Remembering Rick Cohen, NCRP’s Leader from 1999-2006

Date: November 20, 2015

Updated November 20, 2015.

This week, the philanthropic and nonprofit community lost a powerful voice with the passing of Rick Cohen. Rick served as executive director of NCRP from 1999 – 2006, during which time he shaped our understanding of social justice philanthropy, and played an important part in refining the practices and policies we fight for to this day.

We asked NCRP’s board members from this period to share their stories and memories of Rick, an extraordinary father, writer and champion for equity.

I first met Rick in Pablo [Eisenberg’s] class when I was a graduate student at Georgetown. Rick had this way where he could articulate the gross injustices within philanthropy in fine detail, while being an incredibly kind-hearted human being. At a ripe age of 29, he brought me on the board of NCRP. There were some board meetings where I said some uncomfortable things, but he always had my back and made me feel safe saying them. 

Christine Ahn
Co-Founder, Korea Policy Institute

It was a blast to work with Rick in developing recommendations on strengthening civic engagement within the nonprofit sector for the incoming Bush II administration. He was very proud of the outcome. These were the early days of the Internet, but we wanted to use new technologies to give state and local nonprofits a voice in developing the recommendations. A wealthy tech expert* offered up his office, which had the latest and greatest new gadgets for virtual meetings. Bizarre as it sounds, his office was literally designed to look like the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek. They put us in a room called “Deck D: Command Center” where we were supposed to link up to nearly 100 nonprofits from around the country to discuss the nonprofit recommendations, but nothing worked as expected. No one could see or hear us. Rick, who wasn’t exactly Scotty, the Star Trek engineer, looked at me, exasperated and frustrated, pushed a bunch of buttons and said, “I’m givin’ her all she’s got, Captain!” Miraculously, all the technology started working!

That was Rick: humorous and witty, but always givin’ all he had.

Gary Bass
Executive Director, Bauman Foundation

I had the privilege of working with Rick as a board member of NCRP. I was on the search committee that hired him. As the interview progressed, I knew we had found our next director. I also served as chair of the board early in Rick’s tenure. Rick assumed NCRP’s leadership with a passion and determination that energized those who worked around him both staff and board. Rick was uncompromising when it came to doing the right thing and was never shy about delivering his honest perspectives on a philanthropic world with too little investment in social justice. Rick loved to argue and debate and at times chided me for working in the more “mainstream” part of our sector. While we hadn’t been in touch in the last year or two, regularly reading his column I could hear his gregarious voice his words full of intensity and passion. You are missed, my friend.

Paul S. Castro, J.D.
President and CEO, Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles

We have lost a great advocate for social justice and philanthropic reform. He leaves a huge gap in the field of investigative reporting. Few have had his courage, intellect and integrity that made his reporting so cogent and telling. He will be sorely missed, an irreplaceable part of the nonprofit world.

Pablo Eisenberg
Senior Fellow, Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at the McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University
Co-Founder of NCRP

I first met Rick at a National Network of Grantmakers (NNG) Conference. I had just become the first director of a start-up social justice fund in Maine. Our philosophy was to give large multi-year, general support grants to small grassroots groups. Back then, general, long-term support was not widely practiced, but it was something Rick advocated for strongly. Unlike many folks in this network, I didn’t come from a community organizing background, and apart from writing a lot of grants, I knew nothing about foundation culture. I could say that Rick took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. But that’s not the case. Instead, he accepted me instantly as a peer, an equal, someone who it would be interesting to talk to, and someone who would add value to the field. Awhile later, Rick invited me to be on the NCRP board. It was a terrific few years – connecting our little fund in Maine to the wider universe and strategizing with stellar leaders on how to make philanthropy better. Nothing says social justice more than empowerment, equality and respect, and Rick Cohen was always that.

Deborah Felder
Independent consultant

There are five major influences in my life that awakened and guided me in my personal ‘lucha’ for social justice: in my childhood, my family and the living history of the civil rights movement; in high school, the Jesuits; in college, my Dean of Chicano Affairs at Yale; and in my professional career, Rick Cohen. 

Angel Fernandez-Chavero
Managing Director and Founder, Aspire Praxis, LLC

Rick brought me on to the NCRP board and was a sharp critic of philanthropy, deeply funny and, while occasionally misunderstood, a real mensch. He was very witty and warm and never lost the fire in the belly of a true organizer and muckraker.

Marjorie Fine
Philanthropic consultant

When Rick spoke with me about joining NCRP’s board, I told him that didn’t think I’d have much to offer the foundation insiders who were already on the board. His response was, “Great, then you can ask the hard questions and keep us honest.” That was certainly Rick’s approach to his work overall, which left a profound influence on NCRP and on the entire nonprofit sector.

Judy Hatcher
Executive Director, Pesticide Action Network North America

I’m deeply shocked and sadden by Rick’s death, I was chair of NCRP’s board for many years when Rick was executive director. What I bonded with Rick about was his over-the-top outrage at injustice generally, and the failure of all too many in the not-for-profit sector to do anything about it in particular. It was terrific to be totally in agreement with someone with his intellectual depth and passion.

David R. Jones
President and CEO, Community Service Society of New York

Rick was an amazing thinker, writer and organizer. His willingness to speak truth to power continues to inspire me. I remember his amazing research capabilities and the reports that resulted – sharp, thorough and always just short of getting NCRP in real trouble. Viva Rick!

Mary Lassen
Managing Director, Center for Community Change

Rick Cohen loved his daughter Ellie more than anything in the world. Articulate, courageous, funny and humble – in his work life he was a true leader. Rick was one of the few journalists and practitioners consistently willing to tell and write the truth about philanthropy. He was a great executive director of NCRP, where I had the pleasure of accompanying him as treasurer and then board chair. His passing is a huge loss for his family, friends and the nonprofit community he served. We will miss his rumpled demeanor, self-deprecating jokes and brilliant social criticism.

Teresa Odendahl, Ph.D.
President and CEO, Global Greengrants Fund

I was happy to join the board just as Rick was returning NCRP to its original assignment (prompted by the passage of the Tax Act of 1969) to make sure philanthropy was helping people. He was doing an elegant job of divesting the giving-at-work apparatus and the many directors of NCRP involved in that worthy but narrowly-focused activity and broadening NCRP’s scope, beginning with a serious look at the effectiveness of community foundations. His forward momentum was slowed by intemperate Congressional hearings designed to limit advocacy by foundations, but I think he was instrumental in clearing the way for NCRP to become its present excellent self.

Alan Rabinowitz
Author, philanthropist and philanthropic activist

Rick was a superb thinker, strategist and advocate, but he could not have been more gentle on a personal level.  I joined the NCRP board not long after Rick started working there, and he went out of his way to welcome me in the most gracious of ways. I recall one board meeting that I was not sure that I could make. I had recently given birth, and my child care fell through. Rick eagerly suggested that I bring the infant to the meeting! That’s who he was. I have been a friend of Rick’s ever since, and was delighted that he could attend, and speak at, Aspen Institute events. He always struck the right note: exceptional analysis peppered with self-deprecating humor and charm. Whether the topic is transparency, the implications of a nonprofit business deal or the latest news of Ellie, there’s so much more to share with Rick. His passing leaves me, and the nonprofit sector, bereft.

Cinthia Schuman Ottinger
Deputy Director for Philanthropy Programs, The Aspen Institute

Rick and David Jones invited me on to the NCRP board. What an eye opening experience. I thank them both.

Although we sometimes disagreed, he was usually right, darn it. We never forgot the ultimate goal was to improve the charitable sector. 

Rick changed the sector with his laser-like focus, which made issues that were seemingly innocuous into matters that were exceedingly important to all of us.

His contributions were immense and he will be sorely missed. 

Gary Snyder
Publisher, Nonprofit Imperative

I always thought Rick Cohen played the key role that was central to the work of foundations, nonprofits and community organizations: he was the Conscience that “spoke truth to power,” a steady reminder of our greater purpose and the ethical base from which so much of our work is derived. He held us all to a higher standard and reminded us that so much more could be accomplished with a deeper commitment to do more, and better, for more people. His last question to me at NCRP was, “How can we be this good without being so much better?” And now I have to ask: And who will replace him? Rick was the special talent that will be hard to replace.     

Steve Vetter
President and CEO, Partners of the Americas

Rick Cohen’s death is a loss to all of us. He took on issues that were important. We are grateful for his courage in doing so.

Sr. Helen Vinton
Assistant Director, Southern Mutual Help Association, Inc.

I was on the board when Rick was hired to become executive director of NCRP. It is always difficult to succeed a long-serving founding executive director of a national nonprofit organization, but Rick did just that – he did succeed and did it very well. He brought his immense knowledge of community empowerment, his great intelligence and compassion, and helped NCRP to remain a strong advocate for responsive and responsible philanthropy.  We will all miss his voice and we are all poorer from his absence.

Bill Watanabe
Former Executive Director, Little Tokyo Service Center

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) has served as the voice of nonprofits and the communities they serve in philanthropy since 1976.  Follow @NCRP on Twitter.

* Editor’s Note'(2/21/23): When this piece first appeared in 2015, the word ‘guru’ was used as an synonym for the word expert or extremely knowledgeable person. However, in the years since then, it’s casual use has been seen as disrespectful because it diminishes the importance of the title and its Buddhist and Hindu origins. So we replaced it, in this case, with the term ‘expert’.