Although like any good staffer she defers to her board, it’s difficult to assess the trajectory of the Pew Charitable Trusts over the past decade without talking to Pew’s president and CEO, Rebecca W. Rimel.
Dr. Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and a former Pew staffer, says “Rebecca took Pew from a place where all grants were given anonymously and where the place didn’t have a listed telephone number to a place where they are backing the big ideas.”
Out went the staff of nine and the primary focus on local giving. In came more than 100 employees and a high-profile effort to be at the center of national debates on issues from campaign finance reform to civic journalism to global warming.
The new Pew gives less in the Philadelphia area as a percentage of its total budget, but is still appreciated by area donors. Dr. Lewis W. Bluemle of Philadelphia’s Connelly Foundation has benefited from the in-depth analytical work performed by Pew staff, giving as an example studies commissioned when Pew was asked to fund the remaking of Independence Mall in Philadelphia. “[Pew] helped us make decisions about funding the project because they did a lot of the going-in research,” says Bluemle.
Others are less sanguine about the changes, raising concerns over a kind of imperial overstretch that has led largely unaccountable foundations to inject themselves into the governing process and dream up projects rather than support the work of existing organizations. Still others, citing the strong conservative orientation of family patriarchs Joseph N. Pew Jr. and J. Howard Pew, are dismayed that Pew’s orientation has slipped to the left of center.
Read on for Rimel’s comments on these matters and others—including her early career as a research nurse, why she refers to herself as a “raging incrementalist,” and the challenge of managing the Pew Trusts (a former colleague remembers with something less than fondness that “people would come in Monday morning and find twelve handwritten notes on their desk from Rebecca”). Philanthropy interviewed her at her office in Philadelphia.
PHILANTHROPY: What is your earliest memory of philanthropy?
MS. RIMEL: I think that the first memory would have to be the passing of the collection plate at church every Sunday. My parents were interested in teaching us about tithing, although that was not the word they used. I grew up in Charlottesville, a small town in Virginia, and every year at the holiday we were asked to take some toys, and we packed in the car and drove over to families who were less fortunate. It was inculcated as a way of life, and an expectation. They were wonderful teachers and they taught by example.
PHILANTHROPY: How did you come to Philadelphia and meet [Pew Chairman] Tom Langfitt?
MS. RIMEL: Like most good things in life, it was largely accident. I was invited to Philadelphia to a conference, and at that conference was a wonderful man, now deceased, who was the president of Yale—Bart Giamatti. His wife had had a minor head injury. He identified my name from the program—I was a research nurse at the time—and asked if we could have lunch. And at that lunch was Bob Smith, another Yale alum and president of the Glenmede Trust Company, which was the trustee of the Pew Trusts. Several years went by. Tom Langfitt, who was chief of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania, and had done research on head injury as I had at the University of Virginia, had subsequently joined the board at the Pew Trusts. The last of the four donors had died, and she left the funds that set up the Medical Trust. The board decided they needed someone in health care, and someone said “Remember that young woman who was doing some interesting research in Charlottesville. Maybe we should talk with her.” And so I came here in 1983 to oversee the health grantmaking.
PHILANTHROPY: What was it like being a 32-year-old making the transition from research nurse and professor to foundation program officer?
MS. RIMEL: Probably the hardest transition was that it was the first time I had moved away from the town where I grew up. The institution was very welcoming, although it was very different then. There were just nine program staff. We had just come out of 40 years of making grants anonymously, and so we were somewhat of a mystery even in the local community, and totally unknown on the national stage. We had a board of deeply committed individuals, many of whom are still on the board, and better than half of them are members of the Pew family. There has been enormous change since 1983, but it has happened under the stewardship largely of the same individuals.
PHILANTHROPY: There’s a trend at some of the larger foundations for the board to not approve individual grants. Is the Pew Trusts part of that trend?
MS. RIMEL: Our board doesn’t get involved in the day-to-day implementation, but they do review every grant. Every project goes to the board for review and discussion. We are different in that regard, but they feel that that is part of their stewardship responsibility.
PHILANTHROPY: Does the board ever surprise you by kicking something back, or by doubling an allocation?
MS. RIMEL: There’s always great give and take, and they are anything but a rubber stamp. But by the time a major project has been presented to them there has already been a great deal of discussion. They review something we call an “idea agenda,” we give them a “heads up” on things we are working on, so it’s a very interactive relationship. Sometimes the staff will bring in an idea and the board says, “We don’t see how our resources can be applied strategically to make a difference.”
PHILANTHROPY: Ever had a staff member resign because the board wouldn’t support a pet project?
MS. RIMEL: No, the staff here is very clear about their role, the board is very clear about its role. One of the dangers of this business is that staff can start to see something as their program or their money, and that is a formula for disaster on a whole lot of fronts. That type of arrogance is also very undermining to grantees.
PHILANTHROPY: The Pew Charitable Trusts is actually an interlocking set of seven separate trusts connected to the Glenmede Trust, which most people have never heard of. You are on the boards of both—and have been since 1994. What is the Glenmede Trust?
MS. RIMEL: When the donors set up the individual trusts, over a number of years, their attorneys suggested a structure whereby there would be a single trustee, which would be the Glenmede Trust, a privately owned corporation. That company would have a board that would oversee the activities of the trusts.
PHILANTHROPY: What else does Glenmede do?
MS. RIMEL: For years, the only thing it did was to manage the affairs of The Pew Charitable Trusts, to invest the assets, to provide the money for the grantmaking, and actually to award the grants. In the early 1980s, the Pew family and outside institutions asked Glenmede if it would be open to investing their assets as well. Over time, it began to become clear that the missions of the two organizations were quite different. Tom Langfitt set up what he liked to call “tubs on their own bottoms” for the two organizations. The foundation is in a separate location now, several blocks away. I serve as the CEO reporting to the Pew board, and the bank has its own CEO. We still have much overlap on the board.
PHILANTHROPY: What are the different trusts and how do the various indentures influence your selection of program areas?
MS. RIMEL: In a very enlightened way, the donors all left a lot of latitude. So there is actually only one trust—the Medical Trust—that is restricted in terms of what it can fund, and even that trust can help medical causes rather broadly defined, including social services, assistance to frail elderly, and so on. We do assign grants to a particular trust based on a range of things including the size of the grant, balancing for payout, tax planning, and cash flow needs, but there is nothing in the indentures that prevents us from having maximum flexibility with respect to trust assignment. But your question gets at the issue of donor intent, which we have discussed in board meetings. We were debating one issue, and one of the board members said “I wonder what the donors would have thought about this?” And J. N. Pew III , who is the longest serving member of the board, spoke up. He is a quiet gentleman, but he said, “You know what they would have said? They would have said that that is the wrong question to ask, that we are the stewards today. It is up to us to make those sorts of decisions, and they would have wanted us to apply compassion and good judgment, and basically that’s why we are sitting here.” For us, the whole debate over donor intent is made easier in that six people sitting around that table knew the donors and lived with them.
PHILANTHROPY: In fairness, one Pew family member—John G. “Jack” Pew—resigned from the board precisely because he felt that the foundation was moving in directions that were antithetical to J. Howard Pew’s original views, which are pretty well articulated.
MS. RIMEL: Jack did leave the board in 1990 and we continue to talk about mutual interests. Jack was interested in seeing some of the resources directed in certain ways. And he was extraordinarily gracious about his sense that he did not feel that he could continue to add value and he did step aside.
PHILANTHROPY: In the 1970s, Pew was run out of an office at the Glenmede Trust Company by a gentleman named J. Allyn Bell and a secretary. It was, in fact, legendary for being small and low-profile. Now, of course, the staff is large and the foundation is very high-profile. What happened?
MS. RIMEL: When I started we were not known well locally, and we were not known at all nationally. One of the big changes, with a lot of debate, was driven by the board at one of the first board retreats, after what I refer to as the “airplane story.” I posed the following question to each of them: Let’s assume that it’s five years from now and you’re on an airplane going someplace, and there are two people behind you talking about the Pew Trusts. What are they saying that makes you pop with pride, and what are they saying that makes you want to shrink down in your seat? They were very clear that they wanted the institution and its resources to stand for being a credible source of ideas and an engine for people to engage in debates on major policy issues of our time. And that was very much in keeping with the tradition of the founders, and particularly of J. N. Pew, who was very interested in the citizens being civically engaged.
PHILANTHROPY: But the Pew Trusts of the 1970s could still have been supporting some of those same programs, without the high profile. When you started there were nine staff, today, there are 144 staff listed on your Web site, and you have a public affairs staff of ten—which is more than the combined press staffs of the Senate majority and minority leaders, Lott and Daschle—so that’s a sizeable public affairs machine. In fact, that is more than the entire staff of the Annenberg Foundation, which has a comparable endowment but which gets by with nine employees.
MS. RIMEL: Well, the size of the staff is really dictated by the kind of work you do. There are a couple of ways you can do grantmaking—wholesaling and retailing. Both have merit, and we do some of both. But you can invest in an entity and have them do the regranting for you, as the Gates Foundation did with its support to the United Negro College Fund, or like the Annenbergs have done with their support to Brown University to promote school reform. Both have a place. As far as the public affairs staff—70 percent of what they do is working with our grantees and helping them tell their story to leverage our investment. One of the things foundations don’t do well is talk enough about what they support and what happened—what did we get for that investment, where did we fail and what did we learn from it.
PHILANTHROPY: To go back to your airplane example, don’t you think your board members would have been satisfied to hear their fellow passengers saying that the Pew Trusts is a Philadelphia-based philanthropy that supports the good works of organizations A, B, and C—as opposed to tending to be more at the center of the picture? You turn on NPR in the morning and there’s a little blurb about the Pew Trusts, you pick up the Washington Post and they are quoting Andy Kohut from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, or Jan Schaffer from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. There’s a very high profile there, but how does that help the work of the grantees?
MS. RIMEL: We have no interest in recognition for recognition’s sake. Self-aggrandizement is antithetical to what we are about. But we have found over time that the institution—through the company we have kept, and by that I mean our partners and grantees—has built up some credibility in the fields in which we work. And the application of the name to anything is something that is driven totally by the project and the desire of the recipient. For instance, when we inherited the Research Center for the People and Press, Andy Kohut felt very strongly that having it tied to an institution that is seen as providing fact-based information on a range of policy issues was of great benefit to him and the work that he was going to do.
PHILANTHROPY: The first thing one reads when viewing your Web site is the statement that Pew is a “Philadelphia-based foundation,” and some 27 percent of your grants do go to charities in the Philadelphia area. It used to be higher; in 1980 it was 56 percent. Why take a national (and to some degree, international) approach, especially given the examples of Lilly, Danforth, and others that have narrowed their grantmaking focus?
MS. RIMEL: We’ll always have a commitment to Philadelphia, and it hasn’t waned in terms of dollars so much as in the percentage of the total grants budget. The board has debated this long and hard, and has decided that we are a national foundation with a local commitment. That means that we support certain things locally that we do not do nationally. Locally, we support the disadvantaged through the Pew Fund for Health and Human Services, basically a direct service delivery program. Perhaps some may feel that we pulled away because they never knew about the national work, which goes back to the fact that we were not very public.
PHILANTHROPY: Dr. Lewis Bluemle at the Connelly Foundation describes you not so much as “a judger of things” as “a creator of ideas.” Typical of this, in 1991, the Trusts called in a ten-person “dream team”—including people like Bill Moyers—to, in the words of a newspaper story at the time, “think up a few socially deserving projects that could benefit from a multi-million dollar windfall.” Now let me read to you something Irving Kristol said in an interview with Philanthropy [November-December 1998] and get your reaction:
[Foundations are subject to] delusions of grandeur. They think that they have a completely independent role to play, and they are therefore all tempted to move in the direction of something called the “cutting edge.” But the notion that they by themselves can play an independent role in American life is absurd. The Bradley foundation, for instance, supports [the American Enterprise Institute], they support other groups, but it’s those groups that do the work. [Bradley Foundation President] Mike Joyce doesn’t bring them into existence, in most cases. They come into existence and he decides that they are worthy of support.
What I worry about with some foundations is that their basic tendency is not to support people who are doing worthy things, but to get people to do what they think are worthy things. Foundations, except in very special cases, should not try to start something new, because the truth is, in most cases, if it were something worthwhile, someone else would have thought of it and would be doing it already. Foundations have to be parasitic on intellectual enterprise.
Could Kristol be talking about the Pew Trusts here?
MS. RIMEL: I read that interview and I agree with about 90 percent of what he said, and the part I particularly agree with is that we ought not to have delusions of grandeur that our small dollars—and they’re truly tiny compared with the problems we’re talking about, a rounding error—can have a huge impact. But we can be smart about what we do—we can be what I call “raging incrementalists,” by which I mean we can be very focused and very strategic and use resources, ideas, individuals, and institutions out there to move the needle on certain key issues. It’s pretty unlikely that a single foundation is going to “solve poverty” or some other huge objective. But if a foundation says that it’s going to invest a lot of time, a lot of energy, and work with a lot of smart people on a very targeted specific objective, that’s creative good work. That doesn’t mean that they need to create new entities, although in some cases the proper organizational structures don’t exist. We should really be judged by how smart and creative we can be at finding the best talent out there. So you would have to mark me down as probably agreeing with most of what Kristol says, although we could debate some of the specifics.
PHILANTHROPY: Isn’t that a little bit at odds with having Bill Moyers and nine other people come in and brainstorm, given the penchant of our nation’s elites to, as Mike Joyce once put it, sit down at their word processor at 9 a.m. with the assurance that they can solve any social problem before lunch?
MS. RIMEL: The worst thing we could do is to become closed-minded and closed off from the best ideas and people. I think we need to bring wise, incisive people to the table to help us forecast the big issues and big needs where an institution like this can make a difference. I particularly seek out the people who look at the world differently. We all have a tendency to talk to the people who are like us. People with different perspectives and strong ideological differences need to come together and debate these issues long and hard.
PHILANTHROPY: Speaking of ideological differences, J. Howard Pew, who died in 1971, was a staunch conservative. He told colleagues that Princeton Theological Seminary had “too many communists” on the faculty—and gave millions to create Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a more conservative seminary. What do you say to those who criticize Pew for veering away from the legacy of J. Howard Pew?
MS. RIMEL: He was a man of strong convictions and his successors on our board are following in his tradition by having strong convictions.
PHILANTHROPY: But isn’t he spinning in his grave? You mentioned that you aren’t legally handcuffed by his indenture, but wouldn’t he be a little shocked that the Environmental Information Center, which the Pew Trusts helped create, had sponsored, in the words of National Journal, a “bare knuckles paid-media campaign” to push back Congressional deregulation? This is the man who described “the hand of government on the hand of business” as “the cold, clammy hand of death [which] must eventually destroy everything it touches,” and his legacy is to pay for ads stating that the “new Congress” is “bedding down with corporate polluters”? J. Howard Pew built the fortune that became the Pew Trusts by being precisely the kind of person vilified in those ads.
MS. RIMEL: Well, I could conjecture, but I have six people on the board who knew this man for anywhere from 30 to 50 years, and worked for him, lived with him, and knew him intimately. So, it’s those people on whom I rely to answer those questions. I can’t conjecture what he would have done in today’s circumstances. For instance, all of the family were strong environmentalists. They were engaged in land preservation and conservation through their own personal philanthropy.
PHILANTHROPY: Doesn’t that speak to the changes in the environmental movement, from supporting conservation to funding media campaigns supporting an interest group’s attack on business? Isn’t it possible that what has happened here is that the second and third generations have just decided that they are going to do what they want to do, and that maybe the old man was a bit too extreme?
MS. RIMEL: Well, times are different now and I don’t think we really know how J. Howard Pew’s views would have played out. There were certainly many areas of his life where he was very inclusive, certainly in his perspectives on religion, and he was very interested in bringing a range of people to the table to debate issues of the day. In fact, one of the first grants he made was to the United Negro College Fund many years before that became a mainstay of American philanthropy. So I don’t know how he would have reacted. I take issue with the notion that the work we support is bashing business. In fact, we have lots of partnerships with businesses. Take the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which includes 21 leading companies that are deeply concerned about global warming. They are making changes in their business and production practices, because of scientific evidence about climate change and also because they believe that it’s good for the environment. They are not doing this because the Pew Trusts told them so, or because of some “bare knuckles” media campaign.
PHILANTHROPY: Weren’t J. Howard’s views on the free enterprise system pretty unequivocal? In 1938, he wrote that “when I speak of the free enterprise system at its best, I mean where it is entirely free—free from monopoly, private or governmental; free from government control or intimidation . . . ” Now, it’s one thing to say that we’re not going to take the founder’s views seriously. It certainly doesn’t make sense to be bound by the donor’s wishes if the donor was a slave owner and was pro-slavery. But it sounds like you are saying that the board is doing what they think J. Howard would have wanted, and that’s hard to see.
MS. RIMEL: Again, as the only person on the board since its founding said, we cannot divine what he would or would not have done in current circumstances. But he was fiercely independent, he had very strong ideas and he believed that everything he did should be toward the public good and in the public interest, and that it should prepare citizens to self-govern in the future. If you apply that standard, we are totally in sync with his intent and interests on individual program areas that were not even around when he was alive. Hopefully people would say by that standard we measure up.
PHILANTHROPY: Speaking of the future, what trends do you see shaping the future of philanthropy? Do you anticipate that the new wealth will revolutionize the field?
MS. RIMEL: I think we are in for a really interesting roller coaster. In addition to the huge influx of wealth, I would expect to see very different approaches to philanthropy along a continuum from very directed and advocacy oriented to more traditional approaches along the lines Irving Kristol delineated, giving the money to bright thoughtful people and existing institutions and letting them do their good work. We should welcome this diversity of interests, opinions, and approaches. It will make for a better and richer outcome, and it would be very unfortunate if we all decided to march in lockstep. One particularly interesting development is the proliferation of new for-profit players in this field, like the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, new consulting firms for nonprofits, and online giving. This is all new territory and it’s exciting, but it’s also going to be interesting how we sort this out. The sector will be redefined over the next 20 years. There’s tremendous change, and yet there is almost no news coverage. The media seem to be focused on the latest biggest grant. Bigger may be interesting, but it’s not necessarily better. Strategy and design of philanthropic investment is equally important.