A Conversation on Philanthropy with Robert K. Ross

Reflections: A Conversation with California Endowment CEO Robert Ross


For two dozen years, Robert K. Ross, MD, has served as president and CEO of The California Endowment, a private foundation established in 1996 to address the health needs of Californians. Under his leadership, the foundation has grown and evolved dramatically. Now, as part of the most recent Conversation on Philanthropy hosted by the USC Price School’s Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy, and as his tenure draws to a close, Ross shared insights on how philanthropy can achieve impact on communities.

“Bob Ross was so often ahead of the times, but also was right there to meet the moment,” said James Ferris, PhD, Center director and the Emery Evans Olson Chair in Nonprofit Entrepreneurship and Public Policy at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy. Ferris recounted Ross’ pursuit of place-based philanthropy, emphasis on impact investing, role in expanding access to healthcare as part of the Affordable Care Act rollout, and early leadership to further diversity, inclusion, and equity in the philanthropic sector. Ferris noted that, in the midst of the pandemic, Ross raised $300 million for the first-ever social bond in California, which supports social justice power building.

“He set the bar for bold leadership — inspiring us all to strategize from the grassroots to the treetops,” Ferris added.

At the event on March 18, Elwood Hopkins — presidential fellow at the Kresge Foundation and managing director of Emerging Markets — engaged Ross in a wide-ranging discussion that illuminated his perspective on the role of the philanthropic sector and the importance of addressing health and social equity as well as empowering new generations of leadership for the field. The conversation also offered a look back at Ross’ storied career, which included serving of San Diego’s Health and Human Services Agency and as commissioner of public health in Philadelphia before joining The Endowment.

Ross said he is frequently asked by young people for career advice. His answer, he said, is that “the perfect job is a Venn diagram of three circles. First is your passion and second is your gifts. The third circle is the market, or what the world needs, from that combination of your passion and your gifts.”

Ross reflected on how privileged he feels to have dedicated much of his career to philanthropy, which he regards as both a calling and a spiritual journey. “What a gift it is to be in this field,” he said, “to be blessed with some combination of resources, and heart and passion, and to apply that in a positive and constructive way on behalf of humanity.”

A large part of that blessing, he noted, derives from the commitment, energy and intelligence of his colleagues at The California Endowment and across the philanthropic field. Given that level of talent, “I’d rather take credit for being a great listener than being a great innovator,” Ross said. “I think listening as a leadership quality is really underappreciated.”

So when Ross told The California Endowment board of his decision to step down, “it wasn’t that the passion or the fire had gone out, or that the job had gotten boring.” Instead, he explained, “it was just time for a new leader to come in with fresh energy and a fresh set of eyes.”

While Ross’ successor will take the helm in September, Hopkins noted that Ross has also brought next-generation leadership to The Endowment board, with new members in their early 20s.

Ross credited empowered young people and women with driving transformational change in the United States and globally. “Pick a movement — climate change, economic inclusion,” he said. “These are issues that I think the younger generation is uniquely qualified and suited to take to the next level.” He cited the Civil Rights Movement’s youth-driven leadership as a historic example.

“We really do need younger, fresher, more vibrant, bolder, innovative energy,” Ross urged.

He then turned to an issue that spans all generations. Referencing the foundation’s initial role as an access-to-healthcare foundation, Ross emphasized the importance of cross-disciplinary strategies to enhance health equity. He cited data demonstrating that 80 percent of what determines life expectancy occurs outside the clinical setting — factors such as race, housing, income and education. But even though they must all be addressed; finite resources demand that funders must prioritize what aspects they focus on.

In The California Endowment’s case, those priorities are aiding “the marginalized and the oppressed, and the systems that impact their health,” Ross said. Yet, to effect true change, foundations need to view themselves and their grantees as architects for a new kind of future rather than through the traditional lens of charity. And this requires mutual engagement.

“Each grant we make has a strategic, moral and, dare I say, spiritual purpose,” Ross said. “You are saying to that grantee and the community represented and served by that grantee, ‘I see you and hear you. Your voice means something.’”

As diverse constituencies face different issues, supporting and partnering with them requires different approaches. “I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all philanthropy,” Ross explained.

Yet, there remains one overarching aim we must share in writing new chapters for a better future. “The challenge of this nation right now is how to achieve a multiracial democracy that works for everybody,” Ross said. “If your foundation is not part of that, I don’t know what we’re doing.”

“And this has many facets — from economic inclusion to race to housing,” he added. “But I like the idea of philanthropy rallying to that shining city, rather than being the neutral, safe place trying to find compromise.”

As Bob’s colleague Cinny Kennard, Executive Director, The Annenberg Foundation and The Center’s Director noted: “It is not an overstatement to declare Bob is a gigantic force, but at the same time is full of grace. He is wise and wonderful at all times. He has been fearless and bold. Imagine that portfolio that he has left us with, and that a lot of us have tried to model, frankly, in so many ways. Bob, has been a good friend and a good colleague to all of us.”

The Conversations on Philanthropy series brings together key thinkers and decision-makers from philanthropy, nonprofit organizations, government, business and the academic community for intimate discussions that consider the role of philanthropy in addressing specific challenges facing our communities.

The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy promotes more effective philanthropy and strengthens the nonprofit sector through research that informs philanthropic decision-making and public policy to advance community problem solving. The Center is a part of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, which works to improve the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad.

For more information: Please contact Bhanu Cruz, Senior Associate Director, The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy, at [email protected] or 213-740-1776 or 323-697-3102 (cell).