Edith Knaan, The Chronicle of Philanthropy
In the rarefied world of private philanthropy, where nonprofits don’t like to criticize the wealthy donors on whose generosity they depend, Pablo Eisenberg was an anomaly.
A nonprofit leader, professor, and social justice advocate, he was a strong and influential watchdog of the philanthropic sector, which he routinely criticized for promoting inequality and neglecting society’s most pressing issues.
Eisenberg, who died on October 18 at the age of 90, argued that charitable giving often benefits the wealthy more than the needy. He chastised wealthy donors for giving disproportionately to Ivy League schools, wealthy hospitals and wealthy museums while receiving tax breaks for their donations. Why not share more of that wealth, he asked, with community colleges, low-income health centers, small arts groups and other struggling organizations?
Even mega-donors, including billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, who have pledged to donate most of their wealth to charity, were not spared Eisenberg’s wrath. He chided Buffett for not immediately giving away more of his fortune and was angered that the Gates Foundation was spending so much money overseas instead of focusing on the poor in the United States.
“He felt they had enough money that they could do both,” explained Stacey Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where Eisenberg was a regular columnist.
In fact, Eisenberg called on deep-pocketed donors to give even more, to increase funding for grassroots groups working to address racial and economic disparities, and to seek more input from nonprofits on how to spend their charitable dollars.
He also pushed for private foundations to be more accountable for where their money goes. He was furious when they spent charity funds on lavish offices, high trustee salaries and bloated administrative costs. And he fumed about how little the IRS and attorneys general regulate the charitable sector.
His views made him unpopular with some private foundations, to whom he was a relentless thorn in the side.
“It was easy to cross Pablo Eisenberg,” said Ray Madoff, a Boston College law professor who studies philanthropy. “And I’m sure it was very annoying for people who were big donors and felt they were doing something good, but then to be told they weren’t doing something that was good enough.”
Eisenberg was well known for his scathing criticism of charity leaders who did not meet his high standards. “Heartless wonders!” he often shouted, referring to a foundation president whose funding decisions he disagreed with.
“I think I’ve heard him use that a hundred times,” said William Shambra, senior fellow emeritus at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank where Eisenberg has been a frequent panelist on a series of discussions about philanthropy and nonprofits.
“He was known to be willing to bite any hand that ever fed him,” added Shaumbra, who called Eisenberg “a folk hero for grassroots nonprofits.” “He’d get calls from his funders – they’d tell him they’d given him a grant or something – and he was perfectly prepared to tell them that’s not enough, they should be ashamed of themselves and they should be horrified from their avarice.”
At Eisenberg’s retirement party, a foundation executive jokingly brought a hammer that she said represented the many times she had been verbally assaulted by him. And at a Hudson Institute event when Eisenberg was 70, he noted that “one of the problems in our nonprofit world is that we have too many old fogies.”
“Pablo just didn’t live by the rules of decency that govern philanthropy and nonprofits,” Shambra said. “He never played this game. He was ready to tell you to your face that you were a complete fool.’
Based on Eisenberg’s upbringing, one would expect him to lead an exclusive foundation, not find fault with them. Born in Paris in 1932 while his Jewish-American parents lived abroad, he moved with his family back to the US when he was young to avoid World War II. Named after Spanish cellist and family friend Pablo Casals, Eisenberg graduated from Princeton University in 1954 and Oxford University in 1957. He played tennis well enough to compete at Wimbledon.
After serving in the US Army, Eisenberg worked for a number of government agencies and non-profit organizations trying to create equal opportunity for all, including Operation Crossroads in Africa, the Office of Economic Opportunity and the National Urban Coalition. From 1975 to 1998, he was executive director of the Center for Community Change, a civil and economic rights group in Washington, D.C., and in 1999 he became a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University, where also teaches.
He also helped found the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which monitors charitable spending. This organization was created after Eisenberg questioned why the Blue Ribbon Filer Commission, created in the 1970s to make philanthropy more accountable to the general public, required so little input from the nonprofits themselves.
He resented the unspoken limitations of the polite, powerful philanthropic sector.
And even though Eisenberg was a progressive, he blasted others on the left who claimed to protect the underdog but excluded these little guys from decision-making.
“You can be completely aligned with him politically and he’ll still call you out,” said Madoff, who is also director of Boston College Law’s Forum on Philanthropy and the Public Good. “And he called the journalists as well. He said that too often journalists are just cheerleaders for rich donors and every time someone gives money they say, “Isn’t that great!” without actually looking at the impact of that type of donation. “
Eisenberg once criticized the Washington Post for prominently covering billionaire David Rubenstein’s $4.5 million gift to the National Zoo to fund its panda program. He said the money would be better spent solving community problems.
Speaking on NPR’s Talk of the Nation in 2006 about how insular many private foundations are, Pablo noted that “their boards of directors are basically elite. They represent the richest and highest paid professionals in the country. And they rarely have, as board members, people who are teachers, ministers, grassroots leaders, social workers, union people and small business people.”
The lack of these diverse voices, he said, gives foundations a limited view of the world and leads to a narrow type of charitable giving.
“We usually say it’s enough to not buy a yacht, and whatever you decide to do after that is fine, your business,” Madoff said. “But that was not Pablo’s way of seeing things. He was trying to point out that it’s not enough just to put your money to charity. In fact, you have to remember how some giving is wonderful and promotes a really good society, and some giving really promotes inequality.”
Eisenberg’s death, she added, means “the silencing of a voice that we need so much today.”
Public scrutiny and vocal criticism of the philanthropic sector are more common these days, “but 30-40 years ago it wasn’t considered acceptable for people who benefited from philanthropy to talk about the benefactor,” said Palmer of the Chronicle of Philanthropy . Eisenberg was one of the first to do that, she said.
She says the most important thing about his message is that it makes people think about their charitable giving.
“Whether you agree or not, it makes you think where am I going to write my next check? What do I care about? What is most important?” she said.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Let’s give money to the pandas,'” Palmer added. “They’re super popular and cute. But who are the people who get overlooked?”