Guest Post: How the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Seeks To Improve

At the Center for Effective Philanthropy, we believe that improved performance of philanthropic funders can have a positive impact on nonprofit organizations and the people and communities they serve. As part of our work, we aim to highlight stories from funders who share that vision and who value the role of data and assessment in efforts to increase their impact.


by Robin Mockenhaupt, Ph.D., M.P.H., Chief of Staff,
Dee Colello, Senior Manager, Program Operations, and
David Adler, M.P.A., Communications Officer
of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation


They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom. ~Confucius

Change and continual improvement is a valued part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s culture. It’s in our guiding principles, which state, “We must commit ourselves to lifelong learning and continual improvement.” In addition to change and improvement, RWJF is also committed to transparency and peer learning, and it is in that vein that we are sharing our progress on quality improvement since 2004.

As part of our 2004 annual organizational assessment, we commissioned the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report (GPR). We learned that while our grantees rated us comparatively well in several areas, we were using up a lot of grantee time meeting our administrative demands and we weren’t moving as fast as we needed to in processing grants. We also learned we needed better clarity in our communications of goals and strategies.

A 2011 CEP case study, Frequent Checkups Make for Healthier Funding Relationships, illustrated that we changed. We wanted to share one of the ways we took that advice to heart.

With the findings from the GPR, input from an all-staff retreat, and a focus group of grantees, we developed our first Foundation-wide Quality Improvement (QI) initiative. Our process for implementing this QI project can be broken down to five steps.

  • We set the right tone. The all-staff retreat and the announcement of the QI process by our president and CEO, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., helped create widespread buy-in among staff. Any organization considering quality improvement projects should recognize that having the buy-in and public support of the CEO is a crucial first step for setting the appropriate environment for change.
  • We started with something manageable. The initial focus of our quality improvement work was on a category of grants that accounts for about 20 percent of our grantmaking. We wanted to start with something manageable to see how it worked before rolling out broader efforts.
  • We gathered the troops. After the announcement, staff interested in quality improvement convened to map out current grantmaking processes; shortly after that, a smaller core staff team was chartered, supported by a group of project sponsors from senior management.
  • We jumped in. The team designed a pilot. After testing and implementation, the project moved into control (maintenance) phase. Our first QI project resulted in sequencing and prioritizing steps in our grantmaking process, as well as launching the Foundation’s Program Information Management System (PIMS).  After our first QI project, two other projects were designed and implemented, using a similar structure and process. In addition, three smaller projects were led by staff trained in the QI process.
  • We are monitoring ongoing progress. We needed a way to monitor how we were doing and for identifying new ideas for improvement. We organized a standing staff group called the Process Improvement Group to help track metrics for our grantmaking and to initiate new quality improvement initiatives. Additionally, other units within RWJF have taken up their own quality improvement initiatives.

What did we learn?

  • Communications is a key component to implementing quality initiatives and staff behavior change.
  • Staff like being involved in cross-functional improvement projects
    when they see the need for change and can be a part of the solution.
    It’s also an opportunity to involve staff at every level of the
  • Staff need dedicated time for QI work, as opposed to trying to “fit it in” around other responsibilities.
  • Over time, managers learned better how to scope and implement QI projects.
  • The automation of our grantmaking process (which initially was
    paper) allowed for project milestones and timelines to be standardized
    and to become transparent to all staff.


We’re pleased that more recent CEP reports have concluded our grantee perceptions have gotten better over time, and we believe our quality improvement efforts were a factor in this change. Our responsiveness measures are now higher as well as our quality of interactions. With that said, all our quality improvement efforts were not successful and we are receptive to revising any processes that may have missed the mark. For example, we are still working toward reducing the amount of time in both selection process and improving our ongoing monitoring and reporting.

We’re happy to share additional information about our QI process and are eager to hear how our colleagues are approaching this as well.

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