This chapter is a personal reflection by Frank Karel on his years as vice president for communications of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. He looks back on the early days, when the Foundation was groping to find an appropriate role for communications, and traces its evolution to the present. Karel is uniquely qualified to provide this retrospective. He has had the singular experience of heading communications at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation twice. During his first tenure, between 1974 and 1987, he originated many of the communications strategies that the Foundation follows today. After leaving to head communications at the Rockefeller Foundation, he returned to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 1993 to serve again as the vice president for communications, the position he occupies today. Long active in philanthropy—he is currently a board member of the Council on Foundations—Karel has helped many foundations consider how best to use the tools of communications.
From the beginning, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recognized the importance of communications. Starting with a public relations perspective in the 1970s, it evolved to its current state, where communications is an integral component of regular programmatic activities, where communications officers are members of the teams planning and overseeing Foundation-funded initiatives, and where communications has become a major intervention in its own right, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the funds awarded by the Foundation over the past five years. Moreover, the Foundation has been a leader in the nonprofit world in utilizing the channels and techniques of communications—whether through the media, the Internet, social marketing, or its own publications—to advance its mission.