PATH Wins $1.5M Hilton Prize, World’s Biggest Award for Humanitarian Work

8/18/09Follow @xconomy

PATH, the Seattle-based nonprofit that works to improve health in poor countries, said today it has won the closest thing the humanitarian field has to the Nobel Prize—the $1.5 million cash award known as the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.

The news was delivered at an exuberant press conference this morning with PATH president Christopher Elias, Bill Gates Sr. of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and officials of the Hilton Foundation. The prize, given annually since 1996, has gone to other big-name health nonprofits in the past like Partners in Health and Doctors Without Borders. The story first appeared on The Seattle Times.

PATH, as I explained in this profile back in February, has such a broad portfolio of projects that it sometimes struggles to explain what it does in a sound bite. But essentially it seeks out clever, affordable technologies, and partnerships with clever entrepreneurs and government agencies, to help improve the health of have-nots around the world. It has developed or played a role in co-developing 85 different technologies being used to improve global health, such as needles designed to curb the spread of infectious diseases, simple diagnostic tests for common diseases, and stickers on vaccine vials that can tell whether the immunization has gone bad. We’ve written a lot about PATH in the past year, including its work to improve the nutritional value of rice, fix broken bones, purify water, and develop new vaccines that can withstand hot and cold temperatures.

“We were absolutely thrilled when we heard,” Elias said during a brief conversation after the press conference. “We’ve been nominated in prior years, but haven’t won.”

The award may not sound like a lot of cash for an organization with 800 employees and a $240 million annual budget, but Elias made it sound like he plans to get major bang for the buck. PATH plans to use the money to expand its field operations in Africa, to scale up big production of existing global health technologies, and to provide seed funding for new technologies.

He gave an example of what he means when he talks about leveraging resources. Five years ago, PATH wanted to compete for grants to improve health in South Africa, but couldn’t be a serious player because it didn’t have an office there. So it took a small amount of discretionary seed cash, enlisted an experienced person from an office in Eastern Africa, opened a small office, and set up some pilot projects. Now the South Africa office has a staff of 30 to 40 people, and is fully funded by U.S. government and other grants.

Most of PATH’s budget comes from foundations like the Gates Foundation and government agencies, leaving less than 4 percent of its annual budget for unrestricted, flexible spending like that for the office in South Africa, Elias said at the press conference. He plans to steer the Hilton Prize cash into a larger, five-year, $25 million fundraising effort to support more of these types of flexible uses. Over time, he’d like PATH to spend 5 to 10 percent of its annual budget on that type of spending, to support new product development, and geographic expansion that can make an impact.

The atmosphere in today’s press conference was so merry, with a few dozen PATH employees present, that when a Hilton Foundation official cracked a corny joke about PATH “being on the right path,” a lot of people burst out laughing. But Elias pointed out that the recognition is valuable to the PATH employees, who probably could use a morale boost when tackling some things that appear intractable, like health problems that come from unclean water.

One questioner, who asked Elias about how he measures success, got a highly wonky, nuanced answer from PATH’s president about how each project is graded differently—from the distribution of mosquito bed nets, to harder things like developing a cutting edge malaria vaccine. But Bill Gates Sr.—who beamed with pride at the the recognition for one of the Foundation’s largest grantees—jumped in on that question and reminded everyone that evaluating success is easy, and the job isn’t done.

“We start with these horrific numbers, the numbers of people who die prematurely,” Gates said. “Will you change those numbers? We are changing them. The data will be specific, quantifiable, and I think, rewarding.”

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  • Mindy

    Thanks for writing about these very important issues. Another great piece.

  • Valerie Hansen

    I always find your articles interesting and significant and elegantly written. This time the quote from Bill Gates brought a lump to my throat.