The Pioneer Portfolio and the Quest for the New New Thing

Editors' Introduction

To Improve Health and Health Care XVI

Web First Version

Shortly after becoming the president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2003, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey began the development of an “Impact Framework” to guide the organization’s future grantmaking.

The Impact Framework established a number of portfolios in areas of high priority to the Foundation, such as expanding health insurance coverage, improving services to vulnerable populations, and reducing childhood obesity.  It also set up an entirely new “pioneer portfolio”—one that was expected to be nimble in responding to emerging opportunities and to take chances on new, breakthrough ideas that could change health and health care. The development of the Pioneer Portfolio, the staff told the Board, “marks the first time that the Foundation has deliberately and distinctly recognized the opportunity to pursue new ventures that are expected to represent a different approach to grantmaking.”            

More than 10 years out, it is appropriate to look back and see how the Pioneer Portfolio had gone about its work and what it had accomplished. In this chapter—which is first appearing as a posting on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s website and which will be incorporated in volume 16 of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Anthology to be published in the fall of 2014—Tony Proscio offers a retrospective report on the Pioneer Portfolio.  He examines the way in which the Pioneer team sought out new ideas and innovators; discusses some of the projects that the Pioneer Portfolio nurtured; and assesses the pros and cons of establishing a separate unit within a foundation to find and support innovations.

To the best of our knowledge, only two other foundations have created a unit charged specifically with looking for groundbreaking ideas. One of them, The California HealthCare Foundation, has taken a somewhat different approach than that of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  Somewhat like a venture capital firm, it invests in a limited number of companies that it believes have the potential to develop breakthroughs. The Commonwealth Fund recently established its own innovations unit, based partly on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation model.


Tony Proscio is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a consultant to foundations and major non-profit organizations.  He offers strategic consulting on program design, planning, and evaluation; communication; and policy analysis and development.  He is coauthor, with Paul S. Grogan, of the book, Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival, and three essays on civic and philanthropic jargon published by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.  Previously, he was associate editor of the Miami Herald, where he was lead editorial writer on economic issues and wrote a weekly opinion column.

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This book series provides an in-depth look into the Foundation's work improving the nation's health and health care.

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