President's Message from Pew Prospectus 2010

By Rebecca W. Rimel
President and Chief Executive Officer

Message from the President, Pew Prospectus 2010 (PDF):

Back in 1946, Look magazine—known more for its stories and photographs of the glamorous set and for a circulation second only to Life’s—wondered just what the nation needed in that turbulent postwar period. Seeking some wisdom and clarity, it invited a number of the era’s accomplished people to discuss (in a top editor’s words) “what we would expect of good government.”

Joseph N. Pew Jr., an executive at the Sun Oil Company (he would become board chairman in 1947) and a prominent voice on social and political issues, was one of those invited to state—in 150 words or less—the “first two things you would do as president.”

In a telegram, he wrote back, “Tell the truth and trust the people.”

The editors, disappointed with the brevity of his comment, asked him to expand on it.

Mr. Pew held his ground. Responding by telegram, he wrote, “Would like my statement to stand as believe full light of day on every subject is only conceivable procedure possible.”

Two years later, when Mr. Pew and his siblings founded The Pew Charitable Trusts, they brought to their new institution the qualities of entrepreneurship, generosity and fact-based philanthropy that had always been a part of their careers and personal lives. They also endowed the Trusts with an approach that would serve no matter how the specifics or the nature of the challenges facing society might change over time. Their commitment was steadfast, their charge unambiguous: “Tell the truth and trust the people.”

Bedrock principles never change. In 2010, our initiatives continue to shine the “full light of day” on urgent issues of our era, applying the power of knowledge to drive our work.

For example, we work toward ensuring the safety and transparency of consumer financial products. One initiative, the Pew Safe Credit Cards Project, working in partnership with a broad array of policy makers, economists, consumer advocates and others, produced several reports that identified the industry’s predatory practices, such as punitive interest-rate charges and arbitrary changes in the agreement contract with consumers. The project then proposed fact-based solutions in the form of a set of standards, many of which were incorporated in the landmark Credit CARD Act of 2009.

And when credit card companies accelerated consumer-unfriendly rules in advance of the phase-in of the policy changes, the project worked to shine a public spotlight on the loopholes and called for faster implementation— a reminder that for “truth-telling” to have the broadest impact, it must be coupled with diligence and perseverance.

We also advocate for full participation in voting, the essential act of a citizen in a democracy. Last year, the Pew Center on the States issued the first-ever detailed analysis of states’ voting systems for members of the military serving abroad; fully half of the states fell short of assuring a timely counting of votes from overseas.

This and other findings informed the debate on the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, which became law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. At long last—it has been almost 60 years since President Harry Truman implored Congress to guarantee voting rights to members of the military stationed overseas—our service men and women and citizens abroad will have adequate time to vote in U.S. elections and return their ballots in time to be counted.

Ocean protection is also long overdue. Threats to the sustainability of our planet’s deep seas have been recognized for more than a century and have only intensified in recent decades with improvements in technology and fishing equipment. Our truth-telling about the state of the oceans and the consequences of overexploitation is grounded in science-based recommendations from the now-completed Pew Oceans Commission and other initiatives.

Those efforts have informed policy change from Europe to Australia—as well as in the United States. Last year, the outgoing Bush administration established a marine national monument at the Mariana Islands and other Pacific locales, and the Obama administration has continued the momentum by appointing a task force to make recommendations for good oceans stewardship, which will be reported to the nation in 2010.

These are but a few recent examples of how we are following the charge of Mr. Pew’s marvelously succinct expression of leadership and how we are achieving results in the public interest.

But our policy initiatives tell only part of our story. The Pew Research Center is the heart of our information efforts. Taking no positions whatever on issues, the center conducts public opinion polls and surveys to produce and disseminate fact-based information on the concerns, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. 2010 marks its 15th year as part of Pew, and the center and its projects have consistently won acclaim for the accuracy of their polls and their dedication to transparency, rigor and independence. This year the center is conducting a year-long study of the millennial generation, the current cohort of young adults who, as they come of age, will be determining our nation’s direction in the coming decades.

As with the array of issues in which Pew is currently engaged, the Philadelphia of today would likely look different, yet still strikingly familiar, to Mr. Pew in comparison to the city he knew in the middle of the 20th century. Among the many constants—Carpenter’s Hall, Boathouse Row, a passion for sports, a respect for tradition— he would find the Pew name associated with a commitment to furthering Philadelphia’s heritage as a great American metropolis.

One example of our continued focus on our hometown lies in the Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative, which applies meticulous research methodologies to examine pressing local issues, often in comparison to other municipalities across the nation. The findings have informed discussion on long- and short-term problems facing our community and its residents; and the multi-city assessments have proven educational both in Philadelphia and elsewhere, even in places not mentioned in the report, because city-based comparison data are not commonly available.

He would also appreciate that, as Pew has grown in size, scope and influence, its geographic footprint has grown as well. We recently completed the renovation of our new office building in Washington, D.C. In light of our long-standing commitment to environmental responsibility and the goals of a green economy, we worked with the U.S. Green Building Council to gain Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, which signifies that the structure meets the highest standards of natural-resource stewardship.

Within the building, we have established a Conference Center, which provides nonprofit organizations a place to gather—a physical extension of our mission to generate knowledge and apply its power to critical issues of the day. As Pew and other groups use the center to host an ever-broader range of events and activities, it becomes a nexus for the sharing of diverse viewpoints, cross-issue collaboration and inspired, nonpartisan problem-solving.

We have another front door, of course—the virtual one of our Web site, www.PewTrusts.org. It was just 50 years ago that some of the computer’s library-like potential—information storage and retrieval, for example—was first described. From those humble aspirations, computers have come to play a role in almost every aspect of our lives, and the Internet has grown to represent much more than an opportunity to warehouse data. In fact, it is a dynamic platform for proactive information-sharing, community-building and individual and collective action.

Our site reflects our mission by serving as an interactive destination where visitors can depend on the fact-based research and analyses that we offer—a contrast to much Web information that consists of conjecture and unverified statements.

That Joseph N. Pew Jr. delivered his response to Look via a concise telegram as opposed to an e-mail is another reminder of the fact that change and tradition are inherently interwoven—a concept that remains integral to our operating philosophy. His son Joseph Newton Pew 3rd—the only surviving member of our original board; a man who knew the founders as father, uncle and aunts—has counseled us: “Seventy or 80 percent of the problems we work on today did not exist when the donors were alive. Our founders entrusted the stewardship responsibilities to us. Our job is to understand the facts, get the best advice we can and make the wisest decisions about the best use of these resources in the current circumstances in which we find ourselves.”

In an age of instantaneous communications—where words can begin affecting our world in the best and worst ways almost in the moment they are articulated— perhaps the greatest wisdom passed down by the founders of The Pew Charitable Trusts lies in what they did not say. No narrow dictums; no litmus tests for addressing one issue or another; no political boxes into which our work must be stuffed. Rather, advice that any leader in any age would be wise to follow. And words that will continue to guide our work—serving both as a connection to our past and as a beacon of constancy and consistency in our future efforts to drive positive change in the public interest.

Read more about Pew’s accomplishments of 2009 in Milestones from Pew Prospectus 2010.  

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