The following is a conversation between Rebecca Rimel, President of The Pew Charitable Trusts, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: Most listeners are familiar with The Pew Research Poll, but what they may not be aware of is that that’s just the tip of the iceberg to one of the most extraordinary, multi-faceted, and innovative charities in the country doing some really interesting stuff. And the architect of all this, building upon the legacy of the founders, is with us now. She is Rebecca Rimel, president and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Good evening, Rebecca, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Rebecca: Thank you so much for having me. I’m honored.
Denver: Pew is 70 years old this year. And my goodness! You’ve been here for just about half that amount of time. Share with us some of the history and the evolution of the organization starting with, if you would, The Pews themselves.
Rebecca: The two sons and two daughters of Joseph Newton Pew, the founder of Sun Oil. The start of The Pew Charitable Trusts… they were deeply religious people, and they believed very much in the Biblical teaching that, to those who much is given; much is expected. So, they dividended it back – all of their wealth – to create seven individual trusts to honor their parents… and each one of them individually. And today, we try to steward that legacy and honor that gift.
Denver: Pew became a public charity about 15 years ago. Rebecca. What’s the difference between a private foundation and a public charity, and what were the advantages of doing this?
Rebecca: Only trusts and estates lawyers would enjoy my four-hour answer here. But simply put, a private foundation, and your listeners will know many– the Gates Foundation, Rockefeller, Ford, and others– are usually the beneficiaries of one donor or one family. They accomplish their work generally by making grants– that is outsourcing to other organizations to support very important efforts.
Public charities are all of the nonprofits that no doubt your listeners contribute to– the Girl Scouts, their college or university, and it’s called a public charity because it gets public support, and we were able to make that transition through a long process and a creative one. And really the nub of it was that we had four donors – the four siblings who were not lineal descendants. So, we qualified with the IRS to become a public charity, and today we raise about $50 million from other sources other than the seven trusts that the family set up to benefit the organization.
Further, you asked what’s the difference. Private foundations accomplish their work by outsourcing, as I mentioned. Public charities accomplish their work by doing it themselves. So, that’s probably part of the reason that since I’ve been here, the organization grew from five staff to over a thousand today because we need a lot of hands on deck to accomplish the work.
Denver: With that, I guess, comes accountability because you’re not just handing out grants. You’re actually holding yourself responsible for getting things done.
Rebecca: That’s well put. But for them, I would have been successful. It’s: but for us, we would have been successful.
Denver: Just to underscore that point, you have a donor relations department. I don’t think a lot of people think of Pew and a donor relations department. I believe your first donor was Gerry Lenfest.
Rebecca: He was. Sadly, we lost him very recently. Gerry and Marguerite provided the very first gift to The Pew Trust when we became a public charity, and that’s yielded– hopefully, they would agree– a wonderful benefit for the oceans, and they supported our work in the Boreal Forest, too. Today, we have donors that range in size from a couple of dollars to many millions of dollars. They are individuals or private foundations or other entities.
Our donors were both issue-agnostic and geographically agnostic. By that, they didn’t try to predict the world 70 years later. So, we will work on almost any topic, any place, as long as facts and data are clear.
… we won’t enter a new topic or issue unless we feel that we have a 60-40 chance of winning on behalf of the public because the opportunity cost is very high when we take on new lines of work.
… it can range from antibiotic resistance, to corrections reform, to trying to set aside a billion acres in the Boreal, to a new generation of parks in the sea. And as you see, people say, “What do all these have in common?” They have in common that they meet our investment criteria.
Denver: As I mentioned, the breadth and scope of what you do is truly breathtaking. Briefly if you can, just give us the areas in which you operate.
Rebecca: It is interesting. Our donors were both issue-agnostic and geographically agnostic. By that, they didn’t try to predict the world 70 years later. So, we will work on almost any topic, any place, as long as facts and data are clear. We believe that we can make a unique contribution; that the issue is somewhat orphaned because if many other organizations are working on it–they have really bright people and resources– I’m not sure we add too much to that. And we basically say that we won’t enter a new topic or issue unless we feel that we have a 60-40 chance of winning on behalf of the public because the opportunity cost is very high when we take on new lines of work. So, it can range from antibiotic resistance, to corrections reform, to trying to set aside a billion acres in the Boreal, to a new generation of parks in the sea. And as you see, people say, “What do all these have in common?” They have in common that they meet our investment criteria.
Denver: And part of that is you also have an end game. This is not vague. You have a very clear vision of what you want to accomplish when you go into one of these areas.
Rebecca: We are very clear. It’s very quantifiable. There should be no ambiguity as to whether we delivered. We don’t always win. If we did, we would probably be setting the bar too low. But generally, in three to four years, we should be able to measure some success, and we set a goal that in 10 years, we’ll be close to or have achieved our goal.
Denver: How important is bipartisan support in terms of embracing one of these issues and getting something done?
Rebecca: We won’t take on any topic unless we have bipartisan support first and foremost because you can’t win, and we need champions on both side of the aisle, whether that’s in the statehouse or the US capital or internationally. And one of the things I think we’ve done well is bringing disparate groups to the table. Take for instance our corrections reform. Some of our very earliest supporters in ’07 were more conservative groups like Right on Crime. I remember Newt Gingrich was one of our very first advocates because they really believed that people could pay their debt to society, but do it in a much more cost-efficient and effective way.
Denver: You were skeptical of that at first, weren’t you?
Rebecca: You’ve done your homework. I was. I resisted it initially, and my colleagues, they presented me facts and data, and they said this is an economic argument about getting a better return on taxpayer dollars, and they turned out to be exactly right.
Denver: And what has been achieved, let’s say, in the last dozen years or so around corrections reform?
Rebecca: Incarceration rates in this country have gone down by 11%, and many, many billions of dollars have been saved and redeployed to helping communities across the country. One of our first states to sign on was Texas. The story I love to tell, the Governor of Louisiana ran on a platform that he did not want it any longer to be the most incarcerating state in the nation, and he called us in, and that’s exactly what he’s done. He’s no longer the state with the most incarcerated individuals.
Denver: Environment is another major focus area for you. You do things around climate change and around land and wildlife. Let’s talk a little bit about what you mentioned before, the oceans. Because I think more and more people are becoming aware, maybe even for the first time, that we’ve got some problems with the oceans. What should we be worried about? And what kind of work are you doing there to protect and maintain and restore marine ecosystems?
Rebecca: We’ve ignored our oceans, partly because we can’t see beneath the surface. One of our very first efforts here was to create the first generation of parks in the sea. A simple concept. We have parks on land; everyone understands that. But we said, we need to create 15 very large parks in the sea by 2022, and we’re well on our way to accomplishing that goal. And they are scattered all around the globe. The reason for it is it protects the fisheries. It also protects the ocean floor, so we need to be conscious of how we’re treating not just the oceans, but more importantly what lives in them… the ocean floors, I mentioned, and the surface from plastics and other pollutants.
Denver: Are we overfishing?
Rebecca: Oh absolutely. Overfishing from krill, the tiniest and probably the most important fish in the sea, to large pelagic fish like tuna and others. Every fish stock is virtually depleted, and some of them questionably won’t recover.
Denver: One of my favorite places to visit when I go the internet is The Pew Research Center. And being a numbers guy, I just gravitate immediately to the Fact Tank. So, let me ask you about facts. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan so famously said, “We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.” But that doesn’t seem to be so much the case these days. People seem to be entitled to their own facts. They selectively choose the ones that support their position, and then question the veracity of others that challenge their belief system. Facts are at the core of everything you do. What are your thoughts about this?
Rebecca: I believe that core principle has never been more important than it is today, and that’s partly reinforced by the number of people who come to the website – millions and millions in search of facts and data. Our founder said in the 1940s when asked what should be the principles followed by leaders. He said, “Tell the truth and trust the people.” That’s exactly what we’ve been trying to do, and The Pew Research Center is providing facts, data, information, and it’s there for people whether they need it to inform their personal decisions or professional decisions as leaders, and I can’t think of any greater public service.
I think it’s important to separate opinion and be willing or trying to make one’s case from facts and data…
…you don’t think your house is going to burn down, but you buy insurance. So, let’s really not debate that issue. But let’s talk about an insurance policy that we might want to take out just in case it turns out that the impacts of climate change are as bad or worse than we know. It’s a way to reframe the discussion, to have people sort of willing to talk about it, rather than say, “I can’t believe you don’t believe my facts.” Or, “I don’t understand why you don’t trust this data.”
Denver: Neither can I. My impression sometimes, Rebecca, is that people are less persuaded by facts today than they ever have been. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down with somebody who doesn’t think the way I do when presented with the facts and said, “Hey, Denver, I never realized all that. I think I’m going to change my mind.” It seems to be at a much deeper emotional level. I just would be curious as to what you think about that.
Rebecca: I think it’s important to separate opinion and be willing or trying to make one’s case from facts and data, and I use the example of climate change. In talking with someone who may not necessarily believe or trust the science or such, my response is: Look, you don’t think your house is going to burn down, but you buy insurance. So, let’s really not debate that issue. But let’s talk about an insurance policy that we might want to take out just in case it turns out that the impacts of climate change are as bad or worse than we know. It’s a way to reframe the discussion, to have people sort of willing to talk about it, rather than say, “I can’t believe you don’t believe my facts.” Or, “I don’t understand why you don’t trust this data.” Unfortunately, that is how conversations are often broached today.
Denver: That’s a very smart way to approach it, I must say. Pew has a special commitment to your hometown of Philadelphia as far back as helping to launch the Fox Chase Cancer Center, and you’ve done so much in the last 20 years around the Independence Mall. Just fantastic! And you do so much more there as well. What are you doing in Philadelphia right now that has you particularly excited?
Rebecca: It’s our home, home of the donors, and we support the arts. We provide support to the most disadvantaged in our communities, and we like to respond to big ideas. Some of those big ideas aren’t always popular when we first float them, like relocating the Barnes Foundation to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. But that’s turned out to be a huge success in terms of preserving the collection and making it accessible. Right now, we’re engaged in building, if you will, a park over I-95 to connect the waterfront back to the city– something people have talked about for at least 60 years, and now it will happen with some smaller support from us and some real leadership from William Penn Foundation.
I do love that label, and I said once when it was given to us, if under my stewardship, this organization can keep that, I can take a sigh and think it was a success, because I really do believe that we’ve been able to accomplish so much more by not being seen as driven by partisanship or ideology. We are just the facts, ma’am and sir.
…even though people may not always agree with us, they are willing to listen in a way that I know would not be the case if they thought we were driven by our own, if you will, bias, our own ideology.
Denver: You were labeled many, many moons ago by the National Journal, I believe, as raging moderates, simply led by facts and truth. And you continue to be that today, and that is a pretty high compliment, especially in these times that we just talked about. What advantages has this brought to Pew? What has it allowed you to do, being viewed in this fashion?
Rebecca: I do love that label, and I said once when it was given to us, if under my stewardship, this organization can keep that, I can take a sigh and think it was a success, because I really do believe that we’ve been able to accomplish so much more by not being seen as driven by partisanship or ideology. We are just the facts, ma’am and sir. It has allowed us to have access on Capitol Hill, on both sides of the aisle. It’s allowed us to be invited into state houses across the country. And even though people may not always agree with us, they are willing to listen in a way that I know would not be the case if they thought we were driven by our own, if you will, bias, our own ideology.
I think there are many issues where we can get bipartisan support. We often focus on what divides us, rather than the bridges that unite us.
…We’ve been able to get strong support for antibiotic resistance and putting more money into the development of new antibiotics, which is desperately needed; and I could go down the list. I think it is picking topics that don’t have and haven’t been captured by the left or the right.
Denver: Makes me think of Jack Webb, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Let’s talk a little bit about bipartisanship because you know, many people think that we have gridlock in this country, and none of the people’s business in Washington is being done. I think you might think differently about that. Tell us what is being done that would be encouraging for people to know.
Rebecca: I think there are many issues where we can get bipartisan support. We often focus on what divides us, rather than the bridges that unite us. Just this week, we will have a vote on providing support for our national parks and their deferred maintenance, a huge need. It has strong bipartisan support. We’ve been able to get strong support for antibiotic resistance and putting more money into the development of new antibiotics, which is desperately needed; and I could go down the list. I think it is picking topics that don’t have and haven’t been captured by the left or the right. Once those topics are captured, it’s almost impossible to build that bridge. So, we don’t elect to work on those.
Denver: Like you said, you go for orphans that are just becoming ripe! A great time and place to get in…
You have been deeply engaged and also a very astute observer of the nonprofit and philanthropic sector for several decades now. What do you believe it’s doing well, and what would you like to see it improve upon?
Rebecca: You’re kind – 35 years to be exact. I think it’s just extraordinary to me the amount of wealth that is coming into the sector, and that is a wonderful thing. I don’t think our founders could ever have imagined the size and scope of giving in America. Philanthropy really is a quintessential American value. Not that others aren’t charitable around the world. So, that is all very good news. People are trying and experimenting with new ways of doing things. That’s also a positive. I just hope they don’t disregard or discard some of the old ways of doing things because a blend in a portfolio work would be my hope.
What do I mean by that? Direct charity to helping the poor and such still has a very important place in philanthropy today, and we should value that and embrace it, as do very unique and innovative ideas that are being tried by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and others. I know it’s a big tent. I just hope it makes room for all kinds of philanthropy going forward.
I have a fair number of new donors that are in search of guidance, and the first thing I tell them is: First of all, there is not one right way, and anyone that tells you there is, run fast to the door. And secondly, however you would like to carry out your philanthropy, make sure it gives you a huge dose of joy because if it’s given you joy, that can be the greatest reward.
Denver: It seems to me that your nonpartisanship is almost reflected in how centered you are in those kinds of responses, because often what you would hear is: we need metrics, we need outcomes and things of that nature. And there’s a lot of humanity to the work that we do as well. And as you say, we need to be somewhere in the middle, just not one or the other; but there is a tendency of pendulum swinging too far one way or the other.
Rebecca: I have a fair number of new donors that are in search of guidance, and the first thing I tell them is: First of all, there is not one right way, and anyone that tells you there is, run fast to the door. And secondly, however you would like to carry out your philanthropy, make sure it gives you a huge dose of joy because if it’s given you joy, that can be the greatest reward.
Denver: And you’re an optimist, aren’t you?
Rebecca: Completely. I’m an optimist.
Denver: Where did you get that? Were you born that way?
Rebecca: I probably was, growing up in a small town in the South, two very loving parents, and I really believe that my fate was in my hands, and a lot of luck and some hard work would hopefully push me along the way.
Denver: Let me close with this, Rebecca. When an organization has grown from those five people or so when you started to now over a thousand employees, the importance of building that organization upon values cannot be overstated. And you inherited an extraordinary set of values from the founders and have been a faithful steward to them ever since. Speak to those values and what a leader must do to keep them alive, to animate them, so as to guide the organization and all its work.
Rebecca: Absolutely. Everything you do, from the small task, to how you talk to the staff has to be informed and guided by those values. Every year, I get a performance review just like my staff, and the very first question the board asks me is, “What are you doing each and every day to make sure that we adhere to our values because we can win at a lot of things. We can be admired by many, we hope. But if we don’t protect our reputation and foster our values, this organization will have failed. It will have failed our founders, and it will have failed exactly what we agreed to do as stewards of the organization.”
Denver: As you’ve said, 70 years to build a reputation, but you can lose it in a day unless you’re always faithful to those values.
Rebecca: Exactly right.
Denver: Rebecca Rimel, the president and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and some of the information visitors might find if they’re so inclined to come visit.
Rebecca: We hope they’ll come and come often, to pewtrusts.org. Be sure to sign up for our podcasts. They’re wonderful. We have all kinds of guests, newsletters; and enjoy it. It’s chockablock full of data and facts and stories, and you can go The Pew Research Center from our site. It’s one-stop shopping. So come often.
Denver: There you go. Some of the best information you’ll find anywhere, and you’re quite the saleswoman, I must say.
Thanks, Rebecca. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Rebecca: Thank you.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.