA, the nation’s foremost chemicals policy. While the outcome is not everything we hoped for, the win is nevertheless the single biggest victory the environmental community has achieved at the congressional level in decades. A recent M+R evaluation of the campaign commissioned by several HEFN members attributes the win to these hallmarks of successful advocacy:

  • A unified goal with potential for high impact.
  • Collaboration among diverse stakeholders.
  • Affected groups as the public facing coalition representatives.
  • Grassroots organizing capacity (optimal when a political lens is applied).
  • Effective communications.

Going forward, we should look for these same elements when making funding decisions. And it would be even better if as funders we could consolidate resources around a small number of campaigns of similar caliber and potential.

Take Advantage of Momentum

We are obviously in an almost prohibitive period if our goals revolve around federal policy, and the political climate in states is becoming more unfavorable with every election cycle. On the other hand, momentum is shifting in our favor in the marketplace as businesses (now brands) are increasingly operating in market environments that are rewarding transparency and improved sustainability. Much of this shift is driven by consumer demands for healthier, safer products. Green chemistry, albeit still in its infancy, will gradually yield new products to meet the growing demand. NGOs and funders can harness these market-based dynamics to achieve goals that are shared with companies.

Unify Across Issues

From an issue perspective, taking advantage of momentum means finding synergies with other compelling issues of our time. Climate change and health disparities are top of mind for me.

By now we are familiar with the relationship between air pollution and childhood asthma or adult cardiorespiratory illness. But emerging science over the last decade is also linking air pollution to neurodevelopmental problems in children – IQ loss, autism, learning disabilities, cognitive delays, and behavioral problems – and neurodegeneration (dementia) in adults. At the systems level, one-third of all fossil fuels are used to produce chemicals, including pesticides; ten percent of fossil fuels are used just to produce plastics. Imagine the power of linking the drivers of both climate change and toxic chemicals by ending fossil fuel use!

Similarly, egregious health disparities in this country are becoming a moral imperative at the same time that the very foundation of health care delivery is rocked by both political forces and a financially unsustainable business model. At the epicenter of this tumult are the same vulnerable communities that bear the brunt of toxic exposures AND climate disruption. Furthermore, public opinion research repeatedly tells us that these health-affected groups are the most receptive to information about disease prevention and clean energy solutions.

It seems to me that our great challenge -- and our greatest opportunity for real system-level change -- is to fuse these three vital needs: an end to dependence on fossil fuels; an end to preventable diseases and disabilities; and an end to health and climate injustice. 

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