Oral History/Testimonies

The Filer Commission and the Birth of NCRP

Editors’ Note: Pablo Eisenberg provides a first-hand account of the improbable creation of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy out of the Filer Commission on Private and Public Needs.

In retrospect, it seems surprising that the Filer Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs, established in 1973, the most prestigious study of its kind in our history, should have given birth to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, the watchdog group currently monitoring our philanthropic sector and holding it accountable.

It all started with an article I published in a little known publication, the Grantsmanship Center News, in January 1973, entitled, “The Filer Commission: A Critical Perspective”. The article questioned the very narrow representation of the Commission’s membership, its limited outreach to the public, its heavy stress on donors and neglect of donee groups and its limited attention to public needs. It also pointed out that the Commission’s research on philanthropy ignored such issues as public accountability, accessibility to philanthropic resources and equity in the grantmaking process.

For some reason, the article was cited by many major newspapers and journals, prompted critical editorials in papers like the Baltimore Sun, and received a great deal of attention among nonprofit organizations and some foundations.

Largely the initiative of John D. Rockefeller 3rd, who was concerned about both charitable tax deductions and the improvement of the sector, the Commission appointed Rockefeller’s tax advisor, Leonard L. Silverstein, as its Executive Director.

Disturbed by the brouhaha generated by my article, Mr. Silverstein called me on a Sunday morning and demanded that I meet with him that very day to discuss my criticism of the Commission. In a meeting with him later that week, I mentioned that my views were widely shared by a large number of nonprofit organizations, and I offered to convene some twenty or more of them to meet with him and his staff. At the first of these well-attended meetings, an impressive number of highly regarded nonprofit directors vented their strong opinions about the Commission with suggestions about how to change some of the Commission‘s priorities, its research efforts and its relations with the nonprofit community.

Mr. Silverstein’s annoyance at our collective critique continued until John Filer, chair of the Aetna Insurance Company and Chair of the Commission, asked to meet with what had become known as the ”Donee group”. He expressed great interest in our view of the Commission and our recommendations. After a second meeting with the group, Mr. Filer asked me to write a proposal for $60,000 to the Commission so that the Donee group could formalize, select a small staff and work in tandem with the Commission staff. He said that our proposal should be very short (no more than 3-4 pages), because “corporate types don’t read very much”. Three days later that proposal was accepted.

The Donee group recruited Ted Jacobs, the director of the Center for Responsive Law, to be it Executive Director, and James Abernathy, Research Director at the Grantsmanship Center, as its deputy. After Ted’s early departure, Jim became the group’s permanent director.

The group commissioned a number of research and issue papers that became part of the Commission’s overall findings. Through most of the process, Mr. Silverstein’s sniping and low-keyed critique of the group’s work was an annoyance, reflecting some of his biases about the nature of our nonprofits’ memberships. For example, he could not understand why I, a “gentleman” who had attended the ‘right’ schools, still associated with the Great Unwashed.

Gabriel Rudney, the Commission’s Research Director, proved to be a helpful colleague and supporter. What was surprising to many of us was that the Commission from the beginning had enlisted the participation of two well-known consultants, Paul Ylvisaker of Harvard and Adam Yarmolinsky of the University of Massachusetts. Yet neither of them had alerted Commission members about the weaknesses in the Commission’s approach that the Donee group had flagged. It was not their finest hour.

Waldemar Nielsen, then of the Aspen Institute, was also officially a consultant to the Commission, although he often joined the Donee group in its deliberations. It was always hard to tell whose side he was on.

The Donee group met on a regular basis. Its approximately 25 members did not always agree, but they maintained their involvement for the better part of two years. Jim Abernathy was a major reason the group kept its focus and integrity.

Another important ally of the Donee group was Wade Greene, the writer for the Commission and the author of its final report. A few of us had known him as a perceptive advisor to progressive wealthy donors, some of whom had given money to our own organizations. Wade was sympathetic to our concerns and agendas. It was because of Wade that the final report included the chapters most important to the donees; those on access, accountability and equity. With great skill and perseverance, he was able to persuade Commission members to accept the content and wording of these three chapters. In a sense, he was the donees’ fifth column at the Commission.

John Filer, the Chairman of the Commission, was an unusual corporate CEO. Open, direct and fair, he gave the donees the opportunity to contribute to the Commission’s discussions and to forge their own analysis and set of recommendations, often to the discomfort of some of the Commission’s more staid members. Without his firm and visionary leadership, the Donee group might well have floundered and disappeared.

As the Commission prepared its report in 1975, the Donee group issued its own report, Private Philanthropy: Vital and Innovative? Or Passive and Irrelevant?, written by James Abernathy. It was at the time a powerful document with many recommendations for improving the philanthropic process. Without pulling punches, the report underlined the importance of nonprofits as an equal partner to private donors and governments in meeting public needs. Many of its recommendations for change, such as greater representations for grantees on foundation boards, are just as urgent today as they were four decades ago.

When the group asked Filer if he would be willing to have the group join the Commission in announcing its report before the Congress, he enthusiastically agreed to give us equal billing. Both he and I, representing the Donee group, delivered our respective reports before a large audience of Congressmen, funders, and nonprofits. In a press conference at the Press Club later that day, Filer announced that the Donee group had ensured the success of both the Commission process and its report. It was a gracious gesture by a gracious man.

After the issuance of both reports, the Donee group decided it should transform itself into a permanent watchdog organization representing nonprofits. The vote was not quite unanimous. The choice of the name, The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), was the result of a long discussion and some dissensions.

To establish NCRP, a core group of donees convened three separate meetings, chaired by me, of about 100 nonprofits to discuss the future framework, principles, membership and priorities of the new organization. Almost all of the founders agreed that NCRP should not serve as a technical assistance provider to its members, nor help its members raise money. Several nonprofits didn’t agree with this decision and dropped out of the group.

Shortly after the formal announcement of NCRP’s creation, John D. Rockefeller, 3rd called me to say that he wanted to give a $5,000 donation to NCRP… but on the condition that I become the organization’s Executive Director. I told Mr. Rockefeller that, as an independent organization, we could not accept his condition; he would have to give us his money without any strings attached. He agreed to do so. It was probably one of the few times time in his life that he didn’t get his way.

Within a few days of NCRP’s creation, John Filer at Aetna gave us $15,000. Bill Dietel, then head of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, convened a small meeting of large foundations, asking them to support NCRP. None did, but Dietel gave us $25,000, the first donation from a large foundation. More grants from large foundations were to follow.

NCRP’s original board and membership were a powerhouse group of nonprofit leaders, representing a wide array of organizations…diverse, large and small. Surprisingly absent from its roster was Vernon Jordan, executive director of the National Urban League, who was afraid to join for fear of losing foundation funding, despite the urging of his deputy.

The first major decision of NCRP was the selection of its first Executive Director, Robert Bothwell. Jim Abernathy returned to the Grantsmanship Center, from which he had been on loan, only to come back several months later to become NCRP’s Deputy Director.

The rest is history.

-Pablo Eisenberg

Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at the McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University. He was the executive director of the Center for Community Change for 23 years. Prior to this, he was a foreign service officer with USIA, a civil servant, a senior officer at the National Urban Coalition and a freelance consultant to nonprofits and corporations. He is a regular columnist for the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Huffington Post. The author of many articles, chapters of books and a book on nonprofits, he has a BA from Princeton, a BLitt from Oxford University and an honorary doctorate from Princeton.

One thought on “The Filer Commission and the Birth of NCRP

  1. I’m glad Pablo Eisenberg wrote this and I hope he will write more first-hand reminiscences of his years in philanthropy.

    Like

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