RWJF's Podcasts Are Another Way This Funder is Wrestling With Ideas

Remember how earlier this fall we told you all about these TED-style talks the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been hosting at its headquarters? We called them Malcolm Gladwell-esque, and another sign that philanthropy is moving in a more creative direction. RWJF, with its deep pockets and brainy tendancies, is one funder leading that charge.

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

But there something's else interesting happening at RWJF along the same lines: A podcast series that digs into some of the ideas bouncing around that place so the rest of us can tune in via iTunes.

RWJF launched the podcast "Pioneering Ideas" about a year ago, putting out its first episode on August 6, 2013. Initially, it was producing one podcast per quarter, but the idea has gained momentum and listeners, so RWJF has upped its output to semimonthly.

The goal of the podcast is to help "build a Culture of Health," specifically by exploring cutting-edge ideas and emerging trends that can transform health and healthcare. The content is wide ranging and can be edgy. Think "Radiolab" meets Dr. Andrew Weil and you’re getting the idea.

One recent episode, Conspiracy Theories, Microbiomes, & More, explores the connection between conspiracy theory believers and healthcare, talks about how we might quantify a culture of health, discusses microbiomes within the built environment, and makes a mental and physical health case for getting enough sleep. It’s a real potpourri, to say the least, but that’s the point. “We always have our feelers out to see what the emerging trends are,” Lori Melichar told me. A labor economist and a director at RWJF, she's the podcast’s host. “One of the vehicles we’ve created for that specific task of future-focus is experimenting with the podcast.”

Of course, a podcast salon can yield other benefits for RWJF. Though Melichar didn’t mention this in our conversation, there’s no denying that putting out something as interesting and accessible as a podcast could be an asset for RWJF. It can control its own message, rather than relying on media (like us, cough cough) for analysis. And it shows a level of engagement in the world of ideas that's uncommon among foundations. In turn, that can help RWJF draw more intellectual capital its way, a goal that Melichar did mention to me.

RWJF is very focused these days on attracting innovators as it works to build a culture of health. “The podcasts are trying to tap into the innovators market,” Melichar says. “We want the kinds of people who listen to TED talks, who’ve self-identified as innovators, to participate in conversation with us.”

The podcast is also a way to pull grantees into bigger conversations and help nurture the cross-pollination of ideas. As we all know, big foundations can be seriously siloed, along with the nonprofit world broadly. 

For example, two recent grantees appeared on a podcast to discuss what they have in common. Though the funded projects are in completely different program areas of the foundation, they both have a waste-repurposing component, similarities they shared in the episode.

Note the two birds being killed with one stone, here: Showcasing the work of grantees while also exploring the opportunities for synergy within RWJF's orbit. Smart stuff.

Below you can check out the podcast episode I mentioned earlier.