Opinion

Leonore Annenberg: A Legacy of Charity

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It would be impossible to match the broad and deep passion already expressed over the passing Thursday of our friend Leonore "Lee" Annenberg. What can one add to the words of former presidents and first ladies? What else is there to say about a woman whom Colin Powell famously referred to as "Mom"?

Without question, Lee's loss is a devastating one. Her intellectual curiosity was unbounded. Her commitment to public service, in all its many forms, was unparalleled. Her willingness to pick up the phone and make things happen knew no limits. And her legendary grace and charm were both genuine and infinite, yet never got in the way of her fierce determination.

To those who knew Lee and those who were touched by her—qualification that would leave out very few people living in America today, thanks to her expansive investments in everything from strengthening our democracy to arts and culture to education to public health—Lee was an endless font of inspiration.

Here in Philadelphia, the manifestation of her unique combination of strengths is probably most recently known in the successful struggle to keep Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic in our city, and her work to bring the Barnes Foundation's gallery to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Yet the impact of her time on this earth, and on the era in which she spent it, goes far, far, far beyond these remarkable accomplishments alone.

Ninety-one years ago, Lee came into the world at the dawn of one period of intense turmoil for our country and has left us at what could very well be a watershed moment for another. To say that things have come full circle, however, would be a tragic misunderstanding of the profound impact that Lee, her husband, Walter, and their generation of social entrepreneurs have had in building the civic infrastructure that many of us believe will be the key to our rebound.

Both through her personal initiative, and through her role as head of the Annenberg Foundation, Lee helped to usher in an age of professionalism and strategic thinking - and effective execution - in philanthropies and the nonprofit organizations they support.

It is not so long ago that the phrase public charity conjured up images of community chests and volunteers working out of church basements. A "career in nonprofits" was once all but an oxymoron for most people.

Thanks to the tireless commitment to quality, accountability and transparency of people like Lee Annenberg, however, this is no longer even remotely the case. Today, more than one in every 10 American workers draws a paycheck, pays the mortgage, and feeds the family through employment at a nonprofit organization.

And where once stubborn passion was virtually the only way to open a door into the field, many universities are creating sophisticated curricula to pave a deliberate career path toward nonprofits. With this academic support, many of the best and brightest minds the country has to offer are now choosing the profession.

This trend represents a sea change for our nation. A stronger nonprofit sector means a stronger America. When disaster strikes, people are fed, sheltered, and moved from harm's way thanks to local, national, and international nonprofits. Our air, land, and waterways are cleaner. Children at risk are provided the services they need to thrive. Museums, symphonies, and theater houses offer us cultural nourishment.

And at an even more fundamental level, our country's diverse nonprofit sector plays a critical role in our representative democracy. Through service, education, and advocacy, nonprofits give a voice to Americans of every economic and political stripe in shaping and implementing the public policies that mold our nation and directly impact the quality of our lives.

Lee Annenberg lived to see many of her passions transformed into reality. For the gifts she gave so freely - her money, her time, her relationships - we all owe a profound debt.

Although she'd never have asked it of us, with an economic downturn placing more demands on nonprofits just as resources become scarcer, it's not hard for me to imagine how she might want that debt repaid. We all have something we can share with others. Perhaps today, for Lee, we can all share just a little more.

Rebecca W. Rimel is president and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts.