Interview: Partnering With Pew

04/24/2013 - PCT_sally-o-brien_144x148_an_OWNSally O’Brien is the Senior Vice President of Philanthropic Partnerships at The Pew Charitable Trusts. She oversees the institution’s development efforts with donors and partner organizations.

Q: Can you tell us about your work at Pew and the goals of Philanthropic Partnerships?

The Philanthropic Partnership Group leads Pew’s effort to seek philanthropic support for the organization’s work.  Our goal is to facilitate partnerships between Pew and outside funders who wish to use their investments strategically to achieve measurable results around common goals.

Q:  But isn’t Pew a foundation?

Not anymore.  In 2004, we transitioned to a public charity.  As a nonprofit, we have more flexibility to collaborate with others.  We can operate projects that we previously would have outsourced, and we can advocate for policy improvements when our research shows the need for them. 

Q:  Pew already has a large endowment.  Why is it seeking partners for its work?

A:  Pew takes on big problems—for example, improving federal food safety laws or promoting the growth of the clean energy economy. Even with the resources available to us from our seven supporting trusts, Pew’s funding alone is not always sufficient to get the job done.  When addressing challenges of this scope and scale, collaboration with partners who share our vision enables all parties involved to be more effective.

Q:  What are the advantages for your partners?

A: Our partners receive an extraordinary return on investment.  They have access to the talents of advocates and strategists with a proven track record of securing policies that facilitate positive change and improve people’s lives.  An added advantage is that more often than not, our partners are able to use their contributions to leverage support from Pew’s own resources. 

For example, philanthropist Lyda Hill's interest in technology and the oceans has led her to an ambitious initiative with Pew. Having funded a pilot project to develop a blueprint for a global enforcement system to combat illegal fishing,  Lyda has now joined with us in support of  MARIPOL, an effort that includes a partnership with Interpol designed to put an end to pirate fishing estimated to account for one–fifth  of the global market  worth $10- $23 billion a year.

Lyda is also committed to protecting Americans from the threat of foodborne illness.  She has partnered with Pew to ensure effective implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, the first overhaul of U.S. food safety law in more than 70 years.  We are seeking to make sure that the FDA has the strong rules, regulations and resources needed to enforce its mandate to prevent contamination and disease. 

Q:  With whom else does Pew collaborate?

A:  Our partners include hundreds of individuals and foundations who share our passion and vision.  For example, in 2005, we joined with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in a continuing collaboration to safeguard the Canadian Boreal, which is the world’s largest intact forest.  It has been a privilege to benefit from the expert guidance provided by Hewlett’s staff members, who have played an active role in envisioning, launching and managing this campaign. Together, we have worked to secure the protection of 185 million acres as parks, refuges and other nature reserves–about one-third the amount scientists recognize as necessary to sustain the ecosystem over time.

In other areas of our portfolio, we’ve teamed with the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and the DentaQuest Foundation to research policies that will help hundreds of thousands of children access dental care, and with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to evaluate how policies related to education, transportation, housing and other sectors affect health.   We work with the Rockefeller Foundation to assess state transportation systems.   We also joined with the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget to propose ways that the federal budget process could be reformed to be more disciplined, forward-looking, and transparent. 

Q: What types of issues do Pew and its partners work on most?

A:  Our campaigns address a wide range of issues.  Our primary areas of focus include public health, the environment, state policy and performance, and public opinion research.  A separate subsidiary, the internationally known Pew Research Center, is a “fact tank” that polls on a wide range of important issues and trends but does not take policy positions.

Some donors choose to support an existing program, while others propose new projects that are related to our areas of interest and expertise.  For example, in 2004 philanthropist Gerry Lenfest told us of his interest in producing and disseminating research that would inform policymakers charged with protecting marine environments.  Together, we created the Lenfest Ocean Program, which we are honored to manage on Mr. Lenfest’s behalf.  To date, the program has supported more than 70 studies that have been published in more than 120 peer-reviewed publications circulated in more than 30 countries. Together, we have helped to broker the largest forest conservation agreement in history: 130 million acres secured and an additional 200 million acres pledged for protection, approximately twice the size of Alaska. 

Q:  What role do your partners play?

A:  Often they play an active one.  For example, our Global Ocean Legacy project is a collaboration with the Oak, Waitt, Robertson, Bloomberg and Tiffany foundations and philanthropist Lyda Hill.  Each partner contributes equally, including Pew, and all share responsibility for decision-making. 

Since 2005, the work of Global Ocean Legacy has resulted in more than doubling the amount of ocean that is highly protected worldwide.  Last year, the partners played a leading role in securing the designation of the largest reserve on the planet, the United Kingdom’s Chagos Marine Reserve in the Indian Ocean.  It’s more than 60 times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Other major GOL victories include the creation of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the northwest Hawaiian Islands and the Marianas Trench; and the soon to be designated Coral Sea Marine Reserve in Australia.

Q:  How can prospective partners learn more?

A:  Call me!  We are always interested in hearing from people who want to explore opportunities to partner with Pew.  My phone number is 202-540-6525, and my email address is

Ms. O’Brien, who has 20 years of fundraising experience, came to Pew from the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, where she served as associate dean for development and external affairs. Before that, she was director of development at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and played a pivotal role in the successful conclusion of the school’s $500 million capital campaign. Prior to joining Johns Hopkins, Ms. O’Brien was a member of the British Diplomatic Service and served in London, Brussels and Washington.

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