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The Poor's Voice Among Philanthropists

December 18, 1986|DAVID JOHNSTON | Times Staff Writer

Pablo Eisenberg changed the face of philanthropy forever 12 years ago with an article in an obscure magazine.

The 54-year-old Eisenberg, who played tennis at Wimbledon and served in Africa as a U.S. Information Agency propagandist, wanted new players at the table when foundations and rich corporations divided the charity pie. Those players: the poor, minorities, the handicapped, children, the elderly and women.

He wanted philanthropic endowments--which escape taxation on the theory that their privately administered money will benefit the public--to stop lavishing money on institutions serving the rich and affluent while tossing mostly small grants like so many crumbs to charities helping the economically and socially vulnerable.

Grants for the Poor

In Santa Monica, the Pico Neighborhood Assn. credits Eisenberg's strategy with helping increase its share of block grants funds that the federal government distributes to the city to help the poor from zero in 1979-80 to 75% or more of the $1 million or so granted each year since 1982-83.

"An enormous number of poor people," Eisenberg argues, "find themselves--through family, circumstances and geography--saddled in a poverty situation without the effective resources to climb their way out. I believe in empowerment, as I think almost everyone does. The purpose of empowerment and self-help is not to guarantee that everyone will succeed but to provide equal opportunities for everyone."

Not providing opportunities, he contends, weakens the nation's spirit and its economy.

"By any reasonable definition," Eisenberg said, one in four Americans is poor and their "potential is not being tapped in our increasingly competitive world. We are losing the enormous resources, intellect and talent of one quarter of our population to our detriment as a nation.

"Poor people, to have a real say, have to do it through collective action. By themselves they are atomized and powerless, but when they get together in a group, they have some chance at self-help success and having their concerns heard and acted on," he said.

One of Eisenberg's main roles is helping the poor get access to those in power and to foundation and corporate funds through his growing network of grantmakers. He also seeks government money, a tough job since federal support for nonprofit community development organizations, one of Eisenberg's major interests, is 44% less than it would have been but for the new budget priorities in Washington, an Urban Institute study shows.

"One of the charms of the boy is he goes around almost biting the hand that feeds him--be it foundations or corporations or what have you--by shaming them into giving and yet he has made it quite a paying proposition if you look at the returns," said Julien Engel, a Third World development consultant.

Engel and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat, were Eisenberg's roommates at Princeton. The trio graduated from Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1954, followed a year later by another man bent on living out one of the university's mottos--"Princeton in the nation's service"--Ralph Nader.

Eisenberg's 1974 article on noblesse oblige that prompted major shifts in organized philanthropy appeared in the Grantsmanship Center News, an obscure magazine published in Los Angeles.

He wrote about a private commission--equally obscure, but enormously influential with close ties to the White House and Congress--that was raising more than $2 million to study private philanthropy and public needs.

The Filer Commission, as it was known, wanted to examine how the 1969 Tax Reform Act affected benefits the rich could obtain through their gifts and how foundations operate. These were matters of great concern to the commission's many wealthy members, including John Filer, its chairman and then chairman of Aetna Insurance Co., then Treasury Secretary William E. Simon and George Shultz, now secretary of state.

Half-Empty Glass

Eisenberg argued that the Filer Commission was looking only at the half of the glass that was full. He said it had failed to examine the half that was empty, the public needs in search of money; failed to consider the question that the poor and vulnerable ask:

Who benefits from philanthropy?

Soon Washington attorney Leonard Silverstein, the Filer Commission's executive director, invited Eisenberg over for a chat. Eisenberg proposed that a wide array of people be invited in, that the commission make studies about the concerns of donees--as some grantseekers call themselves--and publish the findings. The Filer Commission agreed.

Thus was born charity activism, a small but potent force that foundation executives, corporate giving officers and leaders of United Ways and other federated fund-raising organizations across the country acknowledge has had a significant impact not on who gives, but on who gets.

A Crucial Role

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