There are different approaches to philanthropy. One is personal, motivated by emotional, charitable impulses and individual passions. There also is a more strategic approach, relying more heavily on research, analytics and, after the money is given and spent, the measurement of impact. Both philosophies dovetail in many philanthropists, but in none more naturally than Wharton alumna Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) for the past decade.
She brings experience in academia, public policy and non-profits to an organization of tremendous influence; RWJF is the fourth-largest foundation in the U.S., and the largest devoted solely to health. As a physician who only recently gave up volunteering at a New Jersey neighborhood health clinic after a decade, Lavizzo-Mourey also has frontline experience in how policy and financial issues unfold at a human level.
Philanthropic organizations are in the midst of a period of profound change, more interested than ever in influencing societal trends. With its $9.5 billion in assets, Princeton, N.J.-based RWJF doesn’t passively respond to requests for money. “Our role is [to be] a catalyst for social change,” she says, and to try “to use strategic philanthropy by looking at problems … and determining whether we can have an impact and then applying resources – both financial and our ability to convene people.”
In a drive to strengthen their sway, some foundations have even changed tax status to become public charities, which means putting more money into research and advocacy and less into the hands of end-users. Robert Wood Johnson is not contemplating making that switch, says Lavizzo-Mourey. But the foundation does work with other partners – including schools and universities, transportation authorities, city planning offices, businesses and other sectors that affect people’s health, either directly or indirectly – to get the job done. “We are very focused on the need to work across sectors if we are going to have meaningful change.”
Lavizzo-Mourey is well equipped to move among different worlds. The daughter of two physicians, she earned her medical degree from Harvard Medical School and her MBA from Wharton. She was director of Penn’s Institute on Aging and chief of geriatric medicine at Penn’s School of Medicine. At the governmental level, she was deputy administrator of what is now the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality, and worked on the Clinton White House Health Care Reform Task Force. She also co-chaired an Institute of Medicine study on racial and ethnic disparities in health care requested by Congress. In 2008, Forbes named her to its list of Most Powerful Women.
Leading RWJF means overseeing the endowment—which yielded $359 million in grants in 2012—plus fielding and soliciting applications from grantees whose interests align with the foundation. “But what I would want to emphasize,” says Lavizzo-Mourrey, “is developing a strategy for a foundation that is going to engage in social change uses a lot of the principals we learned in business school,” and “has to add the overlay of policy and politics that takes it to a different dimension.”
Financially, RWJF’s priorities have played out recently in some grand gestures: a $24 million award for national expansion of a program that promotes physical activity in schools; $23 million for a group bringing healthier food options and increased exercise to schools in states with the highest childhood-obesity rates; $18 million toward an effort to increase diversity of leaders in economics, political science and sociology who are involved with health services and health policy research; and $12 million for groups working to tamp down on tobacco use by children. Mid-size gifts include $2.8 million to National Public Radio for coverage of health and healthcare issues and to develop and implement a multimedia expansion of its science desk. Dozens of smaller grants have gone toward such issues as analyzing the impact of federal budget cuts on public-health programs and services at the state level during the economic downturn.
The most gratifying aspect of it all? “Without any question, seeing the results of your work actually improve the lives of people, and getting a chance to work with the most passionate change agents from around the country.”
In one program, RWJF has supported the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity’s initiative to encourage industry and government to cooperate in reducing the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. The effort is measuring exposure to food marketing, including racially/ethnically-targeted marketing, evaluating the effects of marketing and marketing regulation on nutrition and health, working with national advocacy groups and local governments on developing better marketing practices and regulations, and measuring improvements.
Overall, RWJF has committed $500 million to fighting childhood obesity. “It’s not a single program, but when we started working on this epidemic of childhood obesity, rates had been going up for three decades, and now it has leveled off,” says Lavizzo-Mourey. “It came as a result of a clear strategy to see what kids were eating, to raise awareness, and to seek policy changes in the kind of environments kids were exposed to. Over a decade we’ve been able to see that change. Certainly it wasn’t Robert Wood Johnson by itself, but it is enormously satisfying to have had a leadership role in it.”
University of Pennsylvania - Wharton - 1986
- Doctor of Business Administration
- Major(s): Health Care Management