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The Pew Charitable Trusts: Serving the public trust

From private foundation to public charity, The Pew Charitable Trusts has worked to improve the world. But how can the organisation deal with complex global issues in an era of hostile populism and nationalism?

In November 2006, the US city of Philadelphia was suddenly thrown into a cultural crisis. Thomas Jefferson University, a Philadelphia medical school, announced it had agreed to sell The Gross Clinic—Thomas Eakin’s treasured artwork of 1875 depicting world-famous Philadelphian surgeon Samuel Gross operating on a man in front of an audience of students and colleagues.

It seemed after spending its entire life at the university, the celebrated masterpiece would be taken out of the city in a joint purchase arrangement between the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and Walmart heiress Alice Walton for her upcoming Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas for $68 million.

Thomas Eakins, American - Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic)The reaction was swift. Alumni, faculty and students expressed their outrage and the banner headlines from local media whipped up anger in the city. As the furore swirled, the university wavered and offered Philadelphian institutions 45 days to match the offer. But how could the city match the $68 million offer to keep the painting? Up stepped The Pew Charitable Trusts—the $5 billion Philadelphia-based institution that had, only a few years before, transitioned itself from being one of the US’ largest private family foundations into a power house public charity.

Pew had a long history of giving in the city, advancing hometown causes like the arts and public welfare and encouraging public support for its wider charitable projects. Here, it set out to do what they did best. After releasing a fact sheet outlining the issue, Pew rallied support from local patrons and policymakers to bolster the city’s cause. These efforts soon saw $68 million worth of donations from all over the city, including from Pew, and it was agreed that custody of the artwork would be given jointly to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Philadelphia ended up retaining its masterpiece, and the city revelled in a win for the Pew-led home team.

Philadelphia Skyline and Schuylkill river

Family acorns

It’s these kinds of success stories that litter the history of Pew’s charitable works since its transformation from a foundation into a charity. But while the Eakin’s rescue shone considerable media attention onto Pew as a charity, it could not have been more different from its first iteration.

“Pew started out as seven individual trusts established between 1948 and 1979 by the four children of Joseph Newton Pew, the founder of US oil and gas company Sun Oil, and his wife Mary Anderson Pew, in honour of their parents’ wishes,” Sally O’Brien, senior vice president of philanthropic partnerships at Pew, tells CampdenFB at Pew’s London office.

Sticking to their parents’ religious conviction that good works should be done discreetly, all gifts directed by the siblings—J Howard Pew, Mary Ethel Pew, Joseph N Pew, Jr, and Mabel Pew Myrin—were made anonymously to causes ranging from cancer research, to the Red Cross, to projects assisting black colleges.

“All the grant-making Pew did was underpinned by the values of the Pew family, and one of the driving factors behind it is that the founders really were not looking for glory—they were looking to serve the public good,” says O’Brien.

But in 1957, after realising they wanted to have more of an impact on causes the siblings supported, they changed tack.

“After a while it became clear that making these gifts anonymously wasn’t having the effect the organisation sought and Pew realised its impact could be amplified by the example of its philanthropy, so it started becoming more public and making grants visible,” says O’Brien.

The first visible grants came via the Pew Scholars Program in Biomedical Sciences, which funds scientists working at the cutting edge of research to allow them to freely pursue new ideas without obligation towards the donor.

Chile’s Patagonia region is one of the world’s last largely intact natural areas. Pew is collaborating with the government, non-governmental organisations, and other local stakeholders to enhance protection of the area

Gradually more and more gifts emerged with the Pew name attached, and the organisation began to shift its interest to US public policy.

“We were a foundation and there are rules in the US about what a foundation can and can’t be,” says O’Brien.

“We increasingly began to realise that our grant-making was engaged in trying to make change, often in the policy arena and the board—half of which still comprises members of the Pew family—decided to change our status from private foundation to public charity.”

The move was almost unheard of in the realms of philanthropy, but Pew had ambitions to more actively work on healthcare, pre-school education, and environmental policy—issues it had long been interested in, but where it was constrained by its status as a private foundation.

In 2002, Pew became a $3.9 billion organisation capable of soliciting money from the public, just like a university or hospital, and create pooled donor funds. Money from Pew as a public charity could also amount to more than 2% of a non-profit organisation’s revenue—a limit Pew as a family foundation could not exceed.

“That change enabled us to have greater impact because we were able to bring our work essentially in-house and grow from an organisation of about 100 people to one of about 1,000 people today,” O’Brien says.

But even after transitioning into a public charity, the organisation has not abandoned its family roots. Members of the Pew family, mainly fourth generation, still make up more than half of the board of directors and collectively make decisions—James S Pew, J Howard Pew II, Joseph N Pew V, Mary Catharine Pew, R Anderson Pew, Sandy Ford Pew and Doris Pew Scott sit on the 13-strong board.

Deep impact

Although now a public charity, Pew identifies as a hybrid and still does the traditional grant-making—especially in its home town of Philadelphia—much as it has done for decades. The big difference is the scale of its projects and operations. Such is its heft, instead of focusing on a singular issue, it has the resources to step back and take on the wider and more complex picture.

“Take our environmental portfolio—we don’t state that we want to save specific species—we have an overarching strategy based on the protection of biodiversity instead,” O'Brien explains.

“Now, that is very big and broad, but within it we create all these smaller lines of work with particular geographies or species that ultimately feed up into the larger strategy of protection of biodiversity both on land and at sea.

Trans-shipment, the transfer of fish between a fishing vessel and a carrier vessel at sea or in port, is an important part of the global commercial fishing industry. Pew is working to establish clear and consistent global rules for transshipment as part of its efforts to restore the health of marine ecosystems

“Our marine portfolio alone is a 10-year strategy, but within that we have three-year projects and two-year projects, and it’s the same for other portfolios.”

A quick glance at Pew’s official website and it is clear Pew’s environmental portfolio is by far its widest ranging. From protecting Chilean Patagonia to global tuna conservation to restoring America's parks, Pew has its sights on fixing the world. So how do they choose which issues to tackle?

“There isn’t a magic formula—it’s a sort of iterative process,” O’Brien says.

“We’ve been really focused on building capacity in the marine space for the past 30 years, so there is a natural process where if you start off in one area, you develop expertise and it leads to the next and the next after that.”

Other times, the issue finds its way to Pew. For its restoring America’s parks project, which focuses on fixing the $11.9 billion deferred maintenance backlog facing the National Park Service, it was a previous donor who approached Pew to address the problem and ended up co-funding the project, says O'Brien.

“I don’t think we would have done a project on the parks if it hadn’t come to us in that way. Sometimes what we work on grows organically within the organisation, it sometimes comes from the boardroom and sometimes it comes from outside from people that want to work with us,” she says.

Pew’s projects don’t stop at the environment either. At any one time it has about 50 projects underway that can range from advocating to give children access to dental care, to increasing the safety of food and drugs, to managing student debt and everything in-between.

But with such open-ended aims, how can the initiative’s success be measured?

With great difficulty, O’Brien says, especially when it involves changing public policy.

“We get right down to the tactical and pretty mechanical forms of measurement—things like if we produced issue briefs, fact sheets and information and data to decision makers and then we look to see how often it gets cited,” says O’Brien.

“We also have an internal score card for every project, a traffic light system essentially, where each year in our work plans we have targets that need to be met and at the end of the year, we score what has been reached, what is ongoing and ones we couldn’t do.”

Facts and the future

In 1946, when asked to offer advice to the newly elected president Harry Truman, J N Pew, one of the founding siblings of Pew, rather pithily told him to ‘tell the truth and trust the people’—a principle which remains at the heart of Pew today.

Today, Pew describes itself as a non-partisan global research and public policy organisation leveraging its own assets—$6.76 billion as of June 2018—and those of donors to improve public policy, invigorate civic life and inform the public.

Sally O’Brien is senior vice president for institutional partnerships at The Pew Charitable Trusts

The organisation’s interest in federal policy dates to 1984, when it collaborated to address homelessness in America with the United States Conference of Mayors and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A research portfolio eventually emerged, examining US state policy, including reports on education, state prisons and election administration.

Since then, its research arm has expanded, culminating in the creation of the Pew Research Center in 2004 as a subsidiary and neutral source of data and analysis, which shares information.

“We are slightly obsessive about ensuring our nonpartisan research stance is understood,” says O’Brien.

But Pew’s values have been facing a threat. From populist politicians appealing to prejudice rather than facts, to disinformation campaigns by those determined to undermine democratic process, to technology platforms that spread fake news at the click of a mouse, public confidence in institutions telling the truth, like Pew, are at historic lows.

Realising the lack of trust people have in the institutions that exist to inform them, Pew’s latest step has been to tackle the issue head-on, says O’Brien.

“It’s just such a noisy environment out there and we’re an organisation that is based on trust so we approached [weekly magazine] The Economist, which has always cleaved closely to facts and data, and asked if they would like to have a partnership that is united around a recognition of the importance of facts and data in informing policymakers,” she says.

Their newly formed partnership has led to The Evidence Initiative, which, through events, multimedia materials and articles aims to explore the problem of misinformation and what can be done.

There is no quick fix, O’Brien says, but any solution must begin with a proper understanding of the forces at play.

“Both organisations have all this good data and analysis at our disposal, and we hope The Evidence Initiative will help to elevate that for the public good” she says.

With a taste for taking on the most complex and long-running problems, it’s hard to see what Pew has its eye on next.

With seemingly endless issues facing society and world governments too busy fighting fires on their own doorsteps, might it be up to the Pews of the world to lead the charge and make a difference?

“There is a lot of desire to solve the issues facing the world and at the end of the day, philanthropists can do what nobody else can because these big issues take significant resources, patience, time, determination and willingness to take risks,” says O’Brien.

“And that’s the area where we believe we thrive—doing the groundwork that allows projects to take life and build into change.

“For us, our future really just echoes our past—to do everything we can to make meaningful change for public good.”

What is the Pew Research Center?

The Pew Research Center is a non-profit organisation and a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts—its primary funder.

Pew Charitable Trust founders: J Howard Pew, Mary Ethel Pew, Joseph Newton Pew Jr and Mabel Pew Myrin

It originates from a research project created in 1990 by the Times Mirror newspaper called the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, which conducted regular polls on politics and major policy issues.

In 1996, The Pew Charitable Trusts became the Center’s sponsor and it was renamed The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

In the ensuing years, The Pew Charitable Trusts launched other initiatives modelled on the neutral, independent facts-only approach of The Pew Research Center, including the Project for Excellence in Journalism (1997), Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (from 2001), Pew Hispanic Centre (from 2001) and Pew global Attitudes Project (from 2001).

In 2004, The Pew Charitable Trusts established The Pew Research Center in Washington as a subsidiary to house its initiatives.

Today, The Pew Research Center generates a foundation of facts that can enhance public dialogue and helps key stakeholders in society—policymakers, media and the public–understand and solve the world’s most challenging problems.

As a neutral source of data and analysis, The Pew Research Center does not take policy positions.

Its activities are largely funded through grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Pew, a history

The Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent non-profit, is the sole beneficiary of several individual charitable funds established between 1948 and 1979 by two sons and two daughters of Sun Oil company founder Joseph Newton Pew and his wife, Mary Anderson Pew.

Joseph Newton Pew, Sr, the founder of Sun OilHonouring their parents’ religious convictions, The Pew Memorial Foundation was a grant making organisation that made donations anonymously. Early priorities included cancer research, the Red Cross and a pioneering project to assist historically black colleges.

The foundation became the Pew Memorial Trust in 1956, based in Philadelphia, the family’s hometown.

Between 1957 and 1979, six other trusts were created, representing the personal philanthropic interests of the four siblings—J Howard Pew, Mary Ethel Pew, Joseph Newton Pew Jr and Mabel Pew Myrin.

Pew’s interest in federal policy began in 1986, with the establishment of a programme on US economics and national security and in 1994 Pew began working on a research portfolio examining state policy, including landmark reports on education, state prisons, and election administration.

Through its non-partisan reporting and research and advocacy, Pew help cities and states invest in programmes that provide the strongest returns.

In 2002, The Pew Charitable Trusts became a public charity, giving it more flexibility to engage in a wider array of initiatives and operate larger programmes.

Expanding its works internationally, it created projects to strengthen environmental and energy policies, protect oceans and wild lands, improve health through investments in child nutrition, increase safety of foods and drugs and provide consumers with better information about financial products.

Historic Sun Oil offices at Marcus Hook, PennsylvaniaAfter opening a small office in Washington DC in 2003, Pew moved to a larger space in 2008 to allow for more collaboration with other non-profit organisations and facilitate educational programmes for policymakers and the public.

Today, The Pew Charitable Trusts is a global non-governmental organisation with three broad goals:

1. Improve public policy by conducting rigorous analysis, linking diverse interests to pursue common cause and insisting on tangible results

2. Inform the public by providing useful data that illuminate the issues and trends shaping the world

3. Invigorate civic life by encouraging demographic participation and strong communities


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