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Pablo Eisenberg, a fierce critic of nonprofits and philanthropy, died at age 90

Pablo Eisenberg, who died last month, urged deep-pocketed donors to give away even more and spend their money where it is most needed.
Idit Knaan, The Chronicle of Philanthropy
Pablo Eisenberg, who died last month, urged deep-pocketed donors to give away even more and spend their money where it is most needed.

In the rarefied world of private philanthropy, where nonprofits are loath to criticize the moneyed donors whose largesse they depend on, Pablo Eisenberg was an anomaly.

A nonprofit leader, professor and social justice advocate, he was a loud and influential watchdog of the philanthropic sector, which he routinely castigated for promoting inequality and neglecting the most pressing concerns of society.

Eisenberg, who died Oct. 18 at age 90, argued that charitable giving often benefits the wealthy more than the needy. He chastised prosperous donors for giving disproportionately to Ivy League schools, rich hospitals and well-endowed museums, all while getting 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 the majority of their wealth to charity, were not spared Eisenberg's ire. He rebuked Buffett for not giving away more of his fortune immediately and was incensed that the Gates Foundation spends so much money overseas rather than focusing on the poor in the United States.

"He felt like they had enough money that they could do both," explained Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where Eisenberg was a regular columnist.

Indeed, Eisenberg urged deep-pocketed donors to give away even more, to increase funding for grassroots groups working to remedy racial and economic inequalities, and to seek greater input from nonprofits on how to spend their charitable dollars.

He also pushed for private foundations to be held more accountable for where their money goes. He was livid when they spent charitable funds on lavish offices, high trustee pay and bloated administrative costs. And he fumed over how little the IRS and state 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 School professor who studies philanthropy. "And I'm sure it was plenty 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 blistering critiques of charitable executives who didn't meet his high standards. "Gutless wonders!" he would often shout, referring to a foundation president whose funding decisions he disagreed with.

"I think I heard him use that a hundred times," said William Schambra, a senior fellow emeritus at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank where Eisenberg was a frequent panelist in a discussion series about philanthropy and nonprofits.

"He famously was willing to bite every hand that ever fed him," added Schambra, who called Eisenberg a "folk hero for grassroots nonprofits." "He would get calls from his funders — they would tell him they had made him a grant or something like that — and he was completely willing to tell them that it wasn't enough, they should be ashamed of themselves, and they should be appalled at their stinginess."

At Eisenberg's retirement party, one foundation executive jokingly brought a hammer, which she said represented the many times she had been verbally hammered by him. And at one Hudson Institute event, when Eisenberg was in his 70s, he remarked that "one of the problems with our nonprofit world is we have too many old fogies."

"Pablo just did not live by the rules of decorum that govern philanthropy and nonprofits," Schambra said. "He never played that game. He was willing to tell you to your face that you are full of baloney."

Eisenberg wasn't afraid to criticize philanthropies that didn't meet his standards. He was known to shout "gutless wonders!" when he came across funding decisions he disagreed with.
/ Caitlin Cunningham, BC Law Magazine
/
Caitlin Cunningham, BC Law Magazine
Eisenberg wasn't afraid to criticize philanthropies that didn't meet his standards. He was known to shout "gutless wonders!" when he came across funding decisions he disagreed with.

Based on Eisenberg's upbringing, one might have expected him to run an exclusive foundation, not find fault with them. Born in Paris in 1932 while his Jewish-American parents were living abroad, he moved with his family back to the U.S. when he was young to avoid World War II. Named after the Spanish cellist and family friend Pablo Casals, Eisenberg graduated from Princeton University in 1954 and the University of Oxford in 1957. He played tennis skillfully enough that he competed at Wimbledon.

After serving in the U.S. Army, Eisenberg worked for a number of government agencies and nonprofits that tried to create equal opportunities 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 Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute, where he also taught.

In addition, he helped found the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which monitors charitable spending. That organization was created after Eisenberg questioned why the blue-ribbon Filer Commission, formed in the 1970s to make philanthropy more accountable to the general public, was soliciting so little input from nonprofits themselves.

He chafed against the unspoken strictures of the polite, powerful philanthropic sector.

And although Eisenberg was a progressive, he blasted others on the left who claimed to champion the underdog yet excluded those little guys from their decision-making.

"You could be completely aligned with him politically and he would still call you out," said Madoff, who is also director of Boston College Law School's Forum on Philanthropy and the Public Good. "And he called out journalists, too. He said too often journalists are just cheerleaders for wealthy donors, and any time anyone gives money they say, "Isn't that great!" without actually looking at the impact of that type of giving."

Once, Eisenberg lambasted 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 have been better spent trying to fix societal problems.

Speaking on NPR's Talk of the Nation in 2006 about how cloistered many private foundations are, Pablo remarked that "their boards of directors are basically elite. They represent the wealthiest and most highly 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 absence of those varied voices, he said, gives foundations a limited view of the world and results in a narrow type of charitable giving.

"Normally, we say it's enough that you don't buy yourself a yacht, and then whatever you choose to do after that is fine, it's your business," said Madoff. "But that wasn't how Pablo saw things. He was trying to point out how it's not enough just to put one's money towards charities. You have to actually be mindful about how some giving is wonderful and promotes a really good society, and some giving really promotes inequality."

Eisenberg's death, she added, signifies "the quieting of a voice that we need so much today."

Nowadays, public scrutiny and vocal criticism of the philanthropic sector is more common, "but 30-40 years ago it was not considered acceptable for the people who benefited from philanthropy to talk out about the benefactor," said Palmer, of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Eisenberg was one of the first to do that, she said.

In her view, what was most important about his message is that it pushes people to reflect on their charitable giving.

"If you agree or disagree, it makes you think twice about where am I writing my next check to? What do I care about? What's 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 are getting neglected?"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.