Remembering "Maggie" Mahoney, RWJF Pioneer

    • December 27, 2011

As the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation prepares to mark its 40th year as a national philanthropy in 2012, it is with both sadness and great respect that we note the passing of one of the most significant leaders in our history, Margaret E. Mahoney.

Mahoney, RWJF’s first vice president in our days as a national institution, and later the first woman to head a major U.S. philanthropy as president of The Commonwealth Fund, passed away on December 22, after a long illness.

Joining RWJF in 1971 after serving as an executive of the Carnegie Corporation, she joined then-Foundation President David Rogers, MD, and others in steering RWJF from a family foundation, focused on charitable activities in New Brunswick, N.J., into the nation’s largest foundation devoted solely to the issues of improving health and health care for all Americans.

“Maggie Mahoney was pivotal in making the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation what it is today,” said Calvin Bland, former RWJF chief of staff and longtime Foundation executive. “In those early years, she was essentially the chief operating officer. She brought structure to the organization. She brought the staff together. And she knew the world of philanthropy and understood its unique power.”

Both at RWJF and in her other jobs over three decades in the philanthropic sector, she was known as a terrific talent spotter and people person.

“Maggie Mahoney was one of the great luminaries in philanthropy," said RWJF President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA. “Her light will continue to shine brightly because she was a ‘doer’ and a mentor. She recognized and nurtured good ideas and people, resulting in dozens of transformative programs that have improved the lives of countless people. On a personal note, I will never forget the caring way she reached out and mentored me in my early days as president of RWJF.”

A graduate of Vanderbilt University and Nashville native, Mahoney served as a foreign affairs officer for the U.S. State Department from 1946 to 1953 before entering the foundation world. She received honorary degrees from numerous colleges and universities including Smith College, Williams College, Brandeis University, and the Medical College of Pennsylvania. She served on numerous nonprofit boards including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Columbia University, the Alliance for Aging Research, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the Dole Foundation, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the Dartmouth Medical School/Koop Institute Board of Overseers. She was a member of the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine, which she helped create in the 1970s.

Throughout her long career in philanthropy, she was able to bring partners together to share ideas and to increase the impact of their work. Sometimes, she simply brought good ideas and programs with her when she changed jobs, as she did with the Clinical Scholars Program which she initiated while at Carnegie and Commonwealth. Clinical Scholars, which trains young physicians for leadership roles, is today known widely as a signature effort of RWJF.

And she was consulted repeatedly by foundations seeking her advice and insight. For decades, recalled Calvin Bland, there have been “many, many grateful people who identify themselves as ‘F.O.M’ – Friends of Maggie.”

She was, Bland said, “such a connector, a guide, a facilitator. She had an amazing ability to understand both people and ideas, and she could help them refine their strategies and make their ideas come alive.”

“Maggie was a woman of incomparable dignity and purpose,” said Steven A. Schroeder, former president and CEO of RWJF. “In Malcolm Gladwell’s terms, she was a consummate connector. She made a major impact on multiple foundations and educational institutions, and helped to develop a generation of leaders on both those spheres. We won’t see her kind again.”

As the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 40th anniversary as a national philanthropy is recognized in events and remembrances throughout 2012, we will give special thanks to the visionary people who set us on our course, and who helped make us able to affect significant changes in the nation’s health and health care. Maggie Mahoney was one of the very special ones.