Communications at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Turning up the Volume, Adjusting the Frequency

Chapter 6

‘‘Foundations have been slower to integrate communications into their institutional planning and work than any other class of organizations,’’ Frank Karel wrote in the 2001 volume of the Anthology. As the Foundation’s vice president of communications between 1974 and 1987 and again between 1993 and 2001, Karel almost single-handedly brought communications into the mainstream of the Foundation’s work and helped it realize the vision of communications as an integral part of everything it does. The Foundation’s leadership in strategic communications influenced the field to such an extent that many of the country’s large foundations now have active communications departments.

Under Karel, the Foundation’s communications activities tended to remain in the background, reflecting the preference of both the trustees and the Foundation’s presidents—David Rogers, Leighton Cluff, and Steven Schroeder—to ‘‘speak through its grantees.’’  As the Foundation gravitated under Risa Lavizzo-Mourey’s presidency toward an approach emphasizing social change, its leadership recognized that the Foundation’s reputation as a source of trustworthy and unbiased information could play an important role in furthering its policy objectives. As a result, the Foundation’s ‘‘brand’’ became more publicly visible, and the Foundation tended to work ‘‘with’’ grantees rather than ‘‘through’’ them.

In this reprint, which originally appeared in Volume XIII of the Anthology, Fred Mann, vice president for communications, and David Morse, former vice president for communications from 2001 through mid-2011, describe the use of strategic communications at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and trace its evolution over time.