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RWJF's First Public-Policy Director Readies for Budget Battle

Tuesday, January 8, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Amy Seasholtz
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By Caroline Preston | Jan 8, 2013


The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has typically taken what David C. Colby calls a "Field of Dreams” approach to shaping public policy.

In the 1989 movie of that name, an Iowa farmer bulldozes his corn field and turns it into a baseball diamond after a voice tells him, "If you build it, he will come.”

The foundation operated from the idea that if it paid for medical research and helped to design new approaches to health care, lawmakers would flock to the ideas and adopt them.

But that hasn't happened nearly enough. So in October, the foundation appointed Mr. Colby, who leads its research and evaluation team, to serve as its first vice president for public policy. He says the job is designed to help the philanthropy be much more "deliberative” about spreading its ideas.

Mr. Colby will split his time between Princeton, N.J., where the fund's headquarters are located, and Washington, where he'll work to educate politicians about the foundation's research and learn how the fund can help lawmakers shape policy. A big focus this year will be on helping the federal government make smart decisions about where it trims spending.

"David knows Washington,” says Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, Robert Wood Johnson's chief executive. "He knows the issues facing our nation. And perhaps equally important, he knows us.”

David C. Colby, vice president of public policy, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Education: B.A., Ohio Wesleyan University; M.A., Ohio University; Ph.D., political science, University of Illinois

Career highlights: Vice president of research and evaluation, Robert Wood Johnson; deputy director, Medicare Payment Advisory Commission

Salary: Not disclosed

Book he's reading: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, by Robin Kelley

David Colby


Medicare Expert

Mr. Colby's first nonprofit job came in 1969, as a community organizer in Louisville, Ky., for the American Friends Service Committee. He focused on housing issues, helping to build a community garden from the wreckage of torn-down buildings.

He later earned a doctorate in political science, which landed him teaching jobs at Williams College and the University of Maryland Baltimore College. Right after he received tenure, Mr. Colby took a year off from university life to work for a Congressional commission overseeing Medicare. He never returned to academe, and spent nine years working on Medicare issues in Congress. Robert Wood Johnson recruited him in 1998.

"When in life do you get an opportunity, unless you're really, really wealthy, to put money into causes and issues that you really care about and try to make a change on those issues?” he says.

Venus and Mars

Mr. Colby has a passion for helping to share the foundation's work with more people. He's a prolific user of Twitter: "I see it as a way of reaching an audience that wouldn't come to our Web site on a regular basis.”

And before the days of Twitter, he developed a series of e-mails to share what the foundation's evaluation team was learning. He says he strived to keep the tone informal. One holiday e-mail was titled "I'm Dreaming of a White Paper.” Another, titled "Take Five,” riffed on the pianist Dave Brubeck's song of the same name. (Mr. Colby is a big jazz fan.)

Translating the foundation's work to others will be a key part of his new role.

"To paraphrase a book title, Robert Wood Johnson is from Mars and policy makers are from Venus,” he says. "We think about the world in terms of childhood obesity or quality of health care; the federal government thinks about the world in terms of agriculture policy or the Medicare budget.”

Washington's focus next year will almost certainly be on the federal budget. So Mr. Colby is pulling together research the foundation has supported on health-care costs, Medicare malpractice, and other budget-related issues.

Mr. Colby says that philanthropy can have a much bigger impact if government adopts and expands projects that foundations initiate.

Take health insurance: Nearly 50 million Americans lack coverage, he notes. Even if Robert Wood Johnson devoted all of its annual budget—between $400-million and $500-million—to help people pay for insurance, that would amount to just $10 a person. Coverage for a family today costs about $15,000, he says.

"We can't solve the problem,” says Mr. Colby. "We have to find ways to leverage the dollars we have.”