Remembering Dave Beckwith

Written by: Aaron Dorfman

Date: March 22, 2022

As most of you have heard by now, Dave Beckwith, my friend and co-conspirator for the past 20 years, died on February 22, 2022.

Dave was perhaps the single greatest champion within philanthropy for community organizing. Plenty of others have pushed the field to be more accountable and responsive, or to fund social justice and social change. Dave had a particular focus on generating new interest in and new funding for community organizing. For many community organizers, Dave Beckwith was one of a very small number of people working in philanthropy who truly understood their work and championed it to other funders.

Dave led the Needmor Fund – the family philanthropy founded by the Stranahan family with wealth from Champion Spark Plugs – from 2003 until his retirement in 2013. While the Needmor Fund was and is quite modest in size, Beckwith had an outsized impact on the field of philanthropy.

Dave served on the board of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy from 2004 to 2013. He was one of the board members who advocated most strongly that the board should hire me to succeed Rick Cohen, rather than the other finalist. He liked the idea of a community organizer taking the helm of NCRP, and it didn’t matter to him that I was then only 36 years old and not yet nationally known. Beckwith had seen what I could do leading an organization because Needmor had been funding my organizing work in Miami for years.

In 2007, Dave co-chaired with Christine Ahn the board’s strategic planning committee, which led to the development of NCRP’s first strategic plan. He became vice chair of NCRP’s board in 2009 and served alongside board chair Diane Feeney for four years. During that time, and as a direct outgrowth of the strategic plan he helped develop, NCRP released Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best and a series of studies documenting the return on investment of foundation funding for community organizing and advocacy. The summary report from that series, Leveraging Limited Dollars, shows that communities get $115 in tangible benefits for every $1 invested by donors and foundations in organizing and other high-leverage social change strategies. Dave helped us recruit Lisa Ranghelli to the staff, and she was the lead author of those studies.

After leaving the board, Dave continued to help NCRP grow and thrive. He was my executive coach for several years and helped me and the board develop NCRP’s current strategic framework.

Dave impacted how philanthropy is practiced through his leadership at Needmor, through his service to NCRP, through his engagement with other philanthropy serving organizations like Neighborhood Funders Group, through his mentoring of community organizers, and through the deep relationships he forged with other professionals in the field. He’s a shining example of how one person can make an enormous difference with a vision backed by years of sustained commitment, and of how one person can influence an entire field.

Some of my favorite memories with Dave involve strategizing while smoking cigars together. “Want to go burn some leaves?” he would ask me. I always said yes.