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Johnson & Johnson Foundation and IRC: Partnering for Systems Change

With foundations starting to move out of firefighting mode, now is the time to take a leadership role, going beyond bilateral financial support to catalyze true systems change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unrivaled opportunity to take stock, rethink and ultimately reshape our health systems to be equitable, resilient and anchored in community-first care. With foundations starting to move out of firefighting mode, now is the time to take a leadership role, going beyond bilateral financial support. To catalyze true systems change, we need new and powerful partnership models grounded in trust, that allow space for complexity and uncertainty. In that spirit, below we share some collective learnings from the Johnson & Johnson Foundation and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), as we made that transition together over the past year.

A new partnership strategy and a deepening relationship

In recent years, the Johnson & Johnson Foundation has shifted its partnering approach, moving beyond pure financing towards co-creation and systems-thinking for transformational change. This has led to fewer, deeper, more impactful partnerships, working towards a shared vision of the future.

One such partnership is between the Foundation and the IRC, an organization that helps people whose lives have been shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and rebuild their lives. Working in over 40 countries, IRC delivers lasting impact by providing healthcare, helping children learn, and empowering individuals and communities to become self-reliant, always with a focus on the unique needs of women and girls.

With support from the Foundation, IRC provides integrated primary healthcare (PHC) services and gender-based violence prevention and response services in host and refugee communities alike. Much like the Foundation, IRC has moved away from the traditional ‘writing a cheque’ partnering approach and towards building tailored, strategic and holistic partnerships with private sector actors.

This has entailed pivoting programs from one location to another, co-creating programs, assessing what capabilities are needed to ensure greater impact, and even leveraging the skillsets of Johnson & Johnson employees (and/or executives) to help achieve project goals (or deliverables). Above all, it has put trust and humility at the center of the relationship.

Responding to COVID-19 in Jordan

In strategic partnerships of this kind, both parties need to respect that there may be hiccups along the way, and be ready and willing to pivot in order to respond proactively to the needs of the people on the ground.

This was the case in Jordan, where the Foundation and the IRC partnered on a three-year community health strategic program. This involves coordinating with the Jordan Ministry of Health to ensure the program’s interventions are aligned with, and support, national health system policies and response plans. Together, the Foundation and the IRC also work with local partners to build up the community health worker platform in the country, with the aim of reaching populations in need of quality care. From the start, we knew that the project would bring its challenges, and that private sector support would be essential not only for secure funding, but also for leveraging expertise, assets and influence.

When, in March 2020, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and governments across the world began enforcing lockdowns, it became clear that the measures in Jordan were particularly strict. The IRC’s Community Health Volunteers (CHVs) had to cease home visits, which were a critical component of the project. Because of the flexibility of our partnership, we were able to divert resources swiftly and develop a new remote service delivery plan for vulnerable refugee and host communities. As a result, the CHVs conducted over 46,000 calls, registering families and providing them with critical information on COVID-19 signs and symptoms, along with referrals for testing and treatment. IRC’s team in Jordan also worked to deliver essential medications to patients who were unable to access pharmacies due to movement restrictions/curfews, as well as to ensure that patients were receiving at least a monthly supply. While in-person visits have now resumed, we have leaned on this remote service delivery plan often during multiple waves of COVID-19, and are ready to go should another health crisis occur.

Convening for change

Recently, the partnership between the Johnson & Johnson Foundation and the IRC has moved beyond programmatic support into deep discussions around the joint vision we have for the future, rooted in the values and strategies of our individual organizations. How do we galvanize the ecosystem to inform and nurture that shared vision?

  • Seizing the moment: In the wake of the pandemic, there is more appetite than ever for collaboration. As we saw with the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine, it has become clear that competition can and must be put aside in order to come together for the common good. The Johnson & Johnson Foundation set out our convening model in this recent report by The Partnering Initiative, with the goal of building an ecosystem approach where different stakeholders come together for collective good.
  • Modeling a platform approach: we believe in co-creating impact, using collective intelligence. Through reports, structured conversations (such as the virtual health sector roundtable held by the IRC earlier this year) and other mutually-reinforcing activities, our two organizations will encourage other actors to come together around a clear goal.

The heart of any successful partnership? Trust.

Building public-private partnerships of this kind can be challenging, particularly when it is between a funder and an implementing organization. Here are a few things to consider when navigating this new dynamic.

  • Understand that no one has all the answers: Neither you nor your partner will be able to predict every bump along the road. As a funder, uncertainty can be daunting, but it is also inevitable. Keep your shared vision in mind but hold space for complexity, agility and new ideas along the way.
  • Be willing to have tough conversations: This means prioritizing transparency and not always saying what you think the other wants to hear. Only when trust is firmly established can you develop a partnership with the true spirit of collaboration, with both sides understanding the strengths and limitations of the other.
  • Look for outcomes over outputs: remember that behind the numbers and targets are people—and that is where the true impact happens.

We call on other foundations, actors and organizations to join us on this journey and assess how they can shift both new and existing partnerships to catalyze change.