Philanthropy, TED-Style: How RWJF is Looking for More Intellectual Juice

Kicking around novel and even crazy-sounding ideas is important for any funder looking to solve big problems. Why? Because you never know where breakthrough thinking will come come from, and the wider you cast the net, the better your chances for generating creative new funding strategies. 

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is one funder looking for more intellectual juice, and that makes sense. RWJF has taken on the ambitious, sweeping goal of creating a new "culture of health" in the United States. Among other things, this will require slimming down, oh, around 100 million Americans.

You don't a crack a nut like that by calling in the calvary from Bridgespan. You need to think bigger. 

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Lately, the foundation has been hosting an unusual series of TED-style talks for their staff. They’ve had someone come talk about behavioral economics. They brought in an expert on data collection, who talked about the proliferation of personal devices and associated privacy concerns. Someone has come to talk about different kinds of architecture and their impact on the living environment.

What do behavioral economics, data collection, and architecture have to do with RWJF’s health grantmaking goals? A lot, actually. But here's the funny thing: Senior Program Officer Lori Melichar, who is in charge of bringing in these big thinkers to share their ideas, doesn’t seem so worried about making an immediate connection between, say, a seminar on the human microbiome and a specific RWJF program. The point is to stir things up.

“The foundation is open to serendipity,”  says Melichar. “We know we need to have our heads up and our antennae out."

And with its gigantic endowment, RWJF can certainly afford to pay for high-end intellectual musing. “We have the resources and the willingness to bring in these experts and see what we can learn,” says Melichar.

But this isn't a story about a wealthy foundation financing fun bull sessions for its staff. RWJF’s interest in exploring ideas underscores a bigger point about the place: This is a forward-leaning funder that wants to get ahead of the curve, and also a foundation hungry for ideas as it raises the bar for its grantmaking to promote a culture of health. 

So what are the results of this kind brainstorming? Well, remember that behavioral economics talk I mentioned earlier? Melichar brought that speaker in to explore more deeply how the principles of behavioral economics could be applied to health challenges. They funded a couple of rounds of research projects in that realm. But meanwhile, RWJF staff working on other projects caught wind of the work, and tried applying it to everything from violence prevention to improving indoor air quality.

“In a relatively short time, we could see how engaging with a strategy assisted the work of others at the foundation,” says Melichar. “Many, many times, a speaker spurs a thought, spurs an interest, and it leads to innovative work across the foundation.”

She admits it’s hard to track that kind of impact. “Often, we’re not sure what the implications are for our work, but we need to be exposed—we need to be ‘primed’ to stay open to other ideas. . . We always have our feelers out to see what the emerging trends will be.”  

Call this the Malcolm Gladwell School of philanthropy. 

And, indeed, the popularity of writers like Gladwell or books like Freakanomics has been driven partly by an urgency in sectors like business and tech to get an edge by learning to think more creatively about where the world is headed and how different trends and concepts intersect. 

More funders, too, have been anxious to think outside the box. And while RWJF is a leader here, it's not an outlier. Philanthropy is definitely becoming a more creative field. 

Related: Wanted by RWJF: An Army of Leaders to Fight a Culture War for Health