Death of Watchdog, Writer Rick Cohen Leaves Void in Nonprofit Community

11/19/2015

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The nonprofit and philanthropic community lost one of its giants Tuesday. Rick Cohen, the indomitable watchdog, muckraker, and indefatigable journalist, died after he collapsed at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 64 years old.

“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 at Nonprofit Quarterly wrote in announcing his death.

Since 2006, when he began writing for NPQ, Rick ceaselessly chronicled the stories that others might be too uncomfortable (or too close to) to write. Inhabiting a world in which his livelihood largely depended on philanthropy, he never flinched at calling out a foundation when he saw injustice, inefficiency, or ineptitude. And no nonprofit was safe from his critical eye.

“Rick’s work was driven by a lifelong active commitment to social justice and community action,” Ruth McCambridge, NPQ’s editor-in-chief told me. Ruth was the left hook to Rick’s straight away jab, and is responsible for creating the space for Rick's words to live. “He was not a journalist by training but by nature – he was driven to seek out the truth. He had an encyclopedia for a brain, a nose for sniffing out a story, and he could find a damning document faster than you could blink an eye.”

I had the privilege of working at NPQ several years back, watching the hooks and jabs fly, and editing a large portion of Rick's work at the time. Reading his work day in and day out, you sensed his urgency to get these stories out; to ensure they saw the light of day. If he didn’t write these truths, who would?

It was my job to wrangle his inexhaustible output. His daily Newswires tumbled into my inbox like a waterfall; all of them in-depth, all of them thorough. If Rick had nine examples of malfeasance, he would list all nine; three would not do. His analysis was born from experience and electrified by a passion to document and give voice to the unsaid. I just tried to keep up and make sure the commas were in the right places.

“Over time he got very good and very fast,” Ruth recalled. “Sometimes producing articles on complex topics overnight that would have taken others a week. We might get anywhere from two to four original pieces a day. This trait was never a big favorite with our online editors.”

He did keep me on my toes.

A steady stream of tributes to Rick are piling up on the NPQ website, saying so much better than I can what Rick’s life has meant. The memorials reveal an almost sudden realization that his unwavering focus on bringing truth to power is a force that will be conspicuously and terribly missing in the sector.

“Rick got more hate mail than anyone here at NPQ,” Ruth told me, remembering the tendency of Rick's work to sometimes provoke. “And when he died we were besieged with innumerable expressions of grief and loss, sometimes from the same people.”

One man who never sent Rick a piece of hate mail was Bill Schambra. Here Schambra writes with such sincerity and power what many of us are thinking and feeling, but are unable to articulate.

“Rick and I came at issues from different points on the political spectrum, but nothing Rick ever said had the hollow cant of ideology,” wrote Schambra, the director of Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. “His writing was invariably rooted in exhaustively researched fact, reflecting deep insight from years of experience in government, philanthropy and advocacy, glowing with passion for the rights of the marginalized, and undaunted by the looming disapproval of the powers that be … Our loss is immense, but he touched and inspired so many of us, especially in his unstinting devotion to truth in the face of so much self-congratulatory mendacity. May we summon the courage to live up to his example.”

Indeed, may we all find the courage to live up to Rick’s example.

Written by Aaron Lester