5 Intriguing Association Leaders: Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey

By: Summer Faust

Many association professionals are going above and beyond in their work, but here are five leaders who are setting the bar with innovative initiatives and goals that will better their organizations and their communities.

Read all five profiles in "5 Intriguing Associations Leaders":

The Good Doctor

Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, 56
President and CEO, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, New Jersey
Worked with RWJF since 2001; in medicine and government service her entire career.

You might say being a doctor runs in the family. Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), says she has followed the lessons of her parents, both physicians, throughout her career in medicine. At the helm of the largest health philanthropic organization in the country, Lavizzo-Mourey still makes time to meet with patients, serve on the board of the University Medical Center at Princeton, and participate in the professional organizations she's a part of. And with America lagging when it comes to healthy behavior, Lavizzo-Mourey devotes much of her work to improving healthcare availability, affordability, and equality.

For Lavizzo-Mourey and RWJF, eradicating childhood obesity is a top priority. "Several years ago, we announced that we would commit $500 million to rolling back the rate of childhood obesity by 2015. But $500 million from one organization is a drop in the bucket. To roll back childhood obesity, to make sure our kids—and the adults they'll become—eat healthier and get the physical activity they need to be and stay healthy will take the concerted effort not just of philanthropy but of those who produce and market food, of nonprofit organizations, and of policymakers, just to name a few. And we see our role as sparking, connecting, and informing that kind of cross-sectional collaboration."

Associations Now: How is your organization facing the financial downturn while continuing to further its mission?

Lavizzo-Mourey: In order to be good stewards of our resources in this global recession, we have needed to make changes in how we operate. We've been talking about our need to become a smaller, more efficient foundation that continues to have impact. The economic downturn requires us to make significant changes in how we operate, yet at the same time stay focused on our objectives and hone our strategies.

We are also looking at new strategic collaborations as a means to drive programmatic impact in a way that we might not otherwise be able to on our own or using grants alone. These strategic collaborations are jointly funded projects in which there are opportunities for the funders to aggregate significant financial and nonfinancial resources and share information.

How do you stay motivated and help staff reach organizational goals?

We take on significant issues and make a long-term commitment to push for change. But we also create shorter-term benchmarks that align with our strategy. We assess and celebrate small successes along the way. For example, we want all kids to be in healthy schools that provide good, healthy food and opportunities to be physically active. And we are thrilled that every year more and more are earning recognition for their strides to do so.

We work with the smartest, most committed, most passionate people all across the country. Their enthusiasm, creativity, and tenacity are infectious. When staff needs a boost or focus, we connect to that infectious energy and the lessons learned from hard-won gains.

What is your advice for association and nonprofit leaders who must address changes in healthcare with regard to staff, members, and supporters?

Healthcare is personal and local. It's about people in their communities who get, give, and pay for care. So take the time to really understand what it will mean for individuals in specific local situations. Then give the information simply and directly. Help them understand how to use new policies and practices to optimize their own situation. As a physician who has tried to explain government and insurance policies to hundreds of patients, I know that healthcare rules and regulations are complex and confusing. Using sound bites and rhetoric won't serve the individuals and their families who need to know what is best for them. Keep open lines of communication and keep updating messages as more details about the policies become known. The CEO shouldn't necessarily be the go-to source, but know the big picture and most importantly know where to refer people for up-to-date information.

Online Extra: Extended Interview With Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey

One of the biggest issues that my organization is facing right now is: At our foundation, we focus on some of the most pressing and vexing issues in health and healthcare, like ensuring that Americans have stable, affordable healthcare coverage and trying to roll back the epidemic of childhood obesity. We Americans think we have the best healthcare system in the world, and for some, that's true. But for many, it's not—too few Americans have access to stable, affordable care; the cost of care is too high and the quality of care, while there are pockets of excellence in some parts of the country, isn't as good as it should and can be.

And the extent and quality of care is only part of the equation for better health. Even though we spend far more on medical care, per capita, than any other nation in the world—indeed almost double the next highest spending nation—we're not the healthiest nation in the world. Far from it. If we're going to be a healthier nation across large populations, we need to improve not just our systems of care, but the social determinants of health, like education, housing, the environments in which we live, work, learn and play. That's a big task that requires active participation across the for-profit, nonprofit and government sectors, and goes way beyond the ability of the healthcaresystem to address.

My plan to tackle it is: RWJF is committed to helping to improve the conditions, policies, and practices that protect and promote health, and to improve the care that people receive. We see ourselves as an agent of, and advocate, for change in those systems, policies, and practices that can make for a healthier America. The grants we make—a little more than $400 million this year—are an important vehicle for promoting and influencing that change. But the magnitude of the health challenges we face across populations in the United States makes that dollar figure, and indeed all the dollars spent in philanthropy, pale in comparison. So the dollars we grant to outstanding organizations, projects, and people are only part of the equation. Our larger, most significant role is to connect people and organizations across sectors, to bring them together, to provide them with the most rigorously tested evidence and the communications channels that promote change.

Take the epidemic of childhood obesity, for example. About one-third of America's children are obese or overweight. Unless we act quickly and collaboratively, those obese or overweight children will become obese or overweight adults (and almost two-thirds of American adults fall into that category), with shorter lifespans and serious chronic conditions, like hypertension and diabetes.

Several years ago, we announced that we would commit $500 million to rolling back the rate of childhood obesity by 2015. But $500 million from one organization is a drop in the bucket. To roll back childhood obesity, to make sure our kids, and the adults they'll become, eat healthier and get the physical activity they need to be and stay healthy, will take the concerted effort not just of philanthropy, but of those who produce and market food, of nonprofit organizations, and of policymakers, just to name a few. And we see our role as sparking, connecting and informing that kind of cross-sectional collaboration.

Social media is one of the many tools we have been using and will use more and more to amplify this role as we move forward. Through social media, we are convening interested players, coordinating our work with others, connecting our grantees and partners with other possible allies, and gathering additional information for counting and assessing the outcomes of these activities.

I enjoy my job now because: Quite simply, because every day I get to make a difference in the lives of Americans. RWJF is the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and healthcare. Our sole purpose is to help Americans live healthier lives and get the health care they need, and to do so in our lifetime. Our aim is to use our private resources in the service of the public, and in a way that prompts better public policy, inspires action from the private sector, and changes systems for delivering the best health care and for improving the health of the public. How can you not feel good about doing that every day?

I'm most proud of: Our successes and our ability to learn from successes (and failures). The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is recognized as a catalyst for changes in systems, policies and practices, like creating the 9-1-1 emergency response system that has helped save millions of lives, improving our systems of care at the end of life, and rolling back the rates of tobacco use, especially among young people. We hope, and expect, to use that learning in attacking the epidemic of childhood obesity, in building a more robust system of public health to prevent illness, and in helping those who get, pay for, and provide care improve the quality of that care.

I'm also especially proud of levels of success reached by the people I have personally had the privilege to teach and mentor over the years, and of those who have participated in our Foundation's programs to identify and build the skills of those who will be the future leaders of our nation's health and healthcare systems and organizations. I'm a product of one—the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program—but just one of many alumni of these programs who are every day transforming health in our nation for the better.

Looking toward the future, I think: Increasingly, people are beginning to recognize that good health is not just about healthcare, and that we need to put less stress on our healthcare system by fostering healthier people who make healthier decisions. We know that the internet is widely used to learn about health and healthcare and how to improve it. The growing use of social media expands our opportunity to share best practices, to collaborate, connect and challenge each other, as individuals and as organizations, to do better. The "wisdom of crowds" is powerful, but there remains an important role for organizations, like ours, that produce and share evidence about what works and what doesn't.

The best piece of advice I ever received was: You are only as good as the people around you. Build the best team possible. I have had the opportunity to work with some fabulous people over the years, and have realized how valuable this piece of advice really is. At the Foundation, I have the privilege of working with some of the best and the brightest and the most passionate when it comes to health and health care. And our family continues to grow as new grantees and new partners join us and as we foster the development of new leaders.

My best advice to give is: Stay true to your values. Be comfortable with ambiguity. False choices or dichotomies impede progress. Expand your networks. Build the best team possible, and continue to bring in fresh ideas and strengthen your team.

Summer Faust is project editor at ASAE. Email: [email protected]

Read all five profiles in "5 Intriguing Associations Leaders":