Buzzword for Pew: 'pro-active' Philanthropy: Private foundations may be more influential than ever before, and one of the most generous has involved itself intensely in public affairs.

Sun Journal

March 17, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA — An article Monday incorrectly reported the number of projects sponsored by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. In the four years since its establishment, the Pew Center has helped support 47 journalistic projects.

The Sun regrets the error.

PHILADELPHIA -- During the musicians' strike of the Philadelphia Orchestra last year, the Pew Charitable Trusts withdrew financial support from the orchestra. It cheered the musicians.

Pew -- with assets of $3.7 billion, the country's sixth-richest foundation -- was not out to help the union. Its policy is to refuse grants to cultural organizations in deficit. Did Pew's action help the strikers? Maybe. Certainly the foundation was a factor in the dispute.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Private foundations are very big in America, more influential perhaps than ever before. This influence is likely to grow, in part because they're getting richer: The assets of major U.S. foundations grew by more than 100 percent between 1983 and 1994, from $92.7 billion to $195.8 billion. Other factors are the growth in human need triggered by welfare reform, and the general shrinkage in federal programs.

Large grant-making foundations are like the metaphorical 600-pound gorilla. They don't have to do anything to be a factor, just sit there. Pew is one of philanthropy's bigger gorillas. It's not sitting still. Last year, it gave away $193 million, which made it the third-most-generous foundation.

It involves itself intensely in public affairs, through its investments in crucial areas of social concern (the environment, civic renewal, media and the press) and sometimes ostentatiously, by financing quasi-political extravaganzas.

Pew paid for the retreat by Congress members this month to Hershey, Pa., where they went to be instructed on how to return civility to their deliberations. In April, Pew will finance a Presidents' Summit on America's Future, with invitations extended to President Clinton and his predecessors to come to Philadelphia.

"It can be fabulous," says Rebecca Rimel, president of Pew Trusts. "The idea is to stimulate volunteerism and involvement."

Rimel, 45, is an emphatically alert woman. The foundation she runs, she admits, has changed much in recent years. This has been noted throughout the quiet, insulated world of philanthropy. The descriptive buzzword is "pro-active."

That word would not describe the foundation when it was established by Joseph Newton Pew in 1912. The Pews were a rigidly religious clan from Pennsylvania, who made a fortune in oil. They were plain-living, "rock hard" capitalists who hated unions and alcohol. Waldemar A. Nielsen, an expert on foundations, writes that one of the Pews once tried to entertain 900 guests with 10 bottles of French wine.

They believed that charitable giving was their duty but that it ought to be done quietly. Six Pew family members are on the 11-member foundation board and, Rimel says, subscribe to the new style of overt giving.

"We did everything anonymously in the early days," she says. "When you don't tell people who you are and what you're up to, they become skeptical. Occasionally they believe you're up to no good. You also can't be involved as we are without being forthcoming."

Nor, it seems, without fueling controversy.

For instance, Pew gave $94.6 million in environmental grants over the past five years. Add to that a diligence in pursuit of its goals, and grumbling is a certainty.

Pew, for example, brings a strategy of compromise to environmental issues. That upsets grass-roots organizations that favor absolute resistance to industries accused of fouling the environment, such as logging companies. "We're not purists. We believe people ought to be able to cut down trees," Rimel says. "But it ought to be done in a sustainable way. That way, there are jobs, trees, owls -- everybody wins."

Those who insist that no trees be cut down in old forests regard Pew as a virtual agent of corporations that want to clear-cut.

Charlotte Talberth, head of the Levinson Foundation in New Mexico, used to be suspicious of Pew's forest policy. Today, she sees Pew as well-intentioned ("They're trying to do the best they can"), if not entirely effectual.

She criticizes Pew mainly for entering too brusquely into an unfamiliar area. Talberth perceives Pew's assertiveness, its penchant for creating its own organizations to implement its strategies, as an expression of the way foundations behaved before the 1960s, when arm's-length philanthropy began to come into vogue.

If Rimel expected some opposition from Pew's activities in conservation, she was completely taken aback by the resistance to the Pew initiative in journalism, its support for the "civic journalism" movement.

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