Issue #144, November/December 2005
Thirty Years of Pablo: In His Own Words
Reviewed by Robert Jaquay
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.
Fifty Years In Public Causes: Stories from a Road Less Traveled, by Brian O’Connell. Tufts University Press, 2005. This book is a career memoir from the cofounder and first president of Independent Sector.
Conscience & Community: The Legacy of Paul Ylvisaker, Virginia Esposito, ed. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1999. A collection of writings and speeches by the guiding force behind the Ford Foundation’s 1960s Gray Areas urban strategy.
Promise and Betrayal: Universities and the Battle for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods
Traditionally, institutions of higher education have been viewed as the gateway to a better future, despite the fact that so many of the neighborhoods surrounding them have been filled with hopelessness and despair. The authors describe how higher education institutions can play an important role in revitalizing poor neighborhoods.
Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing, Second Edition
A “how-to” manual of strategies and tactics for community members to use to set their own goals, campaign for issues, recruit members and develop leaders, conduct research, lobby politicians and work with the media. The author believes that any community can bring about social change through collective action.
Low-End Rental Housing: The Forgotten Story in Baltimore’s Housing Boom
This monograph provides an intensive look at the low-end rental market in Baltimore its renters, housing stock, ownership and government programs. Policy remedies are proposed to address the lack of affordability and physical inadequacy of the city’s housing. Approaches include creation of an affordable housing trust fund, institutional ownership and coordination among the code enforcement, lead paint abatement and rental rehabilitation programs.
The Fieldstone Nonprofit Guide to Forming Alliances: Working Together to Achieve Mutual Goals
The authors advocate the formation of strategic alliances that work at a lower level of intensity than complex partnerships. This guidebook includes action steps, worksheets and examples that aim to help unlock the potential of alliances that nonprofits can create to suit their goals.
The Long Stair: An Albany Mystery
A murder occurs in the office of the Neighborhood Housing Association on the north side of Albany, NY. When a neighborhood resident and affordable housing consultant volunteers to help the organization recover, he begins to uncover a puzzling mystery. The author is a founder of the Capital District Community Loan Fund. Sales of the book will benefit the Albany Community Land Trust.