The Opioid Crisis Demands More Innovative Solutions. Funders Will Take Note

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Is philanthropy ignoring the opioid crisis? 

That’s what Inside Philanthropy asserted in a recent story, pointing to the major foundations that are leaving this space. But it’s simply not true that donors and institutions don’t care about this issue anymore. Some are turning their focus toward upstream factors that lead to addiction, such as social determinants of health. Yet many others are simply discouraged by the lack of effective solutions. They’re worried continued funding will be a waste. 

Instead of pointing the finger at philanthropists, those of us who are fighting opioid addiction need to ask ourselves a different question. Why aren’t there more innovative and impactful programs for philanthropy to bring to scale?

It’s true that many of the biggest names in the social sector are turning away from funding organizations focused on the opioid crisis. Collectively, foundations and individual philanthropists have devoted hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars to the cause over the past decade. Yet despite such massive investments, the opioid crisis has only grown worse.

Drug overdoses are skyrocketing, hitting nearly 107,000 in 2021. That’s a nearly 20% jump in a single year. In the past two decades, drug overdoses have soared by 433%. More than 46 million Americans ages 12 and older have a substance use disorder, a number that’s grown by leaps and bounds. Virtually everyone knows someone in the grip of addiction, and philanthropists are no exception. The two of us have spoken to many generous people who have family members or friends who’ve overdosed. They’re devastated. They desperately want to end the opioid crisis to save more families from experiencing that pain.

So imagine their concern that they’re not making headway, no matter how much they give. Countless nonprofits are active in substance use, with little to show for it, yet still putting out a lot of continued requests for funding. If you’re a philanthropist who’s spent years funding these efforts, why would you continue? Foundations don’t have endless money. They must prioritize their resources on the most effective efforts — the ones that truly make a difference. In the fight against the opioid crisis, such solutions are sadly in short supply. 

If philanthropists are ever going to return to the fight, those of us who want their funding will need to earn it. We need to find solutions that work, which starts by having the openness to identify why the current approach doesn’t.

The two of us have spent a combined 30 years asking these questions; one of us is in recovery from substance use. In our experience, most of the social sector’s work in this space is ineffective for several reasons. 

Many nonprofits only address the symptoms of substance use instead of the root causes, and many top-down approaches only manage the problem, for example, a drug to get you off another drug. This is a necessary resource but is not a comprehensive solution. People who struggle with substance use aren’t problems to be managed; they’re human beings with innate dignity, intrinsic strength and the ability to overcome. 

What does a better approach look like? Take The Phoenix, which gives people a community of supportive peers who overcome substance use together. It’s more than twice as effective as traditional treatment methods for the simple reason that it’s built on a fundamental belief in every person’s intrinsic strength, and through nurturing relationships, that strength is unleashed. 

Tellingly, at a time when many foundations are pulling back, philanthropists are rushing to fund this novel effort. They’ve helped The Phoenix grow to 46 states and launch a partnership with the music industry — 1 Million Strong — to serve over a million people impacted by substance use.

Is The Phoenix alone? Hardly. We’ve been impressed by many other innovative nonprofits that break the mold, from Blue Monarch and Brigid’s Path to Project LIFT and Recovery Café. These organizations are making real inroads precisely because they don’t try to manage people struggling with substance use. They empower them to rise above it. 

Unfortunately, these exciting projects are still the exception to the rule in the fight against opioids. At a time when this crisis is only growing worse, we need to disrupt the status quo. We need social entrepreneurship on a massive scale. We need a new era of nonprofit innovation. We need more inspiring programs and projects that unleash people’s innate ability to overcome substance use and lead lives of meaning.

Philanthropists and foundations are waiting for this leadership. They never stopped caring about the opioid crisis. They simply care about ending it. It’s time nonprofits proved we can.

Evan Feinberg is executive director of the Stand Together Foundation. Scott Strode is founder and executive director of The Phoenix.