Pablo Eisenberg, R.I.P.

Oct 24, 2022

Recalling, and appreciating, his insistence on support for the grassroots and willingness to criticize the powerful.

Longtime philanthropy watchdog and liberal activist Pablo Eisenberg, who died last week, was admirably steadfast in his strong insistence that true grassroots groups were deserving of more grantmakers’ support. Equally admirably, he was willing to criticize powerful individual and institutional givers against whom few others would speak.

Eisenberg founded the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) in 1976. NCRP grew out of the Donee group that he organized to bring grantee points of view to the Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs, known as the Filer Commission. Among his several other prominent roles in nonprofitdom, Eisenberg was also executive director of the Center for Community Change for 23 years.

As well, we appreciatively note, he was unfailingly civil and helpful to those with a different worldview. We specifically recall, for example, his kind appearance on panels hosted by the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, to discuss books about philanthropy.

Typically pointedly, during a 2014 event about Nina Munk’s The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, Eisenberg told Munk,

One of the enormously important lessons of your book applies to so many of the failures among nonprofits and philanthropy here, and that they’re attributable to supreme egos who are not collegiate, who think they can forge their own path and not listen. So there is a real lesson, it seems to me, for some of our both young and old leaders in this country. Not to mention top-down government folks. But that is one of the periodic problems that we face.

And in a 2016 Bradley Center conversation about Linsey McGoey’s No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, co-hosted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Eisenberg said,

There is no system of rigorous evaluation of foundations. For all their desire to see their nonprofit grantees be subject to metric evaluation, they have never turned the light of evaluation on themselves. No matter what sort of intermediary nonprofits say—that they really do some evaluation—they’re fairly soft. I haven’t seen one foundation hire an independent group of evaluators, with no self-interest, to conduct a rigid evaluation of itself. … We don’t have a serious assessment of how well foundations large and small conduct themselves.

I mean, it seems to me clear that there’s not going to be any reform in philanthropy, in these big foundations … until you have the public pressure to make change and thus far, we do not have anywhere near that demand from the public for philanthropy to change. We don’t have it among nonprofits. We don’t have it among even the “watchdog” nonprofits. We don’t have it among philanthropists themselves. The public doesn’t care. Academics are really sort of scared to speak out, usually. It’s going to be very tough. It’s going to take also political efforts. … I don’t see that happening soon. The big question among all people is the lack of one characteristic in today’s society, and that’s the lack of courage.

We join with so many others, including those of a different worldview than ours, in honoring Eisenberg and his lifetime’s worth of contributions to others, including by so aggressively and courageously trying to better philanthropy.