After 25 years leading Pew Charitable Trusts, Ms. Rimel leaves behind a transformed organization and a questionable record on donor intent.
So Rebecca Rimel has announced her retirement as president of the Pew Charitable Trusts, after 25 years as president and 36 years at the nonprofit. What effect did she have on the organization?
I’ll answer this question but allow me to begin with a digression.
When I was working on additions to the fourth edition of my book How Great Philanthropists Failed and You Can Succeed at Protecting Your Legacy, I was looking for news about the foundations I was writing about. Follow the paper trail of the MacArthur Foundation, for example, and you’ll find a steady stream of news, interviews, reports on initiatives.
But reporting on the Pew Charitable Trusts has dried up in this decade. No one outside the organization cared about Pew, even though Pew has a massive communications staff. But perhaps the most illustrative example of Pew’s decline in this decade came as a result of an incident in 2015.
Washington Post gossip columnists reported that Rimel was auctioning off her records, with opening bids at three dollars. Nonprofit Quarterly’s Rick Cohen took this story as an opportunity to note that Pew’s 990 for 2013 listed her compensation as $4.1 million, of which $3.3 million came from a retirement plan. Rimel’s normal compensation is in the low seven figures. Cohen also noted that Rimel got six-figure compensation (and stock) from serving on the boards of Becton-Dickinson, BioTelemetry, and Deutsche Fund and Asset Management.
“Selling her album collection is her business—that’s fine,” Cohen wrote. “But the idea of a foundation official earning the kind of money that Rimel is taking home strikes many people in the nonprofit world as absurd, inconceivable, unwarranted, and unjustifiable, no matter what the Pew compensation consultant found. Some philanthropic compensation levels are just plain wrong.”
So one of the legacies of Rimel’s tenure at the Pew Charitable Trusts is that she ascended into the plutocracy and can have an extremely comfortable retirement. But what was her intellectual legacy?
The answer is in three parts.
She transformed the Pew Charitable Trusts from a relatively small collection of seven allied foundations based in Philadelphia and largely funding conservative and libertarian causes and Philadelphia-based charities into a Washington-based public charity with a vestigial presence in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Philadelphia’s share of Pew funding dropped from 56 percent in 1980 to 20 percent in 2017, and of the 1,000 employees of the Pew Charitable Trusts, only 64 still work in Philadelphia.
She acquired what was the Los Angeles Times’s polling unit and transformed it into the Pew Research Center, which regularly issues polls and reports on social trends that are interesting and thoughtful.
She collaborated with the Annenberg and Lenfest Foundations in a hostile takeover of the Barnes Foundation, leading the effort to move the Barnes from its home in the Philadelphia suburbs into a downtown Philadelphia space and transforming the Barnes from an educational institution into a tourist attraction.
The first and third parts of Rimel’s legacy involve donor intent. The evidence suggests that of the seven Pews who founded trusts, all were Republicans and two—Joseph N. Pew and J. Howard Pew—were conservatives.
J. Howard Pew was quite articulate in his intentions. When the J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust was created in 1957, its charter said the trust should be used to “acquaint the American people” with “the evils of bureaucracy,” “the values of a free market,” and “the paralyzing effects of government controls on the lives and activities of people” and “to inform our people of the struggle, persecution, hardship, sacrifice and death by which freedom of the individual was won.”
Rimel’s evolution in her thought can be expressed in two pieces she wrote for Town and Country. In 1991, she said “if we could reinfuse the idealism of the Sixties into our work, it could get the country out of this morass of feeling that problems are insolvable.”
But by 2017 she had become a cliché-spouting mandarin. “At our core,” she wrote in an article in Town and Country with R. Anderson Pew, “we remain unflinchingly committed to high-quality research that can be deployed to guide positive and memorable change.”
If you’re inspired by that sentence, you must have a graduate degree in nonprofit management.
Having replaced the robust and thoughtful ideas of J. Howard Pew with hot air, it is understandable that Rimel turns prickly on the subject of donor intent. She offered this statement to Philanthropy Daily in response to an article by William Schambra:
At Pew, our largely family board, with a third generation of donor descendants serving now, provides the organization with a vibrant reminder of the intent of our founders, Joseph N. Pew Jr. and his siblings, who created the trusts in 1948. They understood that our work should evolve with societal needs. Indeed, his son, Joseph N. Pew III, who served on our founding board until his death last year, once addressed this question. “Seventy or 80 percent of the problems we work on today did not exist when the donors were alive,” he said. “They gave us the stewardship responsibility to lead this institution as the needs of society change, so let’s exercise it wisely.”
Note that Rimel doesn’t say when Joseph N. Pew III made this statement. Nor does she explain why vague memories of long-dead grandparents are a better guide to J. Howard Pew’s intentions than the vigorous and eloquent words of Howard Pew himself.
I don’t have enough space to discuss the takeover of the Barnes Foundation by the Pew, Annenberg, and Lenfest Foundations, save to say that they forced the collection to move even though there was no independent evidence that the Barnes Foundation was in a financial crisis that could only be solved by moving the foundation’s art. Those interested in more information about the Barnes Foundation, ought to view The Art of the Steal, a documentary about the takeover.
Rebecca Rimel’s career provides additional evidence to donors to make sure that the foundations they create are term-limited.