Sector Crusader Rick Cohen Dies Suddenly

November 18, 2015       Mark Hrywna      

Rick Cohen was at times the conscience of the nonprofit sector, one of its most honest skeptics and yet always a champion for the underdog. Cohen, editor of The Cohen Report, national correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly and former executive director of the National Committee For Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) , died Nov. 17 at age 64 in his Virginia home. The cause of death is pending.

“His loss will be inestimable to many of you, as it is to us. Rick will be remembered for his integrity, his powerful and nimble intellect, his unyielding courage in pursuit of truth, his commitment to social justice, and his humor,” the editors of Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ) wrote in announcing his death. “Of all the things and people that he loved, the most important was his cherished daughter Ellie, and to her we say, thank you for sharing him with us. The world is immeasurably poorer for our loss of him.” Others called Ellie the “shining star in his life,” always talking about his daughter.

Within 24 hours, the announcement eclipsed 100 comments, anecdotes and condolences from mourners. NPQ will announce details on a memorial.

Paul Clolery, vice president and editorial director for NPT Publishing Group, publishers of The NonProfit Times, knew Cohen for more than 30 years, first meeting him as a reporter for a daily newspaper. Cohen at the time was director of the Jersey City Department of Housing and Economic Development, from 1985 to 1989. “It was the emergence of the Gold Coast and developers would do anything to be green-lighted. All he had to do was leave his car unlocked and he’d be rich beyond his wildest dreams. He wouldn’t do it. He stood up. He had a backbone made of steel,” Clolery said.

In a 1989 Q&A in The New York Times after his tenure in the Jersey City administration, Cohen is credited with playing a key role in negotiating the move by Merrill Lynch & Co., of thousands of jobs to Jersey City from New York as well as starting a nationally-admired program to have developers contribute to the cost of building affordable housing. He also served during that time on the board of directors of the Alliance for Affordable Housing and the United Way of Hudson County.

“We reconnected when he ran the National Committee For Responsive Philanthropy and his ‘Cohen Report.’ He was aggressive and in your face, but from curiosity, not animus. He wrote for us from time to time at The NonProfit Times and it was always a hoot to have an adult beverage with him,” Clolery said. “I will miss my old friend. May his memory be for a blessing. It is said that you’ve not died until your name is spoken for the last time. I plan to call the name of Rick Cohen on a regular basis.”

Cohen was “the ultimate champion, giving voice to the underdogs,” said Tim Delaney, president and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits in Washington, D.C. “Somehow he was able to hold together two powerful life forces. On one hand, he was a realistic cynic, and he knew how uphill so many battles are in the fight for justice. On the other hand, he had boundless hope that one more step on the journey to justice would get us there,” he said.

But he also was “a giant teddy bear,” according to Delaney. “He was a gentle soul with a quick wit and human compassion that was remarkable,” he said.

“Asking ‘what would Rick Cohen say?’ has helped keep us honest at @nff_news. We’ll keep asking,” tweeted Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) in New York City.” To me, that’s an important point. He was a presence at NFF even when he wasn’t there,” said Bugg-Levine, who described Cohen as a “proud skeptic” of things like social impact bonds and impact investing. “Literally, sometimes we’d say to ourselves, ‘What would Rick Cohen say?’ before we started a project or put out a press release,” he said, to avoid falling into a naïve group-think mentality, Bugg-Levine said.

Cohen was “very suspicious of the motives of profit-seeking investors when they sought to answer the work of social justice. That suspicion remains a useful counterweight of what can sometimes be naïve, hopeful thinking,” he said.

Prior to becoming national correspondent to Nonprofit Quarterly and editor of the “Cohen Report,” he was executive director of NCRP, a progressive philanthropic watchdog organization, from 1999 to 2006. During his tenure, he was chosen for The NonProfit Times‘ NPT Power & Influence Top 50 five times, from 2002-2006. He also served on the board of Public Allies.

Aaron Dorfman, Cohen’s successor at NCRP, called Cohen a “fearless truth-teller who challenged foundations to be more open and transparent and to do more to help the most vulnerable in our society.” Cohen stood up for the poor, for rural communities, and for the needs of small grassroots nonprofits. “Our sector lost a brilliant and passionate thinker and writer,” Dorfman said.

Cohen also was vice president for field strategies for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation from 1992 to 1999 and served as vice president at the Enterprise Foundation, now Enterprise Partners, from 1989 to 1991. He graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Boston University in 1972 and earned a master’s degree in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania in 1975.