November 17, 2015

Rick Cohen, Nonprofit Advocate and Journalist, Dies Suddenly at Age 64

Nonprofit Quarterly

Rick Cohen, the national correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly and a widely admired advocate for low-income communities and philanthropic accountability, died after collapsing on Tuesday at age 64.

Mr. Cohen, who began his career working for nonprofits and government, led the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a foundation watchdog, for almost eight years before joining Nonprofit Quarterly in 2006.

He devoted the final years of his life to writing a steady stream of articles — some dubbed the Cohen Report — prodding nonprofits and foundations to do more to help society’s least wealthy and least powerful people.

"His loss will be inestimable to many of you, as it is to us," Nonprofit Quarterly editors wrote in announcing the death. "Rick will be remembered for his integrity, his powerful and nimble intellect, his unyielding courage in pursuit of truth, his commitment to social justice, and his humor."

As a journalist, Mr. Cohen found moral lessons for philanthropy in virtually every big issue of the day.

In one of his final published pieces, about the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, he wrote:

"Fear in the wake of the terrorism in Paris this past weekend is understandable, but the nonprofits dedicated to helping Syrian refugees must stand up for truth against the hysteria whipped up by politicians playing fast and loose with facts — or actually using no facts at all."

Prolific Writer

His output was prolific and his interests wide ranging. In the last week alone, Nonprofit Quarterly also published stories by Mr. Cohen about the need for nonprofits to help clean up state governments, alleged secret monitoring of Black Lives Matter activists in Oregon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appearance before the Center for American Progress, the role of free health clinics, and insensitive behavior toward the homeless in Colorado.

Mr. Cohen began his career as a planner at Action for Boston Community Development, an anti-poverty agency. Before joining the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, he was vice president for strategic planning at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, an organization that provides loans, grants, and advice to community-development projects.

He also served as vice president of the Enterprise Foundation, now Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable-housing charity; director of Jersey City’s Department of Housing and Economic Development, and a consultant to nonprofits, foundations, and government agencies.

While at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, he pushed foundations to operate more democratically and do more to promote social justice.

When he took the helm there in 1999, he promised a more collaborative approach to the foundation world but said he would condemn "things that need to be condemned," for example what he saw as a paucity of grants to social-change organizations.

"Philanthropy in the United States is still structured around a highly undemocratic dynamic, with few opportunities for the voices of communities, nonprofits, and their constituents to be heard," he said in a 2006 interview with Philanthropy News Digest.

At Nonprofit Quarterly, he returned often to some subjects, including what he considered a neglect of rural philanthropy and the impact on low-income neighborhoods of foundation-backed efforts to rescue Detroit from bankruptcy. Mr. Cohen wrote with authority and passion about Detroit, where he spent much time working with community advocates as part of his work for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation.

The Nonprofit Quarterly announcement said plans for a memorial were forthcoming. "Of all the things and people that he loved, the most important was his cherished daughter Ellie," it said, "and to her we say, thank you for sharing him with us."

Many people have paid tribute to Mr. Cohen on Nonprofit Quarterly’s website.

Send an email to Suzanne Perry.