Paul Farmer’s approach shaped our foundation and embodied the true meaning of giving
With the death last week of Paul Farmer, the world has lost a living saint.
Farmer, who founded Partners in Health and provided health care and hope to people in need around the world, inspired our approach to philanthropy at the Schmidt Family Foundation in fundamental ways. His philosophy of what he calls “coaching” – or the practice of literally accompanying those we are trying to help on their journey – should be a guiding principle for all of us in the field.
Farmer was not a philanthropist, but a true lover of humanity, he embodied the meaning of the word.
He didn’t just visit those he sought to help once in a while. He lived where he worked and was truly present. As philanthropy strives to work more closely with the people and communities who receive our funding, Farmer has set a standard that we should all follow.
Farmer is personally committed to understanding the social, economic, political, and biological systems of people in societies as diverse as Haiti and Russia. Even in caring for those with the most difficult ailments, including HIV, Ebola and tuberculosis, he was not just treating the disease. He treated the whole person and the whole community.
Farmer was also humble. He seemed to intuitively understand that small actions taken one after another over a period of time can improve the health not only of people, but also of our planet and all living things.
I met Farmer when we launched our family foundation in 2006. Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains beyond the mountains, which tells the story of Farmer’s quest “to make the whole world his patient”, has become a foundational text for our organization and our thinking.
Four years later, our paths crossed again when a devastating earthquake struck Haiti. Farmer contacted the Schmidt Family Foundation for help in restoring power to the community hospital in the town of Mirebalais. For us, it was an opportunity not only to react quickly to a crisis but also to lay the foundations for a more sustainable infrastructure.
Rather than simply asking for funds to fix a fossil fuel-powered power source, Farmer was forward-thinking enough to recognize that health care and clean air go hand in hand, and we saw both as rights. essential humans. His confidence in new technologies and the power of human connection across the world felt familiar to me and my husband, Eric. It reminded us of the energy and optimism of our early days in Silicon Valley, where we began our careers in the 1980s. Farmer reflected our belief that our work, first in technology and now in philanthropy, could change the world for the better. We immediately approved a grant to fund the installation of solar panels to power the hospital.
Walk alongside beneficiaries
As our team got to know Farmer, we were inspired by his coaching practice. As part of our approximately $100 million annual payout on clean energy, healthy food systems, human rights, and ocean health, our program teams spend up to a month each summer at work directly with beneficiaries. It’s not about looking over their shoulders, or even walking in their shoes, but, as Farmer said, walking alongside them – breaking bread with them.
We believe, as Farmer taught us, that we cannot truly understand the challenges and struggles of our beneficiaries – people who work every day to better and protect the world – unless we spend time with them in their world, to listen to them, to observe them, to take care of them.
Our support program has enabled us to better understand the work of our beneficiaries. We see firsthand the injustices faced by neighborhoods plagued by urban oil drilling. We experience what it means when a community does not have access to healthy local foods or educational resources. We are more understanding when a recipient sometimes has to change direction or redefine their goals because we have learned what they are going through. Such flexibility comes through authentic connection.
Just a few weeks ago, Farmer asked for help to finance the modernization of the hospital in Mirebalais. We responded immediately, knowing how intimately he understood the needs of the community where he had lived and worked.
Paul Farmer built a community spirit wherever he went, until the day before he died, spending his last conscious hours sharing his extraordinary insight and wisdom with his students in Rwanda.
Farmer was optimistic and unwavering. Above all, he cared about the experiences of people who lacked the privileges that many of us – especially philanthropists – too often take for granted. His life is a model of what philanthropy can be at its best and a source of hope even in the darkest times.