Susan B. Hassmiller and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Profiles in Nursing

Susan B. Hassmiller and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Advising the $600 million endowment on nursing

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Susan Hassmiller’s career as a nurse had a classic beginning: Her mother was a nurse. Hassmiller always wanted to be a nurse and never thought of becoming anything else. She made her way in the profession with the unique determination of those who know from the very start what they want to do when they grow up, going from candy-striper to nurse’s aide and then graduating from an associate degree program.

From that point on, the story becomes much less typical. After earning her associate degree, she immediately entered a BSN program, eventually earned a master’s degree and a doctorate and now works tirelessly to help other nurses attain the same level of educational achievement.

The Foundation’s Goals
Early on, Susan Hassmiller, RN, Ph.D., FAAN, switched from acute care to public health, reflecting her belief that nursing can be much more than caring for the sick: It can also be actively engaged in prevention, helping to break the cycle of poor health practices that leads to hospitalization.

In her current role as senior advisor for nursing at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, she oversees the foundation’s $600 million commitment to enhancing the public perception of nursing, helping nurses pursue higher education with fellowships and scholarships and planning the future of the nursing profession.

“All the programs are centered on nursing, but are not about nursing,” she says. Instead, they focus on how nursing can be most effective in delivering healthcare.

Nursing Through Disasters
Hassmiller has also had a lengthy association with the Red Cross, work she characterizes as “payback.” When she was a young student, her parents were vacationing in Mexico City when the metropolis was struck by a powerful earthquake. With no other communications possible, Hassmiller was referred to the Red Cross, which in time was able to reassure her that her parents were safe. She has been grateful ever since.

Name almost any disaster of the past decade and Hassmiller has played some role in mitigating the suffering that followed: September 11, the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. In 2009, she received the Florence Nightingale Medal from the International Red Cross, which she says is her favorite award (and she has received many) because it brought together two of her great passions, nursing and the Red Cross. That the award also meant international recognition was an added bonus.

Recently, Hassmiller and her husband established an award in her name, which the Red Cross gives annually to a local chapter to enhance service capability by engaging nurses in policy, leadership and service positions.

Looking to the Future
That focus is appropriate because engagement in leadership and policymaking has been the hallmark of Hassmiller’s career. She was recently elected to the Institute of Medicine after leading the institute’s 2010 report on the future of nursing, which laid out a strategy for change in national and international healthcare.

What is her assessment of the future of nursing? “Very optimistic,” she says, provided that we can recruit and train enough qualified faculty to sustain the programs needed to increase the number and educational achievement of nurses. Signs are encouraging: Between 2011 and 2012, the number of nurses pursuing bachelor’s degrees increased 22 percent.

Hassmiller’s No. 1 recommendation for nurses: Get involved. Nurses at every level and in every part of the profession, whether at the bedside, teaching or doing research, can transform the way healthcare is delivered in America. Above all, Hassmiller says, never think you can’t effect meaningful change.


Robert Wood Johnson II was the son of one of the three brothers who founded Johnson & Johnson in 1886. “The General,” as the younger Robert Wood was known, was responsible for transforming the family firm into a global Fortune 100 company. He was a generous employer, even offering a 5 percent “hardship bonus” to his workers during the Great Depression.

The foundation that bears his name was established in 1971 with an endowment of $1.2 billion in company stock. Johnson said, “There is no area of social responsibility more important than the care of the sick and the injured, and I think it best to confine my foundation to the area of healing.”

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