Terrance Keenan was a naval aviator in World War II, a Golden Gloves boxing contender, a teacher, and a biographer. But it was as a vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) that he had the greatest impact. One of the Foundation’s first employees, Keenan was pivotal in shaping RWJF’s approach to giving and helped change the nature of health care philanthropy.

“A lot of the ideas that became very important to the Foundation were originally suggested and nurtured by Terry,” said Ruby Hearn, a former senior vice president at RWJF and one of Keenan’s colleagues. “He was sort of the progenitor of many of the most significant programs we have ever done.”

In 1972, when RWJF began its work, Keenan oversaw the authorization of the largest grant to a single institution. RWJF gave Meharry Medical College, which graduated half of the nation’s practicing African American physicians at that time, $5 million to enlarge its primary care teaching facilities. In that first year, Keenan oversaw numerous grants to programs that came to reflect key focus areas in RWJF’s grant-making. Among them, nurse practitioner training, rural health and increasing the diversity of health care professionals.

During his more than 30-year career, Keenan championed and supervised 942 grants, many made to small community organizations that provided health care, including a community-based program that came to be a model for ensuring sustainability. The Community Care Funding Partners Program required that grant applications included dollar-for-dollar matching funds from local partners, to ensure the local program’s sustainability after the RWJF grant ended. This approach has since been widely adopted.

A fervent champion of expanding the field of nursing and nursing education—which is still a core goal of RWJF—Keenan was instrumental in early Foundation efforts to support nurse practitioners’ training and practice and build a cadre of nurse leaders to shape the nursing field. Two of the programs he created to advance those goals, the Clinical Nurse Scholars Program and the Nurse Faculty Fellowships Program, include alumni who today are leading nurse researchers, deans of nursing schools and heads of national organizations.

Always the trailblazer, in 1983 Keenan encouraged RWJF to provide a $2.3 million grant to the then-fledgling Interfaith Volunteer Caregivers Program, which gave grants to diverse houses of worship to create coalitions through which members of different faith communities provided non-medical care—including transportation to doctors’ offices, shopping and companionship—to people suffering from chronic illness. Ultimately, the program helped create 25 interfaith coalitions, 20 of which were still active a decade later, helping fill important gaps in the long-term care system. Building on that success, in 1993 RWJF created a new program, Faith in Action, which funded more than 1,000 coalitions that enlisted nearly 60,000 volunteers as caregivers.

Perhaps one of Keenan’s greatest achievements is Grantmakers in Health, which he established in 1982. A nonprofit, educational organization dedicated to helping foundations and corporate giving programs improve the health of all people, it now has more than 240 members. In recognition of his influence and vision, each year Grantmakers in Health presents the Terrance Keenan Leadership Award in Health Philanthropy to a person whose outstanding work is distinguished by leadership, innovation and achievement.

“Terry’s heartfelt compassion for the most vulnerable in our society came across in the way he approached philanthropy,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA, president and CEO of RWJF. “When Terry joined the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, foundations in general were not terribly active; they did not have a mission and a program for change. In fact, philanthropy was considered suspect by many people who believed wealthy individuals were establishing foundations to use as tax write-offs. Terry helped change both the reality and the perception of foundations.”

In that same speech, Lavizzo-Mourey said, “Describing someone as a ‘legend’ may seem excessive. But in the case of Terrance Keenan, the term is entirely appropriate.”

In recognition of his contributions to health care philanthropy, Grantmakers in Health established a Terrance Keenan Institute for Emerging Leaders in Health Philanthropy, which aims to nurture the next generation of leaders, build relationships among them, and connect them with established figures in the field. Institute fellows are selected to participate in a two day institute (October 2-3, 2012) that emphasizes leadership development, mentoring, and building collegial connections that endure throughout one’s career. David Adler, RWJF communications officer for the coverage team, is among those chosen to participate. Jasmine Hall Ratliff, program officer for the RWJF childhood obesity team, attended the Institute in its inaugural year, calling it “both an energizing and reflective period of time for me.” Read Ratliff’s blog post about the experience. More information about the Institute is available on the GIH website.