#101 Sep/Oct 1998

Pablo Eisenberg

In 1960-1963, a young United States Information Agency (USIA) officer, Pablo Eisenberg, went to a Russian variety troupe performing in Senegal. While the quality of the performance was mediocre compared […]

In 1960-1963, a young United States Information Agency (USIA) officer, Pablo Eisenberg, went to a Russian variety troupe performing in Senegal. While the quality of the performance was mediocre compared to American entertainment, the Russians “sang songs in the native language, did all the things that were popular with kids and Senegalese, had an announcer who spoke French.” So impressed was Eisenberg by both the effectiveness of the Russians and the ineptitude and arrogance of America’s efforts to capture the hearts and minds of Africa, that he wrote a scathing dispatch – The Russians are Winning the Cool War – to his superior and many others up and across the command chain.

“I learned that if you want to be outspoken and minimize damage, you distributed the dispatches or reports that you wrote widely,” recalls Eisenberg. Thanks to the intercession of his ambassador, who had clearer insight than his supervisors in Washington, D.C., Eisenberg narrowly missed being dismissed on that occasion. But his urge to rattle cages with the truth, his ability to bite the hand that feeds him in the service of justice, and his respect for intelligence and collegiality remains strong after 40 years.

Pablo Eisenberg was educated at Princeton (B.A.) and Oxford (B.Litt.) and was once known as a professional tennis player. These experiences of privilege occurred against a backdrop of early awareness of injustice and led to a lifelong commitment to social change.

After serving in the U.S. Army, Eisenberg worked for the USIA (1960-63) in Africa. From 1963-65, he served as the program director of Operation Crossroads, which provided a model for the new Peace Corps. Next (1965-68), as deputy director for Research and Development at the Office of Economic Opportunity, he worked as part of the “War on Poverty.” He then served as director for the Office of Liaisons/National Issues at the National Urban Coalition (1968-1973).

Following a short stint as a private consultant, Eisenberg became the third director of the Center for Community Change in 1975. Over the years, he has also worked as a consultant for a variety of community organizing groups, has served on the boards of numerous national and international organizations, and has published widely. A man of tremendous intellectual energy, Eisenberg is best known in the nonprofit world for his persistence, his willingness to challenge established perceptions, and his dedication to social justice. On June 30, 1998, Eisenberg retired from CCC leadership after 23 years.

This interview took place on April 1, 1998.


How did you find yourself at the Center for Community Change?

When I came here, it was almost against my better judgment. After I left the Urban Coalition, I vowed I would never work for another nonprofit. The only reason I took the job was that I had come to have, after two years of consulting, such a deep respect and affection for the staff.

Core Values of CCC

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

What are the core values of the center?

There are lots of strategies to try to eliminate poverty – service, organizing, jobs, income. Our belief is that poor folks have to be given the resources, or the bootstraps, to be able to mobilize their own capacity and power to make a difference through influence, through programs, whatever their priorities say they ought to do. Strengthening the capacity and power of low-income people and their grassroots organizations to make a change, both in their lives and in the public institutions that shape their environment, is at the heart of our mission.

How have things changed since you arrived?

As urban areas or some of the really tough depressed rural areas have become more difficult places in which to live, the job that poor people have to do in order to maintain their influence, get better jobs, stabilize their neighborhoods, has become tougher and tougher.

“Well, look [people may say to us]; you’ve been working at this for twenty years, and things seem worse, not better, so why bother doing what you’re doing?” Well, our answer to that is that things would be even worse were there no community-based organizations, no efforts at building houses and renovating homes, and trying to get jobs or trying to get services or trying to find better schools. At times it’s a hard, unglamorous non-politically correct, not high publicity effort. But I’m pleased that we’ve kept our eyes on the prize.

I think that’s been our niche – no one else is doing it, certainly not across racial and ethnic lines and across urban-rural lines in all 50 states. We kept working with grassroots organizations at the local level, on site, as the key to our work. Although in the last three or four years we’ve stepped up our public policy activity.

Is there a conflict with providing assistance to grassroots organizations so that they can set the agenda while developing a policy agenda?

Historically we have always had a public policy dimension, and almost all of the issues have come out of the needs expressed by the local groups we work with. There could be a tension. I think we have got to work with good groups, in local communities, particularly in minority communities, on their priorities. They know best what they need.

It was clear that welfare reform, jobs, transportation, were going to be part of a major agenda. In a sense, the local groups by and large have shaped our policy, which we probably would have picked anyway, but it was a nice confluence of what they thought was important-and we also agreed with that. For example, we have had periodic briefings and meetings with community groups over the last three years on issues of welfare reform and jobs which led to a national meeting at CCC. [See Shelterforce #98].

I think that there may have been issues that we have raised that did not come directly from the grassroots. We convened a national committee for responsible philanthropy, because there was an extraordinary need for money for disadvantaged constituencies. Was that a direct input from low-income grassroots organizations? No, but it certainly reflected their need and certainly the need of a lot of other constituents when we put it together.

I guess there’s always a little tension between leading and following.

That’s part of the inherent tension in any organization that provides technical assistance and also has a point of view. We try in our field – TA – not to inject the point of view and certainly not to go against the priorities of the organization. What we said, where we have for example, exercised, I think, some influence is by saying: “Hey, in this new age of devolution, when you can’t depend on the federal government anymore, when state and local governments are increasingly important and not as sensitive as the feds used to be to your needs, if you’re going to survive and deliver goodies for your constituents, you’re going to have to fight. And this means that you’re going to have to have a public policy capacity for intervention and advocacy.”

Foundations and Nonprofits

Let’s talk about organizing. Foundations often support organizing around a specific issue, but seem loath to support organizing for power.

That’s absolutely true. Foundations have not changed during the last decades. They are still frightened to death to encourage organizing for public policy advocacy on the part of low-income and other disadvantaged constituencies.

Are you implying that there’s classism and racism here?

Well, it may be. And it may not even be conscious. There still is, with memories of the rhetorical efforts of the sixties and seventies, a concept among many folks in the foundation world that these wild and crazy low-income folks are running around screaming. I think that a lot of them have never met with or seen what community-based organizations do and who the leaders are.

We used to criticize foundation boards for not having women and people of color on them. In the last fifteen years there has been enormous progress in getting more diverse boards. And yet they are still the same goddamn boards. Why haven’t they changed? Two reasons: one is class. They brought on the women and people of color who are the same as the former elite pool of white male corporate types. You know, the professionals and the wealthy, so there’s no difference in attitude. But where are the ministers and the community leaders and the machinists and the teachers and the folks who are working or middle-class? And they have not put on people of the type of temperament that enables people to challenge, to think, to question, to have new ideas.

Are you talking about foundation boards or program officers?

Foundation boards. Well… it’s also reflected in program officers, many of whom don’t have real life experience and have come to enjoy their privileged lifestyle. There is a culture in these foundations that makes it difficult for even the most sensitive and well-intentioned person who comes in to do a decent job.

Part of it is the lack of leadership among the top foundations, particularly in pushing for higher standards of performance and accountability in the field. Basically, I’ve said this time and time again: there is a total lack of intellectual fervor in philanthropy.

It’s almost as though they don’t care about the field as long as their foundation can do what it wants totally out of the sunshine. They don’t care what anybody else does. They don’t care whether the standards get higher or whether they are attacking the right problems in our country.

That arrogance is reflected in the increasing number of major foundation initiatives – which is not only depleting the amount of money available for the general purposes of nonprofits who need it, but is also setting the priorities of philanthropy.

So you have huge amounts of money in foundations like Casey and Rockefeller and probably a lot of others, encumbered by their own initiatives. Some may be relevant, some may not. Some may be formed by one or two focus groups – which is one the great rip-offs of American history. And they dominate the field.

Part of it is also that the foundation world is programmed for success. There is no programming for risk-taking, there’s no programming for failure, there’s no programming for taking the long road, having a vision, [sticking] with it for twenty years and then testing it out. The conservatives do that well. I think Michael Shuman was right in his article [see The Nation, 1/12/98], when he mentioned that the conservatives treat their grantees as colleagues. They have respect for them. When the mainstream foundations or the self-styled progressive liberal foundations deal with us, they have no respect for us. Time and time again we run into these foundations who think, and demand from us, that we’re going to deliver a huge amount of work for $50,000. When I tell them that that buys not more than three-quarters of one person with benefits, if that – and you want us to save the South! They don’t care.

Another thing about foundations – they don’t give a damn about donees. They don’t care if we are paid shortly after the grant is made. They don’t care if we have to meet a cash flow. We’re asked to fit into their framework and they’ve become the end, not the means, to the greater mission of strengthening the nonprofit sector. That is the most telling of all. So there is this arrogance and lack of respect in the relationship, and it is awfully frustrating.

You’ve said that nonprofits also suffer from a lack of accountability and vision.

I don’t want to spend all my time picking on foundations, although I do think they deserve the most criticism. I think increasingly the nonprofit sector is in trouble because of its lack of accountability. I suspect that maybe a majority of nonprofit organizations never issue any public reports, even fiscal statements. You have cases of CDCs that have never had an audit.

There are some CDC directors who run outfits with 7, 8, 9 people who have actually consulted for money, when in fact they ought to be putting all their time – if it’s 90 or 100 hours – into that CDC. There’s no sense that there’s a conflict of interest; they’re being paid decently. If in fact that’s not enough, then the board ought to decide, “Should we give this person more money or find someone else?”

And more and more nonprofits are saying the answer is becoming more entrepreneurial: “We have got to make money regardless of whether or not we keep our mission intact.” But they’ve adopted the corporate values – a Twilight Zone of ethics, moonlighting, boards that don’t oversee the organization, or are dominated by staff, à la the corporation. That’s why there’s a loss of passion and anger in the nonprofit world.

The sector is also fragmented – very much the product of funding sources. New organizations – be they gay, lesbian, health, environmental – [are constantly being started that] hold their executive directors accountable for a very narrow agenda. The incentives are all for Joe to save the “demi-goose” and not work together on a broader issue that affects the total community. No one’s rewarded for being part of a coalition.

And you feel that there are no coalitions because of a lack of vision, leadership, and accountability as well as a lack of support by funders for that kind of building and advocacy organizing?

The only way you’re going to do that is through general support grants.

Which are few and far between?

Absolutely. Decreasing. That is the single crux issue that is driving most of nonprofits. A lack of general support. And therefore a dependence on special projects, one-issue type things, and begging from foundations. It’s disgusting.

Organizing vs. Development

How do you define grassroots community organizing?

Speaking for myself, and I think for most of my colleagues, we think there are lots of different ways of organizing, and that there’s no one foolproof model. The IAF folks do it extraordinarily well, and they have their set piece, and it’s faith-based organizing. ACORN has individual membership organizing, and probably of all the networks, they get down to the poorest of the poor these days. And you have variants from Gamaliel, PICO, DART – you name them. They are trying to build power and influence on the part of low-income and working-class citizens to change institutions, and I think that’s organizing.

Is there a conflict between organizing and developing?

Unfortunately, the big intermediaries have thrown their total lot into CDCs as housing producers rather than housing facilitators. I would argue that instead of trying to build up the capacity among CDCs for production, they ought to be more interested in how much CDCs catalyze new or renovated housing, regardless of whether CDCs are the producers. [See Shelterforce #87].

Second of all, there is this feeling that the optimum relationship that CDCs need to have with the community is love-ins with mayors, corporations, and banks. And therefore anything that might disturb that love-in is counterproductive.

Well, the point is that that’s not the way to win a war. And that love-ins, I think, are sometimes a prescription for mediocrity. You never want a love-in with a government. You want tension. You want to be able to beat the hell out of them and them knowing that you can do that as well as showing that you want to cooperate where it’s possible.

You’re saying they can do both.

Sure, you can do both. But you have to have a leadership that understands that and is smart in how to do that.

Someone who’s not afraid to bite the hand that feeds him?

That’s exactly right. And to fight for what he thinks is right. And there’s no doubt that someone who has got a CDC that can mobilize 2,000 people is going to be looked on with some feeling of fear by a bank. Because that bank knows that those 2,000 can pull out their deposits, that they can yell and scream and create a storm, like the Downtown Welfare Rights group did with 2,000 pickets around the Mobil corporation in New York City.

I think there ought to be a common strategy between organizing groups and CDCs. “Hey organizing groups, you can do what we think we can’t do. And we’ll support you behind the scenes. Or, we’ll support you if you support us.”

Are organizing groups also not jumping into this collaboration because they, well, organize?

Yeah, they’re suspicious. And some of these organizers are as arrogant as anyone else. They’ve got big turf problems – my style is not your style – and they don’t share. One of the interesting things we’ve tried to do is to find a way to get the organizing groups and all the networks to start working together. Clearly, one has to do that around a non-turf issue.

So we’ve seen public policy as an extraordinary opportunity to make that happen. And to produce public policy initiatives that have weight because there are not just one or two networks. The beauty about working on public policy is that these networks can get together without worrying about style. Our constituents have a common problem for us to tackle. We’re not going to do it unless we have numbers. The leadership of those networks aren’t quite there. The members are gradually getting there.

And the funders?

You can’t say you have a serious priority on poor people unless you are willing to fund them for organizing policy and advocacy. Because doing a traditional job, whether it’s service delivering or economic development, is no longer good enough. They have to fight for their constituents at the local and state level.

Where is community organizing going?

I’m hopeful that community organizing and other grassroots groups are beginning to band together around some important issues. There’s a lot more organizing going around jobs, welfare reform, transportation, than there ever was. And that’s a healthy sign. There are some signs that various groups are willing to collaborate with one another.

One of the problems has been that since the days of OEO, there has not been much money for getting grassroots groups together. There probably are now a few more foundations that are willing to fund this type of advocacy work at the local level than there used to be. Butler is doing good work, and the French-American Charitable Trust, and Needmor and a few more.

The real test will be if a number of the big foundations will be willing to put money into that type of effort and for a long period of time. There are some initiatives within these foundations by some serious, decent program officers to try to get that money. Whether it’s an institutional priority – that remains to be seen.

What’s in the future for CCC?

I would hope that it maintains its vision and commitment to low-income grassroots. That it will continue to work on the ground with organizations in public policy.

I would hope also that it might do some new initiatives in the youth field and other things that we’re exploring – economic development, jobs. And I hope we continue to be tough and outspoken and not take any crap from anybody.

It’s hard. Our budget is over $6 million,  $3.6 of which is general support, so I think we’ve had the flexibility to do what we’ve done because we’ve have had a strong general support budget. I hope that is maintained.

One more look into the future: what’s in store for you?

I would like to be involved in the nonprofit sector. I may do some consulting. Maybe some foolish university or college might be interested in me part-time. I want to write more. I don’t know where I could get subsidized for writing. There are no non-genius grants out there.

I do know one thing: I don’t want to run anything anymore – project or organization. That’s finished. I’ve had enough of that stuff. The greatest relief will be not having to ask foundations for money. I’m delighted about that.

On that note, thank you, Pablo.


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