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Mason helped Nothing But Nets director find her focus on global health advocacy

September 11, 2017   /   by Buzz McClain

Margaret Reilly McDonnell (right) is the director of Nothing But Nets, a global grassroots U.N. program that provides “bed nets” to vulnerable children, families and refugees in countries around the world. Photo provided.

Ten years ago, a child in sub-Saharan Africa died from malaria every 30 seconds, but largely due to the introduction of insecticide-treated mosquito bed nets, that number has decreased to one child every two minutes. The United Nation Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign has been a critical driver of that change, and George Mason University alumna Margaret Reilly McDonnell is the program’s director.

She knows they can do better.

“We’ve made incredible progress, but a child dying every two minutes from a preventable, treatable disease is still not acceptable,” said McDonnell, who received her master of public policy degree from George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government in 2007.

In June, McDonnell was appointed director of Nothing But Nets, a global grassroots program that provides “bed nets” to vulnerable children, families and refugees in countries around the world. Prior to that, she served as its deputy director for four years.

The Washington, D.C.-based campaign also helps provide other malaria interventions, such as diagnostics, treatment and health care worker training. It is the largest grassroots anti-malaria program in the world. Since its founding in 2006, after a column by writer Rick Reilly in Sports Illustrated inspired the movement (“nothing but net” is a basketball expression), it has raised $60 million and delivered more than 10 million bed nets.

“We’re a team of about 12,” McDonnell said. “We’re relatively small but mighty. And as part of the UN Foundation, we have a much bigger team around us.”

McDonnell was a psychology major with a government minor at the College of William and Mary. Coming to Mason for her advanced degree helped sharpen her focus.

“I had always been interested in how government functions, but the MPP degree really gave me a greater grounding in how policy is formulated, the challenges and opportunities in our form of government, and strategies for how to influence policy and work toward change,” she said.

As the leader of a global advocacy program, McDonnell uses many of the valuable lessons she learned at Mason.

“I learned about the best practices and strategies on how to influence and secure policy changes,” she said, which comes in handy as she works to educate and engage policy makers and members of Congress on why the United States needs to be a leader in the fight against malaria.

“I am not at all surprised to learn of this appointment,” said Schar dean Mark J. Rozell, one of the policy professors McDonnell cited as having an impact on her direction.

“[McDonnell] was a very focused student in the program—not only in her class studies but in having a passion about what she could achieve as a policy practitioner,” he said. “She is a terrific choice to run this important UN program.”

Previous experience with nonprofits made McDonnell realize she found working in the field of global health particularly rewarding. McDonnell and Mason academic advisors crafted an MPP degree with elements of a master of public health degree, she said. With her degree in hand she landed a UNICEF fellowship in Botswana and became a consultant for the U.S. Coalition for Child Survival.

“Mason had that flexibility, and it all worked out really well,” she said. “I’m very grateful.”