Bully Pulpit: Why We May Be Seeing a Lot of This New Foundation President

Photo: Steve Fenn/ABC

Photo: Steve Fenn/ABC

What kind of person makes a successful president of a top U.S. foundation with $10 billion in assets and a complex array of grantmaking programs?

Is it a veteran philanthropy insider, who understands the strange ways of the philanthrosphere and knows how to move the needle with the right funding strategies? Or is it an outsider, who brings a knowledge of other sectors and different ways of making change?

There is no right answer to this question. But lately, more foundations have gravitated toward insider CEOs, judging by a string of appointments over recent years to the top jobs of such institutions as Ford, MacArthur, Barr, Irvine and Kellogg. As Fay Twersky has shown in her research, leading foundations is much harder than it looks, with few CEOs fully succeeding in these roles, so you can see why boards might favor candidates who are ready to lead on day one.

But the strong outsider can be pretty appealing, too, and the recent choice of Richard Besser to head the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is a case in point. Here’s a guy who has the potential to become one of the real star foundation presidents of coming years. Why? Because he brings an unusual combination of strengths to his new job.

On the one hand, Besser is a veteran public health expert and seasoned manager. Trained as a pediatrician, he became an epidemiologist and spent most of his career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rising to become the agency’s acting director. He knows the terrain of America’s health system, as well as how to get things done in a large institution. He has particular expertise in emergency health preparedness, but also areas that have long been the bread and butter of RWJ’s work, like leadership training and cross-sector partnerships. In a recent interview, Besser told me that a big focus of his time at CDC “was how to create a public health system that works for everyone.”

Yet what really sets Besser apart from every other foundation head I can think of is that he understands the media and how to communicate with the general public. Since 2009, Besser has been the chief health and medical editor of ABC.

How often do top foundations recruit leaders from the world of television news? Pretty much never. Nor, for that matter, do people like Richard Besser often end up in that world. 

“Many people wondered why I made the move to ABC,” he told me. And the reason was that he saw it as “another way of practicing public health.” At the network, a big part of Besser’s job was to “try to explain complex health situations” to viewers. Most notably, he was on the air frequently during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, reporting on the ground from Liberia. (Besser has also offered tips on more mundane matters, like how to shovel snow without injuring your back.) He’s been a regular on ABC shows like Good Morning America and World News Tonight, and has a big presence on social media, with over 57,000 Twitter followers.

You can see why RWJ might be excited about the media background that Besser brings to the job. The foundation’s grand mission right now is to create a “culture of health” in the United States, which it describes as raising the health of everyone “by placing well-being at the center of every aspect of life.”

Advancing this mission, as I’ve discussed before, hinges only partly on scaling better public policies and health practices. The deeper challenge, here, is changing the values, norms, and personal behavior of Americans. To be healthier, people need to move more, eat better, live and work in new ways, and raise their children differently.

Related: Take a Closer Look at the Most Important Speech on Philanthropy This Year

No institution in U.S. society has more power to shape culture on this scale than the media. And so the pairing of Richard Besser and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is kind of brilliant. It matches up an uber-wonky foundation with enormous resources and big ambitions; and a telegenic leader who knows how to communicate to the general public.

I should add that Besser totally buys into RWJ’s "culture of health" framework. He told me that he works a half-day a week in a community clinic, and said, “When I look at the problems these kids face, most of them can’t be solved in the exam room with me.” The biggest long-term health challenges these kids confront, Besser said, were due to living in neighborhoods without fresh food or safe streets, or enough places to play and exercise.

Given Besser’s lack of foundation experience—he sees a “steep learning curve” in his new job—it’s hard to say how effective he might be at RWJ by such conventional metrics as achieving impact through grantmaking programs or working well with the board and staff. But it's easy to imagine him turning his job into something we don’t see very often: the foundation presidency as a bully pulpit.

He’ll be taking the helm at RWJ early this spring, at a time when the future of the Affordable Care Act hangs in the balance, with healthcare issues again front and center. That debate, Besser said, “should be informed with evidence-based information.” He added, “We need to have nonpartisan voices that people trust.” Katherine Hempstead, a senior advisor at the foundation, recently told us something similar—that RWJ has a real opening coming up to inform the national healthcare debate.

Related: With Obamacare Under Fire, What is America's Top Healthcare Funder Thinking?

More broadly, the media has an enormous appetite for health stories, and what better expert to call than the camera-ready head of America’s biggest healthcare foundation? In turn, that access—and the higher public profile that comes with it—offers opportunities for Besser to push RWJ’s ideas for a culture of health to the larger American public—an audience that this foundation very much needs to reach to achieve its long-term mission.

Along the way, look for Richard Besser to emerge as one of the most visible foundation presidents this sector has seen in a long time.