Partnering with Corporations for Greater Scale
How the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is using business to advance a nationwide health initiative.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has been working to improve the health of all Americans for 42 years, but we’ve long realized we can’t achieve truly transformative scale on our own. We partner with organizations that are successfully implementing programs that address our shared concerns. We invest in current and future leaders through our professional development programs. We work with policy makers to change laws on tobacco, hospice care, affordable health care access, and numerous other issues. Through our RWJF Leadership Network, we leverage social networking technology so that some 6,000 change agents can better share ideas, tactics, and encouragement.
This year we also are transforming ourselves through a new strategic vision. Recognizing that health is a multifaceted and interdependent issue, we are shifting our efforts to focus on building a more holistic “Culture of Health.” Health is dependent on jobs, family, and community; it is dependent on access to affordable health care, economic and social opportunities, and prevention and treatment. To achieve a Culture of Health, we must tackle complex, ever-changing problems, and pursue solutions that are neither obvious nor stable. We must also connect our actions to those of others, forming partnerships with a variety of organizations in all sectors—particularly in the corporate sector.
As Jeff Bradach and Abe Grindle write in their article on transformative scale: “We need to understand how for-profits can be part of the solution in many social problems.” This sentence engendered considerable discussion at RWJF, because we increasingly are looking to businesses as partners to create scalable solutions—a natural fit, given that health has significant financial implications as well as social ones. A good example is childhood obesity. Approximately 12.5 million children in the United States between the ages of two and 19 are obese. If these children are still at an unhealthy weight when they enter the workforce, diabetes and attendant health complications will place a tremendous financial burden on their employers and the economy as a whole.
In 2007, RWJF pledged $500 million to reverse childhood obesity trends by 2015. But that’s not enough, and we know it. So we are reaching out to companies that too often are seen as part of the problem—for example, members of the food and beverage industry. To aid and encourage these companies to join the fight against obesity, RWJF funded research by the Hudson Institute, which found that packaged goods companies and restaurant chains that sold healthier products had higher sales growth between 2006 and 2011 than companies that were less aggressive in pursuing such products. Lower-calorie products drove 82 percent of the sales growth among the companies studied—more than four times the rate of higher-calorie products. This kind of research, when shared with industry, can be an agent for change.
RWJF also agreed to work with the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), formed in 2009 by 16 major food manufacturers and distributors to reduce the number of calories they sell in the United States. Its goal was a 1-trillion-calorie reduction by 2012, and 1.5 trillion by 2015. RWJF agreed to fund independent research to verify whether or not the companies lived up to their promise. In January, we reported that they sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories in the United States between 2007 and 2012—more than four times the amount originally pledged by 2015.
Corporate partners can also act as powerful scalers of nonprofit models that support a Culture of Health. Take the YMCA’s Pioneering Healthy Communities (PHC), launched 10 years ago to work with local business, government, and community leaders to improve health in the communities surrounding some YMCA locations. RWJF funded an expansion of this model in 2009 to support an additional six state-level and 32 local-level PHC committees. A 2013 survey found that, over four years, these new committees spurred 2,706 policy, systems, and environmental changes, affecting 2.3 million people. Now imagine if a corporation like Starbucks helped scale this model. Starbucks has 11,000 stores in the United States, and each supports a community service project every year in April. Volunteers can sign up at a store or on the Starbucks website. If we enlisted Starbucks in a PHC-like model, that would be the very definition of transformative scale.
In my annual message this year, I wrote: “We must disrupt the status quo and catalyze a national movement.” At RWJF, we know that there are many, many organizations—public, nonprofit, and for-profit—that share our vision of a Culture of Health. As Bradach and Grindle conclude in their article, it is time for new ways of thinking and acting that will encourage organizations of every kind to join the transformative scale movement.