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Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Reflects on Communications in the C-Suite

This article first appeared in the Spring 2017  issue of Change Agent.

Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey served as president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation from 2003 to 2017. A lightly edited transcript of her conversation with The Communications Network Executive Director Sean Gibbons follows.

Sean Gibbons:

What do you know now about the power and potential of communications that you wish you knew when you started as CEO at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation?

Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey:

Early in the foundation’s history, we took on two big areas: trying to reduce the use of tobacco, and improving the quality of care that people received at the end of life. When I became CEO, we recognized there was also an epidemic in obesity, and particularly in childhood obesity, that was largely unrecognized for the peril it potentially brought to our nation’s health. Trying to think about the communication strategy for something as complex as that was a huge learning curve, and, I think, an example of how our understanding and use of strategic communications changed over the years.

We basically had to convince people that childhood obesity was a problem that would require everyone — Congress, parents, CEOs of large corporations, teachers in schools, neighborhood leaders, families — to come together to try to come up with solutions.

The thing we did that was very different for us was make a bold statement about our commitment as a philanthropy to work on this issue. We put a pledge out for half a billion dollars — not just saying we would work on the problem, which in some ways is what we would have done in the past — but to make a commitment to reverse it. And then we backed up the pledge with dollars that we tracked relentlessly, with messaging that was at times very blunt. We said that for many kids, living in vulnerable, challenged neighborhoods, it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a piece of fresh fruit. That kind of bold statement really got people’s attention.

Is there something that inspired you to think a little differently to understand the importance of communications and maybe jump-started your learning curve?

We had had two early successes that are depicted in my office, that taught me the power of communications. One is a poster from a campaign we did to try to get people enrolled in coverage programs. It shows a long line of kids just sitting, looking like kids do, happy. It described the bottom line that we were trying to get to. It was a very successful ad, and it taught me the power of a strong message and in targeting that message to the right place.

The other has information about a summit that we had in the early days of my tenure at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with ABC News, on obesity. It was really a gathering of people across sectors: business, the media, the food industry, and so on. It was the power of convening people around the topic — and then following up that convening with a series of articles that kept the issue in the public eye — that taught me how we could use strategic communications as both a method for convening people and also for continuing to elevate and expand their knowledge of a topic.

In 2003 you said you realized the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation needed to transition from a model of just giving grants, and having cash as your major product, to a model of creating social change and having ideas, information, data, and social change as your major products. That was a major pivot. How did you bring that to bear?

We pivoted from focusing on individual programs to really focusing on strategies dealing with the impact of many interrelated programs and activities. It’s a long-term effort. It’s like communications: it’s got to continue to change, but in the end it’s an effort that’s got a huge payoff. [We were fortunate to learn this from] Frank Karel, who led our communications, and was the pioneer in strategic communications in the nonprofit sector.

And the founder of The Communications Network, of course.

Yes. Frank was one of the people saying, “Get the word out through the people who have the most credibility to talk about the work” – in other words, the grantees.

In the ’90s, early 2000s, our grantees put out a lot of information about how to improve access, how to improve the quality of healthcare delivery, addiction prevention, etc. But we began to move into trying to measure the impact that these programs were having. In 2003, when I came in, we started to understand that what we were trying to do was not to just give grants – which isn’t  to say grants aren’t a very important part of our work — but we were trying to use those resources to actually create a change, an impact. We referred to this as the “impact framework.”

That evolution — from really wanting to get effective programs into the field to wanting to see how we could harness those effective programs into measurable outcomes — was part of the journey, and part of the reason that we moved away from the approach of speaking through our grantees and trying to maintain a low profile.

It caused us to ask ourselves, “What do we want our brand to be?” That was a very bold question at the time, because philanthropies in general, and particularly our philanthropy, didn’t consider itself to be one that needed a brand.  Now, we have a brand promise that emphasizes the importance of evidence, of being nonpartisan, of focusing on equity. We use it to help us know when we need to use the RWJF brand, and our voice, to take a stand and to champion ideas and positions that further a culture of health.

In 2015, you and Fred Mann wrote a piece for The Network called “Bold but Flexible: How to Effectively Share Your Vision.” In it, you talked about leadership that’s collaborative, adaptive, and flexible. How can the philanthropic sector expand the scope of its partnerships and become more of a collective force for good?

Most philanthropies are trying to tackle problems that are extremely difficult. We must view ourselves as organizations that are  catalyzing change, not causing it to happen in a wholesale fashion, because philanthropy really doesn’t have enough money [for that]. That means we’ve got to work with other people, other organizations, other sectors.              

If we in philanthropy are going to be successful in tackling the big problems that we want to address, we’re going to have to broaden our collaborations to groups that we haven’t felt comfortable working with as much in the past — the business sector, community organizations. We’ve got to understand the power of influential individuals. We’ve got to work with governments at the local, state, and federal levels, and across political divides, even in this very divided time.   

Given the political climate, what challenges do you foresee, if any, for RWJF, and for moving towards that culture of health over the next four years or next decade?

We have seen in this election that there are people who feel that they were left out, or never included in the first place, and they are the same folks that RWJF has been talking about when we set our vision on building a culture of health that focuses on equity and ensures that everyone has the opportunity to live as healthy a life as possible.                            

What’s the best advice you’ve received in your role as CEO at RWJF?

Surround yourself with people who are smarter, more committed, more passionate than you are. And I’ve been lucky enough to work with people who are passionate, caring, empathetic, and absolutely dedicated to improving the health of everyone in this country.


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