Thirty Years of Pablo: In His Own Words

Challenges for Nonprofits and Philanthropy: The Courage to Change – Three Decades of Reflections, by Pablo Eisenberg, edited by Stacy Palmer. Tufts University Press, 2005, 242 pp. $29.95 (hardcover).


Years ago, Robert Malaga, judge of Cleveland’s Housing Court, would harmlessly pass time between cases by talking to the lawyers in his courtroom about his favorite sport, tennis. He would recount the exploits of his all-time favorites, including an American named Pablo Eisenberg. “So, what ever became of Eisenberg, Judge?” someone asked one day. “He’s some sort of big shot in Washington, I think,” the judge replied.

Pablo Eisenberg spent a second and equally remarkable career as executive director of the Center for Community Change and as a founding member and board chair of the Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, urging foundations and other philanthropic organizations to support grassroots organizations that advocate for social justice. Eisenberg continues on, in an active “retirement,” as a fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Public Policy.

His influence is attributable in no small part to his great talent for writing and public speaking. From his basic theme of social change from the bottom up, Eisenberg has woven dozens of variations – functioning as a trenchant, polemical commentator on America’s nonprofit sector, philanthropy and the community development movement. Both tongue and pen have been purposefully pointed in order to provoke critical examination of and by those in the nonprofit world.

Challenges for Nonprofits and Philanthropy: The Courage to Change, Eisenberg’s latest literary contribution, is a wide-ranging anthology of his original and previously published essays, white papers and speeches from over the last 30 years. The individual writings are grouped into logical thematic clusters – philanthropic leadership, corporate social responsibility, how best to help the needy, nonprofit advocacy, accountability of the nonprofit sector and role models for current and future nonprofit leaders.

If only such a collection was in print around the time I started work in philanthropy! On the eve of my first Council on Foundations annual conference, Eisenberg was the featured speaker at a reception sponsored by the Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG). I recall that Eisenberg’s broad call for a more comprehensive approach to community development – including deeper philanthropic support for community organizing and leadership development – was enthusiastically received by the audience. Only later did I learn that NFG leaders were then wrestling over how exactly to take their affinity group beyond a “brick and mortar” production focus to the broader view of community building that Eisenberg was pleading. Yet at that event, I clearly realized that I needed to know a lot more about Eisenberg and his ideas.

Since that first exposure through NFG, I’ve made it a point to hear Eisenberg speak whenever possible and I’ve regularly read his columns in the Chronicle of Philanthropy and other publications. But each exposure to his thinking has been a discrete encounter. Challenges for Nonprofits and Philanthropy now provides a retrospective context into which each essay or speech can be placed. This book allows one to assess the long-term development of Eisenberg’s basic message and intertwining ideas and perspectives that may not be apparent reading his work one piece at a time.

I’m attentive because Eisenberg’s words so often are aimed directly at folks like me – foundation officers in position to influence funding for community development and economic revitalization efforts. I feel that he is prodding me to reexamine my underlying assumptions about my work and never to forget the mission to serve others. His words affect me because they sound so much like things mentors have been saying to me since my youth. Harry Fagan, leader of community organizing with the Diocese of Cleveland in the 1970s and 1980s, taught me the importance of empowerment for individuals at the parish and neighborhood level. Norman Krumholz, Cleveland’s planning director during the same period, believed strongly that the city’s planners could alter outcomes by analyzing issues from the perspective of the city’s poorest citizens and negotiating in their interest.

Yet, while generally attuned to Eisenberg’s take on things, I do not always agree with what he says. Occasionally, I find that my own experience and judgments do not square with his expressed point of view. His analysis of the community development movement is a case in point. Some of the ideas that Eisenberg expressed that night at my first NFG reception were later reflected in the 25th anniversary edition of Shelterforce. (See SF #110.) His essay, “Time to Remove the Rose-Colored Glasses: Community Groups Demand Scrutiny,” not only noted, but indeed conferred credibility upon the shift from a concentrated focus on “brick and mortar” to a more comprehensive approach that balances production with organizing, public policy advocacy and provision of needed services such as transportation, medical and day care.

My decades in Cleveland lead me to a higher estimation of the contributions made by community development corporations. Slavic Village Development Corporation and the Detroit-Shoreway Development Corporation are shining examples of a multi-faceted approach to building community – involving sophisticated organizing, historic preservation, improving access to parks and open space, incorporating the arts as a neighborhood amenity, complex financing packaging and land assembly to facilitate physical redevelopment.

Eisenberg says that the “literature of the movement is almost pure exegesis, written by cheerleaders, not objective observers.” Frankly, I’ve encountered as much, if not more, specificity and objectivity from community development organizations, and in research about them, than from other types of nonprofits I’ve dealt with over the years.

“Time to Remove the Rose-Colored Glasses” was written five years ago. I wonder how he would approach the assignment today. Would the critical issues Eisenberg framed then be the same now? How would he regard the mounting federal deficits and projected deep cuts to – if not outright elimination of – government programs that benefit low- and moderate-income communities?

Dozens of other essays included in Challenges for Nonprofits and Philanthropy provoke as much passionate reaction and further questioning. Although faultfinding and censure are abundant in his articles and speeches, I don’t think that is the point of Eisenberg’s work. Part observer, part interlocutor, he challenges his nonprofit audience toward self-assessment.

Indeed, Eisenberg can be withering in his criticism of foundation and nonprofit leadership. Harsh phrases such as “intellectual sterility,” “captured by the comfort zone of collegiality” or “building egos, not institutions” are used in assessment of the current scene. Yet he can be downright sentimental and unstinting in praise. The section on role models profiles noteworthy legends such as Paul Ylvisaker, known for the Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas program and guiding hundreds of Harvard students (including this reviewer) in the study of philanthropy, and John Gardner, founder of Common Cause and Independent Sector. Lesser known leaders and unsung heroes are featured also.

Eisenberg observes that “few practitioners have had the time, resources, or inclination to document their experiences and observations for the benefit of their colleagues and future generations of nonprofit practitioners.” He also believes the failure to write by foundation leaders to be a disservice to the field. By expounding further on the connection between writing and leadership in future columns, Eisenberg could make yet another substantive intellectual contribution to the nonprofit sector.

Pablo Eisenberg, Judge Malaga’s tennis hero, no doubt possessed a wicked serve, the discipline to sustain back and forth volley and unshakeable self-confidence. I think Pablo Eisenberg speaks and writes about philanthropy and the nonprofit sector the way Judge Malaga remembered him playing tennis.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.