Communications at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Turning Up the Volume, Adjusting the Frequency

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s communications strategy has evolved dramatically over the past few years. From the very beginning, the Foundation has been strategic in its grantmaking, and its first staff members knew that reaching its strategic goals would require the adoption of an approach that Frank Karel, the Foundation’s vice president for communications between 1974 and 1987 and again between 1993 and 2001, called "strategic communications." These are, in Karel’s words, "communications activities creating information and effecting the exchange of information tailored to foster relationships and actions crucial to advancing the Foundation’s mission and goals."

Karel was the pioneer of strategic communications in foundations, and this approach has characterized the communications work of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ever since. As a core element of that approach, the Foundation downplayed its own role, choosing instead to speak through its grantees.

This strategy was appropriate in its day. Times have changed, however, and beginning in 2003, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation began to articulate the idea that it was in the business of fostering social change and that this could be done most effectively by advancing public policies that better promote health and health care. Around the same time, communications technology began to explode as the Web took off, e-mail became the norm, and search engines such as Google cranked up their power. The changes in the Foundation’s approach to policy and the arrival of new information technologies led it—perhaps even forced it—to reconsider its communications strategy and make adaptations that would make it appropriate for the times.

David Morse, the vice president for communications at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Fred Mann, the assistant vice president for communications, were the chief architects of the new communications strategy. In this chapter, they present an insiders’ view of why it was necessary to develop a new strategy, how the strategy evolved, what its main elements are, and what challenges remain. It is one of those Anthology chapters that explore the inner workings of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and share them with a broader public. Since the Foundation is widely considered to be in the forefront of philanthropic communications, this chapter will be of particular interest to leaders and communications officials of foundations and other nonprofit organizations as well as to those charged with developing strategic communications policies and programs, wherever their place of employment.