Aggressive Abell Foundation puts its mark on city From Norplant to schools, it influences social policy

February 07, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

Twice, Robert C. Embry Jr. tentatively embarked on campaigns to become mayor of Baltimore. Twice, he changed his mind. Now, he is president of the Abell Foundation, spending the foundation's money on school reform, health care, economic development -- and arguably shaping the city's social policies as much as any mayor ever has.

With $150 million in assets and $7.5 million to give away each year, Abell is not the city's biggest foundation. But it is the most aggressive.

Abell's work is visible everywhere: The contraceptive Norplant is widely available in city clinics. Baltimore's nascent marine technology center got start-up funds. A blue-ribbon state panel studied tax reform. Educators are experimenting with all-male classes for black pupils.

But Mr. Embry, who glides confidently among the city's most powerful and involves himself in issues across the social spectrum, prefers to exert authority from behind the scenes. "We do what we do," he says of Abell. "We don't need publicity. We don't have to raise money. We never put out a press release on our grants."

It used to be that creative approaches to urban problems came from City Hall. But with city government wearily trying just to keep basic services going, innovative social policies come increasingly from nonprofit groups and foundations like Abell.

Abell's activism, in contrast to City Hall's relative passivity, prompts some critics to ask just how public policy should be made -- whether by private groups in closed board meetings or in public debate.

After all, the aloof Mr. Embry -- who some critics describe as high-handed in dispensing Abell's millions -- does not have to listen to angry taxpayers or lobby obstreperous City Council members. He is accountable only to his board, which he says rejects "one out of every 10 or 20" proposals. People come to him. People want to try his ideas.

Mr. Embry, 55, is free to take risks with the foundation's money, to promote experimental programs, to nudge the cash-starved city bureaucracies by offering them funds to try an idea.

"The mayor in exile," says Baltimore Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, who worked for Mr. Embry when he was city housing commissioner in the 1970s.

Mr. Embry's shadow role shields him from public scrutiny when issues become controversial. Witness the Baltimore City Council, which last week lambasted Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson for offering Norplant in city clinics -- a program encouraged by Abell funds.

It was Dr. Beilenson who endured three hours of sometimes angry questioning. Mr. Embry, who two years ago suggested subsidizing Norplant costs to health officials, did not.

"Abell's approach is to put out ideas," says Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "They don't actually implement government policy. I don't think one should hold the Abell Foundation accountable in the same way government should be held accountable."

And when he's asked what he thinks about Mr. Embry's position and power, the mayor laughs heartily. "I think his job is a great job," Mr. Schmoke says.

Government leaders listen

Government leaders listen to Mr. Embry because he knows government. His opinions carry weight because of his 25-year career, beginning with his election to the City Council, followed by his work in city and federal housing agencies.

"People's view of cities is that nothing works," Mr. Embry says. When he became Abell's president in 1987, "there wasn't a sense of innovation or excitement or that anyone could make a difference. Our assumption is you have to try things."

The Abell presidency is better than being mayor, he says. "Being in public life for me was a negative, being on public display."

Until 1986, the A. S. Abell Foundation was an organization of modest size. Endowed largely with newspaper stock, it had assets of no more than $14 million and a record of small charitable grants. But in 1986, with the sale of The Baltimore Sun to Times Mirror Inc., the value of the stock soared and the Abell Foundation holdings grew by about $115 million. The foundation and the newspaper severed their ties.

Today, the Abell Foundation ranks in the country's top 2.2 percent of independent foundations by asset size, according to the Council on Foundations in Washington. In Baltimore, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, with assets of $800 million, is far bigger. But Abell, spreading its funds to programs across the city, has more influence.

"Take some risks"

When the foundation came into new wealth in the mid-1980s, the trustees decided to redefine the foundation's purpose. For months, they interviewed city leaders, Mr. Embry among them, about how to proceed. He told them the foundation should "focus on poor people, initiate things and take some risks." In 1987, he became president.

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