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Nonprofit watchdog

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By Ret Boney

At age 17, Rick Cohen was kicked out of high school for criticizing a Vietnam War-related school program in an article he wrote, and in 1972, he was banned from his college campus for helping to organize demonstrations condemning U.S. bombings in Cambodia.

Today, after 35 years in the nonprofit sector, he is no less outspoken as executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a group he describes as the nation’s “only philanthropic watchdog.”

“We are advocates for social justice philanthropy,” he says, “for philanthropy living up to what it can really do.”

For Cohen and his organization, that means researching, writing and advocating for more resources for disadvantaged groups and more support for social justice and social-advocacy organizations.

He fights for philanthropic accountability, making sure foundations are meeting their obligations to the public, and encouraging them to be resources and change agents for social justice.

“The confusion for funders is that many foundations view this as private money,” he says.  “But it’s tax-exempt money they have been entrusted with to use for the public good.”

He also encourages nonprofits to take a stronger stand by finding their voice, standing up for themselves and advocating that foundations do their part.

“The sector has a right to say something about the resources that are meant for it,” he says. Nonprofits “have a lot of power and they forget to use it.  They are the delivery system for foundations.  Foundations can’t live up to their mandate without nonprofits.”

Rick Cohen

Job:  Executive director, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Washington, D.C.

Education:  B.A., political science, Boston University; M.A., city planning, University of Pennsylvania

Birth date:  1950, Boston

Family Wife, Anne Pasmanick, executive director, National Neighborhood Coalition; daughter, Eleanor, age 8, named after Eleanor Roosevelt

Hobbies:  Writing; watching sports

Reading:  “The Prince of Providence,” by Mike Stanton; “Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years,” by Haynes Johnson

Book to recommend: “Founding Brothers:  The Revolutionary Generation,” by Joseph Ellis

Inspiration:  Charlie Sullivan, boss at Action for Boston Community Development.  “He taught me there’s no reason to let down your professional standards when you’re promoting social change and social justice.”

Cohen, raised in a Boston housing project with his father, who was partially disabled and worked days for the post office and nights selling insurance, says social justice was a core family value.

His first job was as a community planner for Action for Boston Community Development, where he did organizing and research in the city’s Chinese and Italian neighborhoods as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Cohen then joined the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to study the domestic impact of U.S. corporate and foreign policy, worked to revitalize poor Appalachian communities, ran his own community development consulting firm and served as director of housing and economic development in Jersey City, where he helped create the state’s first housing trust fund to provide affordable homes for poor people.

He then moved to the national arena as vice president for the Enterprise Foundation, which helps revitalize disadvantaged communities, and was vice president for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a similar group, where he developed the strategic plan for the national organization and its local programs.

Cohen joined the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy in 1999 as executive director, a position he says has allowed him to work on issues he has confronted throughout his career, such as “how nonprofits access the capital they need to fulfill their missions and how the nonprofit capital markets work.”

A critical issue facing nonprofits today is accountability, Cohen says.

“Because of the accountability scandals and the weak response of the sector, I think the sector faces a real question of trust and confidence,” he says. “The questions that come out of that lack of accountability can be used by the public and legislators to question the work of nonprofits in general.”

Cohen says he is particularly proud of the solid research the committee provides on foundation and nonprofits.

“While people may not agree with all of our conclusions, no one has challenged the professionalism and quality of our work,” he says.  “People turn to us and rely on us.”

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