President's Message from Pew Prospectus 2009

By Rebecca W. Rimel
President and Chief Executive Officer

Message from the President, Pew Prospectus 2009 (PDF):

In the aftermath of a historic presidential election and inauguration, one cannot help but reflect on the genius of the founding fathers. There is something truly extraordinary in the fact that, nearly 250 years ago, this small collection of individuals somehow managed to birth a nation that would eventually swear in as its leader a person who could not even have voted through most of its history. They left us with much more as well: a constitutional framework that would enable later generations to rise to fundamental challenges to our national dreams and aspirations, improving what is good and innovatively fixing what is broken.

Perhaps the greatest gift to future generations the founders left was their humble embrace of imperfection in pursuit of the greatest possible good that circumstances would allow. They say as much in the first 15 words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, a document J. Howard Pew, one of the founders of The Pew Charitable Trusts, called "the greatest charter of liberty ever penned." Their simple yet audacious hope was to create a "more perfect"—not perfect, but more perfect—union than the world had previously seen.

The founding fathers understood free society to be a dynamic place of untold challenges and inconceivable change, where realities they could scarcely imagine—the good and the ill, the profound and the profane—would force later generations to question and reinvent all but the most fundamental truths.

That is what we face in this period of change, when an economic recession is demanding creative responses and technology is radically transforming not only the patterns of our individual lives but also the globe we inhabit. Our national history teaches us to look hopefully yet realistically toward meeting the demands of an always-uncertain future. We can learn much by considering lessons from the past: How does change happen? When is it productive? What are the predicates for its success?

One hundred years ago, when our society was, as it is today, beginning to fully comprehend the unique moment presented by the dawn of a new century, we saw both the promise and limitations of modernity played out in sharp relief. The turn into the 1900s marked the beginning of what has been called the American Century. The founding fathers’ daring experiment—building out of whole cloth a nation that grew to stretch across an entire continent—was seen as a success.

Though yet to be truly tested in the international arena, the expansion of wealth, population and confidence in America’s power and purpose began to lay the foundation for our presence on an increasingly interconnected global stage. During this era, the ability of people around the world to communicate in real time—a pipe dream for all previous generations—had become an everyday reality.

An explosion of scientific discovery began to pervade daily life. Medical diagnosis and treatment improved, often bringing cures to illnesses that had once been veritable death sentences. Manufacturing became more efficient, and the greater production could satisfy the material needs of an expanding population.

Yet the rapid pace of advancement brought corollary challenges. The Panic of 1907 shook confidence in the financial institutions that had become the bedrock of the economy. Ever larger and more densely populated cities compounded tragedy, whether caused by forces of nature, such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, or the by-product of urbanization that produced slum dwellings and child labor in factories. Pioneering the techniques that would later define the standards of American investigative reporting and photojournalism, Upton Sinclair and Lewis Hines gave voice to the voiceless of the American Century—the poor, immigrants, children—in ways that shocked the conscience and often led to reform. Equally profound, for the first time people began to confront the reality that there are limits to the bounty of our planet’s natural resources.

Through it all, America endured. It endured, as it always does, by returning to a fundamental proposition built into our founding documents: Change can meet challenge when it is grounded in continuity, a principle that has proven durable even in tumultuous times.

For our nation, J. Howard Pew described this principle in his belief that "Government can help by safeguarding the common man’s right to be himself—all of himself. It can protect against monopoly, tyranny, extortion and every infringement of human rights. When it shall have done this much, it will have served its highest purpose."

For The Pew Charitable Trusts, as we seek to both weather and capitalize upon the realities of our shifting economic and policy landscape, we must ask ourselves how we will serve our "highest purpose."

We will do so by adhering to our core values of integrity, openness to ideas and diversity of opinion; remaining steadfast in our dedication to results, accountability and transparency; and continually placing our highest standard and greatest faith in the power of knowledge. In short, we meet the challenges driven by change while we remain grounded in continuity.

Throughout this Prospectus are specific examples of the type of projects we are engaged in to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life. To drive our mission, we look back into history and forward to the future. "America is searching for a better life, not an easier life," observed Joseph Newton Pew Jr., another founder of the Trusts. Those words resonate as clearly now as they would have at the dawn of the American Century or on the floor of the Constitutional Convention at our new nation’s birth.

No patriots ever took up arms against the British or endured the hardships of forging a nation because they thought it would be easy. No early-20th-century aviator saw conquering the skies as an exercise in simplicity. And no clear-thinking leader today would fail to recognize the significant challenges that lie ahead.

At Pew, we are already implementing the types of changes that can best position us to meet these challenges. We have enhanced our in-house capabilities and streamlined many organizational functions. We are reaching out to new partners and forging new collaborations to maximize resources. We are planning thoughtfully, given the difficult financial circumstances, and focusing our priorities in the areas where we can have the greatest impact. We are improving efficiencies, learning from our successes, addressing our shortcomings and remaining nimble, prepared to meet and embrace uncertainty.

In sum, through the demands and difficulties of change, we have strengthened our resolve to stay true to our guiding principles and unleash the power of knowledge to address the world’s most pressing issues. As we did yesterday and will do tomorrow, we remain sound stewards of Pew’s resources and commit them to best serving the public interest.

Read more about Pew’s accomplishments of 2008 in Milestones from Pew Prospectus 2009.  

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