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

Anytime a big foundation decides to blow up a whole bunch of programs and start over from scratch, it's murder on grantees. As well, it's hard on program staff who've nurtured work over years and have to field the desperate phone calls.

But creative destruction comes with the terrain of smart, big-time philanthropy, and so we're always impressed when a funder is actually able to push the button.

In this case, we're talking about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is winding down ten of its most popular programs under its Human Capital umbrella: Clinical Scholars; Health and Society Scholars; Scholars in Health Policy Research; Executive Nurse Fellows; Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research; Nurse Faculty Scholars; Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College; the Nursing and Health Policy Collaborative at the University of New Mexico; the Center for Health Policy at University of New Mexico; and New Careers in Nursing.

Talk about a wholesale slaughter. Keep in mind that we're talking about programs that, in some cases, have been central to RWJF's identity. It'd be like if McDonald's scrapped the Big Mac. 

The simple reason for all this is that the foundation's new vision requires a new human capital strategy.

RWJF's big shift to building a Culture of Health is bringing sweeping changes to much of the foundation, and their human capital funding is no exception. Lots of levers need to be pulled to bring about a wholesale change in America's health, the foundation says, and RWJF want to nurture leaders who get this:

We need leaders who have the skills to work effectively together across disciplines, professions, and sectors. This is more important than ever, as evidence reveals that factors beyond healthcare—such as education, early childhood experiences, income, housing,  and neighborhood conditions—influence health.

Meanwhile, new technologies and new policy structures, as well as knottier health challenges (like more chronic disease), mean that tomorrow's healthcare leaders will need to have a savvy grasp of complexity and be very innovative while also being strong collaborators who can transcend boundaries.

Out with siloed experts, in with big picture thinkers and team players. And speaking of teams, RWJF is quite explicit that what it wants here is to build its own cohesive team of leaders who will become "engaged champions for the Foundation's strategies—well positioned to lead the nation toward a Culture of Health."  

RWJF is not only looking to up its game in the kinds of people it invests in, it also plans to up its level of investment in these people—with more resources for leadership development and a big focus on networking these folks together so they can pool their brainpower and talents to solve problems. 

As well, the foundation says it plans to invest in more people overall. 

And here we should pause to note that we don't see this kind of grantmaking strategy every day: Namely, a foundation setting out to raise and train an army to carry out its strategic vision. 

Recently, we called Risa Lavizzo-Mourey's June speech at Aspen on RWJF's new strategy "the most important speech on philanthropy this year." But, heck, she barely mentioned the coolest stuff the foundation is doing as it girds for an all-out culture war.

So where do things stand with the new human capital strategy? Well, this spring RWJF solicited proposals from consultants to help it design "the next generation of human capital programs," putting up $1.6 million for this design work. (The background reading for the RFP offers a fascinating look at how the foundation is thinking.) 

Though the development process will take some time, RWJF expects to roll out four new human capital programs by next fall, 2015. Here's what they look like, so far:

  • The Interdisciplinary Culture of Health Research Leaders will reach across different disciplines to help drive change towards a culture of health.
  • The Diversity in Health Policy Research will provide students from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds across different disciplines with the financial and academic support to earn a doctoral degree.
  • The Clinical Scholars program will differ from the old clinical scholars program, bringing together clinical professionals from all the different branches of medicine to gain understanding of the culture of health idea.
  • The Multisector Leaders for Health program will bring together accomplished professionals who hold leadership positions to pool their influence on the culture of health.

Taken together, this is going to be an interesting crew of leaders when all the programs are up and running. Winning a culture war is no easy thing and RWJF definitely gets that it requires manpower.