Pablo Eisenberg, a fierce critic of nonprofits and philanthropy, died at age 90
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Tuesday after Thanksgiving is known as Giving Tuesday, a day to give back after all the post-holiday shopping. A man named Pablo Eisenberg spent much of his life trying to make sure high-end philanthropic giving actually made a difference in the world. He died last month. Here's NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer.
SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: To give you an idea of what Pablo Eisenberg was like, listen to Bill Schambra of the Hudson Institute introduce him in 2015.
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BILL SCHAMBRA: Pablo, for those of you who don't know him, is aptly described as a doyen (ph) of U.S. philanthropy. I think doyen is French for pain in the neck.
PFEIFFER: Eisenberg was a nonprofit leader, professor and social justice advocate. He was relentless in insisting that charitable givers, especially megadonors like Warren Buffett, can do better. That message often rankled in the rarefied corridors of private philanthropy. Here's Schambra again.
SCHAMBRA: Pablo just did not live by the rules of decorum that govern philanthropy and nonprofits.
PFEIFFER: Many nonprofits depend on donations, so they're reluctant to criticize donors, even if the criticism is justified - not Eisenberg.
SCHAMBRA: He famously was willing to bite every hand that ever fed him, and he was completely willing to tell them that they should be appalled at their stinginess.
PFEIFFER: Eisenberg led a nonprofit called the Center for Community Change and helped create the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which monitors charitable giving. He preached that not all donations are created equal. A gift to Harvard is not the same as a gift to a community college. His politics were to the left, but Schambra said Eisenberg had special ire for liberals who claim to champion the underdog, yet exclude those little guys from their decision-making.
SCHAMBRA: They were perfectly willing to speak for the poor, but they didn't want the poor in the same room with them. I mean, he was infuriated by that kind of hypocrisy.
PFEIFFER: Based on Eisenberg's upbringing, you would have expected him to run a private foundation, not find fault with them. He was born in Paris in 1932, went to Princeton and Oxford. Later, he worked in government and nonprofit roles focused on social change. He quickly chafed against the unspoken strictures of this polite sector.
STACY PALMER: Now there's more of a critique of philanthropy. But 30, 40 years ago, he was mostly supposed to be quiet and say, thank you, thank you, and be full of gratitude.
PFEIFFER: Stacy Palmer is editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. She's one of countless people who would get fiery, unsolicited phone calls from Eisenberg. He'd grill her about stories she covered and vent about misguided charity.
PALMER: He especially was angry that Bill and Melinda Gates weren't focusing all of their attention on the poor in the United States and doing so much overseas. He felt like they had enough money that they could do both.
PFEIFFER: Ray Madoff also got those outraged calls. She's a Boston College Law School professor who studies philanthropy. Eisenberg would fume about how little the IRS and state attorneys general police charities.
RAY MADOFF: I was going through my notes from him and they were like another AG whitewashing, and this one will get your blood boiling. Another stupid grant from the top-named foundation. I mean, these were his emails to me.
PFEIFFER: Madoff said that unfiltered quality made him endearing to some and disliked by others. And he called out reporters, too.
MADOFF: He said, you know, 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.
PFEIFFER: Eisenberg lambasted The Washington Post for its uncritical coverage of billionaire David Rubinstein's multimillion-dollar gift to the National Zoo's panda program. He said help people, not pandas.
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NEAL CONAN, BYLINE: Joining us now is Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.
PFEIFFER: This is Eisenberg on NPR's Talk of the Nation in 2006. He's speaking with host Neal Conan about how cloistered private foundations are.
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PABLO EISENBERG: Their boards of directors are basically elite, and they rarely have teachers, ministers, grassroots leaders, social workers.
PFEIFFER: He said the absence of those voices results in a narrow type of charitable giving. I knew Eisenberg because I used to cover nonprofits and philanthropy. When I'd talk with him, he'd lament. Investigative reporters are getting laid off. Government regulators don't regulate. He told me, quote, "The field is wide open for crooks and scandals." Even if you disagreed with him, the Chronicle of Philanthropy's Stacy Palmer said, he made you think about your charitable giving.
PALMER: What do I care about? What's most important? It's easy to say, let's give money to the pandas. They're super popular and cute. But, you know, who are the people who are getting neglected?
PFEIFFER: Pablo Eisenberg died last month at age 90. He described himself as a cynical optimist - cynical enough to question everything; optimistic enough to devote his life to social change.
Sacha Pfeiffer, NPR News.
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