Why Health Nonprofits Are an Important Part of Public Health

An epidemiologist in a mask, gloves, surgical cap, and gown stands outside a community civic center holding up a test tube.

Launching a cooking class to promote nutrition in isolated areas, arranging housing for refugees, or providing critical medical care to earthquake survivors — health nonprofits provide a myriad of invaluable services to communities around the globe. These organizations are essential to the fulfillment of core public health goals and play a key role in improving access to health services in underserved geographic locations. For instance, they may raise money to open a community health clinic when government funds are inadequate, or conduct studies to identify preventable health disparities in certain neighborhoods. Health nonprofits also provide specialized services for communities coping with the effects of natural disasters, disease outbreaks, or extreme poverty.

By providing these services — and many others — health nonprofits have become an essential part of public health.

Defining Public Health Nonprofits

Public health nonprofits are organizations that work to promote health equity, or equal access to health resources for all individuals. To achieve this goal, organizations must identify the socioeconomic factors beyond an individual’s control — such as income levels, violence rates, housing, or access to vaccinations or healthy foods — that create risks for certain populations. This helps public health workers come up with plans to reduce health disparities and help citizens improve their community’s well-being. These plans cover issues such as chronic health conditions, infectious diseases, physical health, mental health, social justice, and nutrition.

Public health organizations strive to be proactive in preventing disease or illness by addressing inequities in health outcomes caused by social, environmental, or economic factors. According to the American Public Health Association, a person’s education, race, income, location, and access to care can result in a 15-year difference in life expectancy. Many traits, such as race, socioeconomic status, sexual identity, or geographic location, can contribute to this trend. For instance, living in a low-income neighborhood or an isolated rural area may result in inadequate access to healthy food or medical professionals. By improving access to resources and educating citizens on healthy lifestyles, public health groups can help change the health trajectory for at-risk populations.

Public health nonprofits range from massive global organizations like Doctors Without Borders to localized startups such as New Orleans-based food justice group The Cookbook Project. Nonprofits may receive some funding from government sources, but they often rely on donations from companies, individuals, and other nonprofit groups. Public health nonprofits are also referred to as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which are independent organizations focused on noncommercial goals in cultural, social, environmental, educational, or disaster response situations.

The Role of Health Nonprofits in Promoting Public Health

Public health organizations work to establish equitable care for all citizens, with a focus on enacting social justice and meaningful change for underserved populations. Public health has five core components, and nonprofits play roles in all of them:

Epidemiology

When new diseases emerge, public health nonprofits are among the first on the scene. These organizations work to discover how new viruses spread and where they might cause significant public harm. When a disease outbreak becomes a health crisis, nonprofits take action, whether by directly providing care or by offering data analysis or disease management consulting services. For instance, during the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, organizations such as Americares responded by providing public information and training, providing protective equipment to health workers, and sending emergency response teams to high-risk areas.

Other epidemiology-focused organizations might analyze different health ailments, such as cancer rates or reproductive issues, among certain populations. These nonprofits conduct scientific and data-driven studies to determine patterns and causes of health conditions in certain areas or among certain social or ethnic groups. The research can then be applied toward preventing or controlling health problems.

Social and Behavioral Sciences

Another major function of public health organizations is to encourage and empower people to make healthier choices. Nonprofits conduct a range of educational programs on how to avoid or change unhealthy behaviors, such as drug, alcohol, and tobacco use. Other educational forums teach healthy behaviors, such as eating nutritious foods and getting plenty of exercise.

Adopting healthier behaviors helps reduce instances of common chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, which take a huge toll on the U.S. population and contribute to skyrocketing health expenditures. In order to find success with such programs, public health nonprofits need to form strong relationships with community members, including local authorities, schools, and healthcare providers. Employees of these organizations must respect and understand local citizens’ needs to help motivate them toward change.

Environmental Health

Public health workers are often deeply engaged in identifying health concerns connected to environmental conditions and helping communities overcome those obstacles. Environmental health concerns are connected to living situations, such as high crime levels, poor infrastructure maintenance, or limited access to parks and playgrounds. Health disparities can also stem from a shortage of educational, nutritional, or health resources in a specific area.

Nonprofits in this field might teach communities about sanitation or work to improve access to clean drinking water. They might also work to reduce the impact of occupational hazards such as chemical exposure. Organizations like Food for the Hungry raise money to send food to impoverished countries, while others like Habitat for Humanity provide affordable housing options to help families gain stability and self-reliance.

Extreme weather events related to climate change, such as wildfires and floods, are elevating the risk of injury or death for certain populations, according to the American Public Health Association. Additionally, warmer weather can contribute to the spread of contagious diseases or instances of strokes and heart attacks. Changes in exposure to pollutants can lead to increased respiratory ailments. To help combat these challenges, nonprofits may advocate for environmental legislation, increase access to asthma and cardiovascular medications, or encourage conservation and public transportation use.

Biostatistics

Public health organizations engaged in biostatistics use data to evaluate and address health risks. This field is increasingly important in the healthcare arena as the amount of patient data continues to grow and health organizations need someone to analyze the data for actionable insights.

Biostatistic-focused nonprofits often provide statistical analyses that form the basis of public health intervention plans. For instance, biostatistics are often used in epidemiological studies looking to determine disease causes and distribution patterns, which then inform what interventions should take place. A biostatistical study might look at HIV infection rates before and after a specific date to determine an HIV awareness program’s effectiveness in a certain region. Data analysis can also look at disease survival data to determine best practices in medical care. For instance, it can determine what cancer drugs give the greatest chance of post-remission survival.

One public health nonprofit, RTI International, conducts biostatistical research on behalf of clients in government, education, nonprofit, and business realms. The organization’s goal is to improve the human condition through scientific and technical analysis. One recent biostatistics study by RTI, which was funded by the U.S. Army, found injections of anesthetics helped relieve PTSD patients’ suffering.

Health Policy and Management

Some public health nonprofits oversee complex networks of care facilities, requiring strong management, finance, planning, and business development resources. Other organizations take on leadership roles by influencing policymakers to advance public health initiatives or by communicating best practices to peer organizations.

For example, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provides strong peer leadership in the public health arena. The organization is a major provider of grant funding to U.S. public health programs. RWJF also provides vital health statistics on specific populations through its County Health Rankings, which help organizations identify disparities such as increased smoking risks, obesity, or lack of access to nutritious foods. This data helps local public health workers design programs that cater to a community’s top challenges.

Other nonprofits inspire and train individuals to become leaders who provoke change within their own communities. One such group, Ashoka, supports social entrepreneurs, or those who create system-changing solutions to repair deep-rooted community troubles. It also conducts youth programs to encourage social problem solving.

Public Health Nonprofits in Action

Public health nonprofits provide services related to medical care, housing, nutrition, disease prevention, and a number of other fields seeking to reduce health disparities. These organizations range from well-known household names like the Red Cross and March of Dimes to small startup organizations, and provide services on both global and localized scales.

African Medical and Research Foundation

The African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) is focused on improving the health of children and women to impact the well-being of entire communities. The group has a presence in seven nations in Africa and provides training and consulting services in numerous others. It conducts interventions in maternal health during pregnancy, childbirth, and aftercare; prevention of communicable diseases and childhood illnesses; sanitation; and essential medical services.

CARE International

CARE International organizes community health programs to improve education, increase economic opportunities, and increase access to medical care. Public health workers within CARE work diligently to reduce poverty by empowering women and girls, who make up the majority of global citizens living in extreme poverty. This includes promoting girls’ rights to education, providing education on abuse and reproductive health, and ensuring dignified employment opportunities for women. CARE was founded in the U.S. in 1946 and now has chapters in 14 countries around the world.

Carter Center

The Carter Center works to promote health and peace by helping to advance democracy, resolve conflicts, promote human rights, and increase economic opportunities. It also works to increase access to physical and mental health resources, prevent the spread of disease, and improve farming techniques in vulnerable communities. The Carter Center — founded in 1982 by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn — has helped communities in more than 80 countries.

Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps’s mission is to reduce poverty, suffering, and oppression on a localized community health level. The organization partners with local residents, governments, and businesses to overcome public health risks related to poverty, disaster, and climate change impacts. Mercy Corps’s programs cover agriculture, energy, emergency response, financial assistance, food security, conflict resolution, hygiene, technology, and other pressing needs for communities in more than 40 countries.

The Peace Corps

The Peace Corps is a popular volunteer destination for public health degree program graduates. The international organization provides health and educational support for at-risk populations around the globe. Volunteers inform communities about disease, gender equity, nutrition, and other public health topics to promote healthier lifestyles. They also teach at schools, plant gardens, and promote economic development and environmental sustainability.

The Public Health Foundation

The Public Health Foundation is a nonprofit group based in Washington, DC, that promotes healthier communities through population health and public health initiatives. The group conducts research, analyzes data, and provides training to help government, academic, and private care providers make evidence-based decisions and improve health outcomes.

Save the Children

Save the Children focuses on reducing child mortality through a variety of initiatives. The organization is a leading provider of global disaster response services. In addition, it establishes child health programs to end preventable deaths and agricultural programs to alleviate hunger. Save the Children also promotes early education, gender equality, and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, among other causes.

Careers in Public Health Nonprofit Work

Public health nonprofit jobs range from leadership positions to fieldwork volunteers. Workers may be involved in educational programs, research, data analysis, intervention planning, medical care, or emergency aid. All of these employment positions and tasks contribute to the nonprofit group’s overall mission. Public health workers in the nonprofit sector strive to address health disparities and improve quality of life for those in need.

Program Director or Manager

Taking on a leadership role within a public health organization requires expert communication skills, strong influential characteristics, and a deep understanding of how to best serve the greater good of all citizens. A program director might be responsible for coordinating services at a network of health care facilities, or establishing traveling vaccine clinics in an underserved country. A manager within a public health nonprofit might oversee field workers or coordinate volunteer training.

These leaders must develop action plans and ensure that program goals are met, such as improving access to mental health care in a low-income community or reducing emergency health care expenses in areas lacking adequate primary care resources. Management jobs across all sectors are expected to grow 7 percent between 2018 and 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and have a median annual wage of around $104,000.

Biostatistician

Biostatisticians use statistical tools such as Excel and SAS to organize and analyze data. They then can use the data to answer scientific research questions, such as how a disease is spread or how effective a new medication is. According to the BLS, employment of statisticians is expected to grow 31 percent between 2018 and 2028, much faster than average. Statisticians often have a master’s degree and earn a median salary of about $88,000 per year, according to the BLS.

Epidemiologist

Epidemiologists investigate disease, illness, and injury rates to identify patterns and causes. They also develop plans to reduce disease occurrence rates and improve health outcomes. Epidemiologists typically work in offices or labs, but may do some fieldwork to collect information or samples. With a job growth outlook of 5 percent, these public health professionals typically have a master’s degree and earn a median salary of about $70,000 per year, according to the BLS.

Community Health Worker

A community health worker is someone who promotes healthy behaviors to individuals and groups. These workers might conduct community outreach programs or basic medical screenings on behalf of their nonprofit employer. They also might coordinate access to transportation, healthy foods, and other resources that empower residents to take control of health choices. Health educators and community health workers have a median annual salary of around $47,000 and an employment projection of 11 percent growth from 2018 to 2028, according to the BLS.

Volunteer

Volunteers may not get paid, but they do gain extensive knowledge and experience that cannot be learned in a classroom. Students might take a year to volunteer after completing a master’s degree program to help them decide what career they want to pursue, or to collect valuable insights on human nature through direct interactions. These skills can prove invaluable when applying for a professional position at a nonprofit, especially as volunteers often form the foundation of a nonprofit’s mission.

Pursue an Online Master of Public Health Degree

Students who are passionate about helping those in need should look closely at Tulane University’s Online Master of Public Health program.Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine is recognized as one of the top public health schools in the nation. By focusing on health equity and social justice, Tulane’s program gives students the insight and tenacity to assess health disparities, identify risks, and create innovative plans to help communities enact meaningful change. Many graduates of the MPH program go on to work for nonprofit groups, while others have gone on to form their own charitable organizations, all with the goal of improving quality of life for vulnerable populations.