Robert K. Ross, The California Endowment

TITLE: President and CEO

FUNDING AREAS: Health policy, access to healthcare, healthcare reform, and minority empowerment

CONTACT: rross@calendow.org, 800-449-4149

IP TAKE: A doctor turned policymaker turned philanthropist, Ross wants his projects to promote wellness within an entire community. He has a particular interest in empowering minority and marginalized populations.

PROFILE: "Tell me your zip code and I'll tell you how long you'll live," says Robert Ross in an interview with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The president of The California Endowment knows that the community we live in, more than the doctor we go to, affects our health outcomes. "If you're lucky enough to move to a neighborhood with a grocery store, safe parks and good schools," Ross explains, "your health will improve."

Ross' belief in the importance of healthy environments guides the direction of The California Endowment. Its major initiative right now: Building Healthy Communities, a 10-year, $1 billion initiative to transform 14 regions in California into healthy spaces for people to live.

Ross' enthusiasm for his work is evident. Not only does he direct one of the nation's largest healthcare philanthropies, but he's also a serial board member, a public health commentator (with appearances on Tavis Smiley, in the LA Times, and in the Huffington Post), and winner of copious awards (from organizations such as the Council on Foundations, Volunteers of America, and Planned Parenthood).

Where does Ross get his drive and inspiration? At least in part from a childhood burdened by poverty and misfortune. Ross gained firsthand knowledge of unhealthy environments, and he appears to have devoted his adult life to bringing health and opportunity to people who don't have it.

Ross got his start in the health field working as a pediatrician and has had a long career on both the clinical and policy sides of the medical field. He previously served as commissioner of public health for the City of Philadelphia and director of the Health and Human Services Agency for the County of Dan Diego. Ross sits, or has sat, on a ridiculous number of high-powered boards. A partial list: the California Health Benefit Exchange Board, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors; the Diversity in Philanthropy Coalition; the USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy; Grantmakers in Health; the National Vaccine Advisory Committee; the National Marrow Donor Program; the San Diego United Way; and the Jackie Robinson YMCA.

Now at The California Endowment, Ross oversees assets of more than $3.6 billion, about 5 percent of which Ross and his team spend annually on grants. All that money goes toward making life healthier for Californians, the endowment's mission since its spin-off from Blue Cross's 1990s privatization deal. Currently, most of the foundation's grant dollars are tied up in the Building Healthy Communities program, but there is money available to health-oriented groups with "disruptive" innovations. Essentially, if you're a California nonprofit with a great idea of how to replace an existing but inefficient structure with something that gets more health to more people who need it, you too can apply for funding from The California Endowment. Three times a year, even. Details on how to get support from The California Endowment are here.

In his role as philanthropist, Ross isn't shy about speaking out about policy and the politics that surround it. In the Robert Wood Johnson interview mentioned above, Ross said that philanthropy can play a role in confronting structural injustices facing racial minorities in this country. "Black men today," Ross explains, "are more likely to receive a GED in prison than graduate from college. One in three black men, and one in six Latino men, are projected to go to prison in their lifetimes." What to do about that, short of upending the existing social and legal structure? Ross is working with various partners on something called the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, a campaign to empower young black and brown males in California.

Being on the California Health Benefit Exchange Board, Ross also has an interest in policies surrounding the Affordable Care Act. He appreciated it when California's Secretary of Health and Human Services called out California as a national leader on healthcare reform implementation, and used the occasion to call attention to California's success as a model for other states, a model which should probably not dillydally when it comes to letting their residents secure medical care. As Ross said himself:

California has made it clear: the successful implementation of the landmark Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is moving forward in our state. California's Health and Human Services secretary Diana Dooley said it best in a recent article when asked about the state's efforts to implement the ACA: "We want to be the lead car." This is encouraging, particularly to the families living on the precipice of financial disaster due to exorbitant medical bills that threaten their solvency. Now, our Congress needs to join California and put the interests of America's families first and put an end to this challenge of what has already been written into law. With so many issues facing our nation, we need to move forward now.