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Being an outstanding foundation president is much harder than it looks. At the end of the day, success in these jobs is all about having an impact, ideally in some new and important way, and quite a few CEOs finish up their tenures with middling records. Maybe they didn’t have any big ideas. Or maybe they did place major bets, but the wrong ones. Or maybe their promising plans foundered on the shoals of poor execution—or worse, got derailed by internal dissent from board and staff. A lot can go wrong.
A lot can go wrong.
All of which is why it’s worth looking back at Risa Lavizzo-Mourey’s 14 years atop the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as her tenure comes to a close. Everything went right. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more successful top foundation head than Lavizzo-Mourey in recent decades. Under her leadership, the nation’s fourth-largest grantmaker, one exclusively focused on health in the U.S., scored major successes that improved the lives of millions of people.
Darren Walker, who knows what it’s like to wrestle with a large foundation, made a similar point: “She succeeded in building a cohesive culture of collaboration at both the board level and among the staff. Which is very hard to do.”
One of her successes was breaking down the silos that can plague large grantmaking institutions. And she managed that without creating too much internal disruption. Under Lavizzo-Mourey’s leadership, RWJF’s various moving parts worked together in new and more effective ways.
Under Lavizzo-Mourey’s leadership, RWJF’s various moving parts worked together in new and more effective ways. As any leader of a large non-profit can attest, that in itself is quite an accomplishment.