CEO Rebecca W. Rimel: Our Values are Our Guiding Principles

  • March 05, 2018

Rebecca W. Rimel joined Pew in 1983 as health program manager, became executive director five years later, and in 1994 was named president and CEO. During her tenure, Pew has evolved from a grant-making organization to become an innovative public charity with a global reach. She spoke with Trust about that transformation.

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(Amy Murrell/The Pew Charitable Trusts)

Over the last seven decades, Pew has changed as an organization—and even today continues to view reinvention as necessary to remaining effective. Why is that so?

The organization reinventing itself is very much in the tradition of our founders. They were highly entrepreneurial. And we have always felt that one of our key obligations is to candidly assess our core strengths, and think about how we can best serve the public interest. And if that requires new approaches, that’s the course we’ve taken. So whether it’s reinventing our approach to carrying out our mission as a private foundation, which we did numerous times, or our biggest reinvention, which was the change in our structure to a public charity in the early 2000s, we have always been eager and willing to change to meet the demands and opportunities of the times. 

From the start, Pew has invested and made grants strategically to have impact in improving society. What have been the most transformative grants over the years?

There were many important grants in the early years of the Trusts, especially in our hometown of Philadelphia, that included helping launch the Fox Chase Cancer Center and the Scheie Eye Institute, as well as early support for Lankenau Hospital and the nation’s historically black colleges.

More recently in Philadelphia I would call out our efforts to remake Independence Mall and a whole series of projects over more than two decades that have enlivened America’s most historic square mile. There’s a new home for the Liberty Bell, a new visitor center, the National Constitution Center, and the Benjamin Franklin Museum. Those have all helped turn an important part of Philadelphia—that had not been a particularly welcoming or informative place—into a public space where millions of visitors now come to learn about the founding of the country. And I’d add to my list the effort with many local partners to save the Barnes Foundation and help move this priceless art collection to a new, more accessible home on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

More national—and increasingly international—in scope was the funding in 1995 of the Pew Center for the People and the Press. Over the years we went on to take a number of projects on religion, the internet, immigration, the media, and other topics, and brought them together under one umbrella that in 2004 became the Pew Research Center, strengthening its mission to provide nonpartisan, rigorous surveys and analysis of the important issues of the day.

From those early days as a grant-making institution rooted in its hometown of Philadelphia, Pew is now an international nonprofit with a broad focus. This really changed how Pew works on a daily basis. Describe that change.

As a private foundation, you make grants, and other organizations usually operate the programs. As a public charity, for most of our investments, we work to achieve the intended goals directly with our own staff. 

Our change in structure and approach may have seemed revolutionary from the outside looking in, but it really was, like most things, evolutionary. Prior to becoming a public charity, we were working innovatively through the success of our partners and grantees. And when we could not find an organization that was focused on the strategic areas where we hoped to advance solutions, we would often create a new organization, such as the Trust for America’s Health, Oceana, and the National Environmental Trust. We eventually applied to become a public charity, and that has afforded us a lot more latitude, a lot more flexibility, in how we are able to approach our mission, partner with others, and launch new lines of work.

Throughout this evolution, there have been constants as well—the values that guide how the organization conducts itself. Tell us about those.

Over these seven decades, our values have been the consistent guiding principles of the organization. And they can be attributed to the founders and the way they lived their lives. They were very private people, deeply humble. They believed in wise stewardship and service to others. They believed very much in the biblical teaching that to those whom much is given, much is expected. They felt strongly about inclusiveness, about transparency, honesty, and integrity. And, to paraphrase one of our Founding Fathers, to follow truth, wherever it may take you. They lived their lives that way. They built their business that way. And so it is no surprise that they would have the expectation that the philanthropy that carried their name would conduct itself accordingly. 

That’s also because members of this family have continued to be deeply involved here.

Yes. Half of our board is made up of members of the Pew family, and many of them are long-tenured. We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of R. Anderson Pew on this board, and the 40th anniversary of J. Howard Pew II. Many of the rest of the members have provided long and valued service as well. So we have a lot of continuity and institutional memory. That constancy of leadership has been important in carrying on the values of the organization. But it also speaks to the fact that the board has been willing to embrace change and reinvention in its governance and its approach to stewarding this organization. And I think that’s really been quite remarkable and a great gift to those of us who have been fortunate enough to serve with the board members. 

There are foundations, think tanks, and nonprofit organizations with distinct topics of interest. Pew does not fit any of those molds. How would you describe Pew’s role in the world today? 

Most organizations, whether foundations or nonprofits, are created to address a limited number of issues or work in a specific city or country. Our founders were geographically and issue agnostic and gave us enormous latitude in how we would deploy our resources over time to best serve the public good. Over the years we have developed an investment philosophy to guide our strategy and the decisions on the topics we select to address. We pick issues where the facts and data are clear. We look for orphaned issues; if other talented people are addressing a problem, then we can turn our attention to other concerns that are ripe for attention. We focus on topics where we believe that we can take meaningful steps in advancing a solution toward success in five years and can quantify the impact of our investments. That means we are very much metrics-driven, learning from our disappointments as well as our wins. And we focus on areas where we have core competencies that we have built over the years. We like to think we are good at some things, but there are many topics, approaches, and skills that do not play to our strengths. We work to be candid and clear in our assessments so as to get the highest, best use out of the deployment of our time, talent, resources, and partnerships, which are critically important to all of our efforts. 

Look ahead a decade for us and describe how you see Pew working in the world.

It’s hard to answer that question, so I’ll tell you a story. Many years ago, we were sitting in the boardroom and debating an issue. Some people were looking at the portraits of our founders on the wall and saying, “What do you think Uncle Howard or Aunt Mabel would have thought about this?” And with us was Joseph Pew III, the son of one of the founders, who was on the board from our founding until he passed away a few years ago. He was a very quiet man but very forceful when he spoke, and I remember as if it was yesterday when he said: “First of all, 70 percent of the issues we’re dealing with today as a society didn’t exist when they were alive. They gave us the stewardship responsibility; hopefully they thought we would be wise. Now, it’s our job to make these kinds of judgments and to ensure that we are relevant today and will be in the future on the key issues and opportunities facing the public.” 

I can’t predict what in 10 years those issues and opportunities will be. But with our values as our compass, we should make our best effort to follow the facts while being pragmatic about where we can add the greatest value in serving and advancing the public interest. To put it another way, we should honor our past and take pride in our future while we, as one of our founders wisely said, “tell the truth and trust the people.”