In memory of Rick Cohen

Civil society in America has lost one of its staunchest defenders

Michael Edwards
19 November 2015

Rick Cohen. Credit: Nonprofit Quarterly. All rights reserved.

Rick Cohen was the national correspondent of NonProfit Quarterly in the United States, and a leading writer on philanthropy and social change for openDemocracy and many other publications. He collapsed and died earlier this week in Washington DC at the age of 64, probably from a heart attack. He’s survived by his beloved daughter Ellie.

Earlier this month Rick was working on a piece for Transformation on “social impact bonds”—the latest attempt to fix social problems using the magic of the market. But then he sent an email to say he was going to miss his deadline:

“Well, I’m going to be a little slow. I had a silly stupid accident (don’t ask) that resulted in a broken leg, ribcage damage, and lots of other stuff which has slowed me down immensely. If I’m able to work a couple of hours a day, I’m lucky. But that means I’m not going to be able to get you the SIBs piece for some weeks, maybe mid-November? I’m sorry, but old brittle bodies break when they bounce on concrete.”

I don’t know whether his accident was connected to his death two weeks later. What’s certain is that we’ve lost a critical voice in the conversation about philanthropy and its future. In a field where too many are afraid to tell their truths for fear of offending those in power, or too eager to follow the latest fads and fashions in case they appear to be out of step, Rick was relentless in uncovering the stories that really mattered, and in telling them with style and heart and integrity.

I first met him when he worked as director of NCRP in Washington DC—the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, which acts as a pressure group on the foundation sector in the United States. I had been sent by Susan Berresford, then the Ford Foundation’s president, to talk to Rick about a column he had written which called for the chair of Ford’s trustees to resign amidst allegations of financial impropriety at his company, which was Xerox.

With the iron fist of money wrapped ever so carefully in the velvet glove of arm-around-the-shoulder advice, my job was to make it clear that Ford’s grants to NCRP were conditional on ‘responsible reporting and constructive dialogue,’ which excluded outright criticism of a major funder.

I’m not sure whether I or Rick was more embarrassed at this toe-curling encounter, but thankfully he ignored my advice and went on to make such criticisms a staple of his journalistic diet. That’s what made him so valuable—just keep digging, and tell it like it is, and let the pieces fall where they may. Part investigative journalist, part agent provocateur, part community organizer, and wholly committed to the value of an independent, reflective and democratic life, Rick Cohen made a huge contribution to a field he both loved and disrespected.

Profits and non-profits alike were given the same critical attention, with charities involved in any sort of shenanigans or scandals singled out for his attention. They included Veterans charities ripping off their donors or promoting a phony cause—step forward “Veterans for a Strong America” which sponsored Donald Trump’s speech in September on the deck of the battleship USS Iowa. Or Dan Snyder’s “Original American Foundation” which offers grants to Native Americans in return for their support in maintaining the offensive name of the football team that he owns (the “Washington Redskins”).

Unearthing these stories was part of Rick’s commitment to authenticity in any charitable endeavor: there’s no point having a civil society if it doesn’t live up to its own identity and history, unless it can act as a counterweight to sleaze and dishonesty and live out the values and true meanings of democracy and solidarity. In that sense he was something of a traditionalist, and found common cause with some unlikely bedfellows among conservative critics of ‘big philanthropy.’

Rick’s range, though, was very wide, encompassing government regulation (or the lack of it), community development (including some forensic examination of post-Katrina ‘recovery’ in New Orleans), new social movements like Black Lives Matter, and the “State of Black Museums.The last piece he published called out U.S. politicians for their reluctance or refusal to accept Syrian refugees into their states. You can read most of what he wrote here on the Cohen Report—a non-profit treasure trove that’s pretty much unique.

One of Rick’s real specialties, however, and one of his most important roles, was to interrogate the fashion for business thinking which began to invade the non-profit sector in the mid-2000s. He did this carefully and strategically, identifying some of the icons of this movement and then following their actual impact over time in mini-essays that are crammed with references and data to back up his judgments. He was pragmatic about money and fundraising and the need for charities to engage with business, but deeply skeptical that this meant a for-profit or pro-market takeover of the non-profit sector.

Social impact bonds, ‘philanthrocapitalism,’ social enterprise, L3c benefit corporations, social innovation and corporate philanthropy all came under the microscope, but it was the ongoing attention he paid to concrete exemplars like Teach for America and charter schools in the foundation-funded school ‘reform’ movement, or the interweaving of public and private interests in the Clinton Global Initiative, or the farce of giving charitable status to money-making ‘non-profit’ hospitals and colleges that really set Rick’s journalism apart. He was a strong critic of much in the foundation world, especially its reluctance to make grants in rural areas and its lack of diversity, transparency and accountability.

Underneath this relentless sense of challenge was a warm and generous human being who had humility, authenticity, and plenty of mud on the soles of his boots. In that sense he was a role model for civil society, and a reminder of what’s most absent from the institutions he critiqued. I will miss his voice enormously. So will many, many others. Godspeed Rick. I’m very glad that you ignored me.

Transformation will be republishing some of Rick Cohen’s articles for openDemocracy over the next three days.

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