RWJF Community Mourns Passing of Frank Karel

    • September 21, 2009

Frank Karel, a former vice president of communications at the Robert Wood Johnson (RWJF) and Rockefeller Foundations, and the nation’s foremost advocate for philanthropy as a driver of social change, died Saturday, September 19, at his home in Washington, D.C.

Widely recognized as a preeminent thinker and innovator in health communications, Karel transformed the field. He developed and led many of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s most successful communications initiatives and, in the process, helped the foundation grow into the nation’s largest and among its most respected health and health care philanthropies. His innovative approaches established the Foundation as a leader in the nonprofit world in using the channels and techniques of communications—whether through the media, the Internet, social marketing, advocacy or its own publications—to advance its mission. A gifted communicator and storyteller at heart, he used his sharp intellect, wry humor and strong convictions to shape the way foundations think about communication strategies, shifting what was once a philanthropic afterthought to the forefront of grantmaking.

“Frank had a bold vision for philanthropy,” says former RWJF President and CEO Steven Schroeder. “It wasn’t just about the individual patient or caregiver, the meal for the homeless person or the bushel of wheat for the farmer in Africa. He pushed relentlessly for improving lives on a large scale, and had the genius to recognize that strategic use of communications could move philanthropy from direct charity to an agent of change to help millions of people in this country and throughout the world.”

A Transformative Figure

Frank Karel revolutionized strategic communications in health grantmaking. In the process, he shaped the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s approach to communications and set a standard against which all foundations now measure their impact.

His background included work as a journalist, public affairs director at major educational, scientific and advocacy organizations, senior fellow at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research, director of the National Association of Science Writers, and chair of the Public Relations Society of America’s health section.

Drawing on this broad experience, Karel applied a new model that made communications an integral component of RWJF’s programmatic strategy and involved communications staff directly in Foundation grantmaking.

“Getting the word out is essential to bringing about social change,” he said.

Today, as a direct result of his work, communications at RWJF has become a major intervention in its own right and an integral component of its regular programmatic activities.

“Frank singlehandedly invented the entire professional field of health communications,” says David Morse, Karel’s successor at RWJF. “He pioneered the concept of strategic communications in philanthropy and made it an integral part of what we, and our grantees, do every day.”

When he talked about his tenure at RWJF, Karel said he was twice blessed: he served as vice president of communications from 1974 to 1987 and again from 1993 until his retirement in 2001. During the intervening years he held the same position at the Rockefeller Foundation. During his tenure there, Karel provided the vision for raising awareness about the critical role of agricultural research in feeding people in developing countries. His seminal work advising communications officers and directors generals of international agricultural centers on virtually every continent paved the way for the robust advocacy that exists today on behalf of agricultural research for the poor. Worldwide attention to the need for crop diversity and innovative strategies for informing the world about the new developments in Africa trace their origins to Karel's passion for bringing untold stories to life—and then supporting policies to improve conditions for these people.

One of his major achievements was a pioneering media seminar series held jointly by the Rockefeller Foundation and the International Food Policy Research Institute to educate journalists worldwide for the first time about what was then a little known field. Karel set forth a lasting legacy by inspiring and mentoring a cadre of information officers within the research centers in science communications. Their work and those whose work has followed have contributed substantially to leveraging important research to increase food production and increase incomes among the poorest of the poor.

Karel also said that Foundations “have been slower to integrate communications into their institutional planning and work than any other class of organizations in our society.” He attributed this to the Judeo-Christian ethic that charity ought to be practiced quietly, without fanfare or public notice; the belief that foundation funds are private assets; and the idea that funding is defined by donor intent in establishing the foundation.

Aware of this gap between Foundations’ natural tendency to shy away from publicity and its need to further its goals, Karel recognized the need “to reach widely and deeply into the nation’s health sector to find and encourage pioneers, to build alliances and to design and fund programs—all requiring communications well beyond the norm for foundations.”

Part of his genius in revolutionizing communications at RWJF was his ability to draw strength for his innovations from three factors that he knew would make communications an integral part of the Foundation’s work. First, he understood that most of RWJF’s initial staff came from academic medical centers, which had grown by communicating the value of their research and reaching out to the public, especially federal and state policy-makers. Second, he had full support from the Foundation’s original leaders, all of whom understood the potential value of effective communications through their previous work in the health sectors. Third, he understood that RWJF needed to hold fast to its focus on becoming known through the work of its grantees, and of speaking to the public with them. This practice continues to guide the Foundation’s communications efforts as they expand to the Web, television, podcasts, video, data tapes, and audio visuals.

Upon Karel’s retirement from RWJF at the end of 2001, Ruby Hearn, Ph.D., former senior vice president at RWJF, reflected on his life’s work: “Frank really understands and articulates the power of communications as an intervention—a rich menu of opportunities for foundations to do their work more effectively, reach more people, make the most of their investments and change the climate in which important personal, institutional and public decisions are made.”

A Visionary Communicator

Karel was born on August 30, 1935, to Frank Karel, Jr., and Helen P’Pool in Orlando, Fla., where he spent his formative years, attended grade school and high school, and where he and his boyhood chums launched his first communications project, The Delaney Neighborhood News, which covered—more or less—the comings and goings of folks on Delaney Street, a two-lane, red-brick residential artery linking Orlando’s downtown with its middle-class neighborhoods to the south.

Karel and Graciela Guerrero were married in 1957 in San Antonio, Texas, where he was stationed during a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force (1954-1958). Karel then began his professional career by earning an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, and a master’s degree in public administration from New York University. After serving as a science writer for the Miami Herald and staff writer for The Tampa Tribune and Gainesville Daily Sun, he held public affairs posts at the National Cancer Institute and Johns Hopkins University. His philanthropic experience included RWJF, the Commonwealth Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Throughout his career, he viewed communications as an intervention to bring about change, particularly in encouraging attitudes, behaviors and policies that promote good health. At RWJF, he was an early advocate of prevention as a key to improving people’s health, and through his work he linked prevention, communications and public policy as a way to go beyond addressing individual behaviors to changing the environment to improve the health of entire populations.

“Today, communications has become an integral part of everything we do, and in turn we help our grantees integrate communications into their programs,” he said. “The aim is to share our vision of using communications strategically—that is, to create and use information in ways that can help achieve key organizational and program objectives.”

Part of Karel’s strategic vision included recruiting the best and brightest from various fields, including journalism, public relations, advertising, social marketing, public health and public administration, film and television production, policy analysis, publications design and production, institutional planning, and information science. He also recruited staff with knowledge of the health sector from their previous positions with university medical centers and hospitals, as journalists reporting health and health care, and with voluntary health associations, advocacy groups, government and other foundations.

Working with this skilled communications team, he broke new ground in expanding media reporting on health and health care. During his tenure, RWJF initiated its funding of health reporting on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” The Foundation also supported the health desk on Public Radio International’s “Market Place” and many other public broadcasting health and health-care programs nationwide as well as specials and series on national public television. An RWJF-funded Bill Moyers end-of-life series, On Our Own Terms, was viewed by 19 million people and was tied into hundreds of local media and community outreach efforts nationwide.

Karel called broadcasting’s role “central to certain aspects of modern life” and envisioned a partnership between health care foundations and the media that would help shape a public and political agenda to improve the nation’s health. “We have also long been supporters of relevant specials and series on national public television,” he said. The audience demographics of public radio and television make these media particularly attractive locations for calling attention to, and informing people about, important issues as well as innovations in health and health care.” He also promoted the use of town meetings, community and statewide coalition building, and grassroots organizing across the country on topics ranging from the future of Social Security to the protection of children from substance abuse.

“Virtually nothing we do fits neatly into any single strategy,” he said. Everything we do is designed to advance multiple strategies.”

Karel also ensured that grantees received strong communications guidance and support for their projects. He recognized that grantees might not be as prepared to undertake the communications aspect of their projects as they were to run a clinic, conduct postdoctoral training, or carry out the other substantive grant activities. He also understood that the Foundation’s and the grantee’s motivations might differ. For example, while physicians directing HMO pediatric services might use grant funds to apply innovative approaches for identifying children with asthma and view that intervention as their most important work, the Foundation’s goal might be to share the successful experiences of this project with other HMOs throughout the country.

To address such issues, he ensured that the Foundation's communications effort began at a project earliest stage, with communications staff helping to identifying ways in which communications might advance a program’s objectives. Through his visionary work, RWJF communications staff involved themselves from a project’s earliest days, helping with activities ranging from Web sites to the publication and distribution of policy briefs, from news conferences to time for project directors to write journal articles, from media training to workshops. They provided a range of technical assistance and advice to grantees by phone, fax and e-mail; through site visits; and by dispatching consultants with specialized skills.

Karel also strengthened the Foundation’s support to its national programs, which oversee project sites and related activities. He ensured that these national programs, which might have their own full-time communications staff, received the technical assistance and other communications help they needed. “We do this to drive innovation and improvement by moving new knowledge and new ways of doing things into the mainstreams of practice and policy, and by opening new avenues of thinking and action.” Karel said. “While grantees have the primary responsibility for sharing their findings and experiences, in many circumstances this can be done more effectively and efficiently by combining the Foundation's resources with those of the grantee.”

His commitment to communicating also resulted in the RWJF’s Connect Project, which helps grantees share compelling stories about their work with their representatives in Congress and other policy-makers. A first of its kind in philanthropy, Connect helps grantees build stronger relationships with local media and legislators, a truly groundbreaking idea, which is all but taken for granted today. Karel was the first to recognize how these connections could further grantees’ work and position them as resources to members of Congress on the country’s most pressing health and health care issues.

He also believed that communications could be used as an intervention to bring about change, particularly in “encouraging attitudes, behaviors and policies promoting good health.” During his tenure RWJF communicators oversaw and assisted grantees in conducting major communications and advocacy campaigns aimed at changing harmful behavior patterns by changing public policy and shifting social norms, including combating substance abuse in the forms of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs. Such efforts continue today as the Foundation works to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015, ensure that everyone in America has stable, affordable health care coverage, and create solutions that allow people to transcend the social barriers that stand in the way to better health.

A Legacy of Change

“He revolutionized strategic communications in health grantmaking and transformed the field through his work. He advocated for and put in place many of the communications strategies that the Foundation follows today and leaves us with a legacy of great impact in creating change in health and health care,” says RWJF President Risa Lavizzo-Mourey.

Frank Karel’s legacy can be measured in the way he moved RWJF—and other foundations—to view communications as a powerful force for change. He envisioned, and saw the realization of, an age in which foundations moved beyond their walls to embrace more active, broader public engagement. He helped foundations develop a new vision of their role as a force for social change in the modern world.

He believed that foundations should be “investors in innovation and social capital rather than dispensers of charity, attacking root problems rather than ameliorating symptoms.” He also envisioned a time in which foundations’ financial assets might not be sufficient to address the magnitude and complexity of the problems they face. He recognized that the day when a foundation could singlehandedly take on and defeat a world-class problem was long past and that “the most powerful way that foundations can spark social change is to use their money to fund the creation of new institutions or fundamental change in existing institutions.”

Karel believed that these new strategies were all heavily dependent on both effective communications and skilled communicators. He was abundantly generous to others in the profession giving his time, wise counsel and ample enthusiasm; he mentored scores of young people who embarked on careers in public interest communications because of his guidance. Karel also promoted the concept of foundations helping each other learn about effective communications thinking and skills. He was twice a director of the Council on Foundations. He founded and chaired the Council’s Media and Public Affairs Committee as well as the Communications Committee and its affiliate organization, The Communications Network, which provides resources, guidance and leadership to advance communications in philanthropy. In 2002, the Council on Foundations honored him as the first recipient of its Grantmakers’ Distinguished Service Award.

In 2005, Grantmakers In Health (GIH) awarded Karel its prestigious Terrance Keenan Leadership Award in Health Philanthropy, recognizing his innovative work in the field of health communications. Lauren LeRoy, president and CEO of GIH, noted, “Frank Karel’s strongly held belief in the power of communication and his commitment to using that power to further the field of health philanthropy and promote a better health care system have earned him the respect of his colleagues and the gratitude of grantees.”

He was named a Distinguished Alumnus at the University of Florida College (UF) of Journalism and Communications. In recognition of his lifelong commitment to using communications to spur improvements to society, the UF College of Journalism and Communications established the Frank Karel Chair in Public Interest Communications. The chair, the nation’s first of its kind, will enable the university to create a curriculum and support other activities focused on using communication tools and strategies to advance organizations’ missions and goals in the nonprofit and public sectors. Linda Hon, executive associate dean and public relations professor at UF, called Karel “a visionary.” “He saw and demonstrated that communications can be used for shaping public policy and mobilizing public will and support to advance education, health, scientific research, the arts, and many other activities critical to human progress and survival,” said Hon.

Karel’s first wife Graciela, the mother of his children, died in 2001. He is survived by his wife Betsy and her children Adam and Thomas Frampton, his daughter Elizabeth Reynolds, her husband Tom and their children Diana and Nicole, of Skillman, N.J.; daughter Barbara Kendrick, her husband Brian, and their children Brian, Jr., Sarah and Laura, of Lawrenceville, N.J.; and his sister Susan Eggert Datson and her partner Mary Datson Eggert of Iowa City, Iowa.