November 20, 2015

Who Will Fill Rick Cohen’s Role in Holding Nonprofits Accountable?

Nonprofit Quarterly
It is hard to believe that Rick Cohen, the longtime nonprofit advocate and journalist, is dead.

His presence as a vital part of the nonprofit world was so huge that it is difficult to understand how the enormous vacuum that he has left can or will be filled.

Throughout his career, both as a reporter at the Nonprofit Quarterly and as head of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Rick mounted carefully researched and powerful attacks on the failure of foundations and nonprofits to provide social and economic justice to the poorest Americans. He uncovered corruption and malfeasance at major nonprofits and foundations and held the nonprofit world accountable in ways few others have ever done.

Rick had an incredibly diverse range of interests and expertise, and his journalistic breadth was unmatched by anyone else who has covered this field. No other reporter on this beat has every displayed the level of fervor and integrity that Rick did.

When he collapsed Tuesday at age 64, the news sent a wave of shock and disbelief among his friends, colleagues, nonprofit executives, and even people who had loudly criticized his reporting as too tough. He was everywhere: at conferences, in seminars, on visits to nonprofits and foundations, in incessant meetings where news was breaking. Now his presence and voice are gone. His humor and good spirits will no longer permeate our world.

Rick worked around the clock, uncovering facts and doing research with a diligence few others mustered. He worked on several stories simultaneously, afraid to let any one of them slip by. His obsession with covering the news put him under enormous self-pressure.

Rick’s stint as the national reporter for the Nonprofit Quarterly, which he joined in 2006, was the culmination of a long career devoted to community development and anti-poverty work.

Early on, he put himself through college by driving a taxi, an experience he said helped him develop his grass-roots sensibilities. He began his professional career as a planner at Action for Boston Community Development. Several years later, he became director of Jersey City’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

From there, he went on to become vice president for field operations at the Enterprise Foundation in Baltimore, founded by the legendary James Rouse. It was not long before he joined the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which supports community-development groups throughout the country. There he served as a vice president for planning and operations.

He soon developed an expertise in housing and community development that helped nurture his growing talent for investigative analysis and reporting. Increasingly called upon by the news media and other nonprofits to comment on problematic community development projects, he rarely failed to provide insightful answers and critiques, both positive and negative, even at the expense of his employers and client organizations. For Rick, the truth mattered more than anything else.

It was a natural step for him to accept the challenge of running the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, the watchdog group that oversees grant makers (and where I was a member of the board that appointed him to the role).

He served as the organization’s executive director for almost eight years. In that time, he led efforts to persuade foundations to give more money to social change and grass-roots organizations and to expand their giving over all. He also pushed Congress to increase the share of assets foundations are required to spend every year and sought to make philanthropy in general more publicly accountable.

But it was as a journalist and intrepid reporter that Rick found his real calling. It is ironic that just before he joined the Nonprofit Quarterly, he was interviewed by the then director of the Center for Public Integrity who told him that he could not be hired because he wasn’t a real, professional journalist.

He turned out to be far better than that, an unparalleled digger of facts, an analyst of great intellect, and a reporter of enormous integrity. He knew the world of nonprofits and philanthropic institutions better than anyone else; he never hesitated to hold their feet to the fire of ethical behavior.

Even in his most cynical moments, he never abandoned his commitment to exposing society’s scurrilous treatment of poor and marginalized people and bringing it to the attention of the public and policy officials. Social and economic justice for all was the force that drove his life and work.

Rick often bemoaned the fact that few people seemed willing and able to follow in his footsteps as hard-hitting reporters and critics of the nonprofit world.

Are there any tough and courageous young people who will be willing to pick up his torch and light our way to a better world? If so, that would be Rick Cohen’s lasting legacy.

Pablo Eisenberg, a regular Chronicle contributor, is a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. His email address is pseisenberg@verizon.