On the surface, Rebecca Rimel's days at Pew Charitable Trusts appear fair-weathered -- peaceful, really. Despite the number of issues the Trust deals with, ranging from tsunami aid to arts endowment, the Trust's office space hums without clattering.
Don't expect a blow-up in the conference room, a frazzled tete-a-tete at the coffee station or a hallway muddled with huddles of stressed associates.
"If you came to our office, you would find us deceptively calm and quiet," say Rimel, president and CEO of the charitable organization that serves the public interest by providing information, policy solutions and support for civic life.
Seated in its calm core is Rimel -- collected, polished and prepared for conversation on a variety of civic subject matters. Even when disaster strikes.
"I often say my job here is like working in an emergency room," says Rimel, who was head nurse in an ER before joining Pew Trusts in 1983 to head up its health and human services department.
Her experience trained her to decide wisely, quickly and assertively. And as CEO of an organization that touches the lives of Philadelphians each day, Rimel doesn't welcome unpredictable storms, especially when the public's interests are on the table. Research, trust and thoughtful planning drive the organization's endowment efforts and policy efforts.
"We are a national foundation with a local commitment," Rimel says, underscoring the organization's long-time commitment to Greater Philadelphia -- a $1.5 billion dedication in its 53 years. The Trusts -- the sole beneficiary of seven individual charitable funds established between 1948 and 1979 by the children of Sun Oil Co. founder Joseph N. Pew and his wife, Mary Anderson Pew -- endows $170 million each year, and one-third of that money lands in the region's civic pursuits. In 2003, with approximately $4.1 billion in dedicated assets, the Trusts committed more than $143 million to 151 nonprofit organizations.
"We care a lot about our home town," she says. "And we have been involved in a range of projects concerning arts and culture, education, health and human service, renovation projects -- the list is extensive."
Rimel draws parallels between Pew Trusts' service-minded mission and not-for-profit structure and that of the common corporate culture. The landscape looks the same in many senses, especially concerning the operations and best practices necessary to power any organization, public or private, she says.
"There isn't much difference between running a large, nonprofit and a corporate enterprise," Rimel says. "Pretty much, it's all about understanding a mission, recruiting and retaining the best talent, servicing your shareholders -- and in our case, stakeholders, who are the public -- and striving to be the best you can at what you do. All those attributes are the same whether you are for- or not-for-profit."
Guided by a strong research arm and founded on a commitment to public service, Pew Charitable Trusts functions like a smooth-running headquarters. Its departments, or product offerings, are diverse, including the environment, religion, arts, education, and health and human services.
It is accountable to the public and to its board. Rimel relies on best practices to keep her house in order. And, the organization must evolve with the times and stay relevant while sticking to its core mission.
"Scale is different," Rimel says. "By corporate standards, we would be small. But by the diversity of our product lines, so to speak, we would be large."
Rimel runs the Trusts like any other successful business would be run, scripted by a set of systems - one that other nonprofits are beginning to seek. And since 2003, when the Trusts reorganized its governance structure from a private charity to an independent, public charity, it more comprehensively addresses the needs of its donors and dives deeper into the policy solutions basket of the business.
For example, the Trusts provides a suite of services to donors interested in outsourcing back-end philanthropic resources, such as staffing, grants monitoring and other mechanical services, Rimel says.
"One of our donors came to us, and his interest was in the environment," she says. "He had his own foundation, but his staff was not focused on environmental issues. Rather than building the infrastructure, he asked us to do that for his foundation. We have a great outsourcing model, and now that we are a public charity, we can offer that service to our donors."
In this case, the Trusts gathered information on marine science, the donor's interest, and submitted to him a proposal on how the organization could create a service package to assist him in reaching his philanthropic goals.
Rimel says this is not a service the Trusts advertises, noting that only a small number of donors -- 10 to 15 -- fit a profile that desires outsourced infrastructural tools.
The Trusts meets needs with a department of donor services that coordinates talent within the organization and facilitates the services.
"We've experienced an evolution in terms of what we can do," Rimel says.
Rimel has steered the organization through many structural metamorphoses. Twelve co-workers assisted on projects when she started at the Trusts; today, the Philadelphia office is 140 employees strong, and the Washington, D.C., office houses 15 associates. A board comprised of Pew family members and civic leaders holds the organization accountable for carrying out its mission, and has changed with the times and adapted its strategies to stay relevant.
"Often, organizations can get a bit frozen in time if things are going fine," she says. "My board would not allow that. Hence, when the opportunity to change our governance structure was presented, they understood the benefit that would have for the foundation, and with good advice from a range of people, they were eager to make that change."
The Trusts' founders preferred anonymity in its early years, ducking from recognition before the organization grew beyond the point of hiding its gift tags. Rimel worked through this evolution, too. Today, the Trusts retains its calm air, but its visibility has increased exponentially
"Before, it was a much smaller institution, and though we split our efforts between local and national work, I don't think people in the Philadelphia community knew of our national work, and vice versa," Rimel says. "Today, we are more visible and transparent, in that we interact with the media and grantees. That's a lot of change in a short time."
And a lot of fast moving on issues of importance to Philadelphia, such as the renovation of the Independence Mall, a recent project the Trusts helped to fund. The organization dedicated $17.2 million to the effort, after careful assessment of its relevance and importance to "shareholders," based on a study commissioned to survey what it could do to help drive Philadelphia's economy.
The study showed tourism was a weak point; Rimel and The Trusts reacted.
"We launched the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., now independent of us," Rimel says. "But we knew we needed to take a crown jewel in the city and, in essence, give it more of a welcoming face. That was Independence Mall."
Such research guides all decisions and efforts Rimel spearheads. The research center, based in the Washington, D.C., office, conducts polls and studies to gather information on topics such as the role of the Internet, the emerging role of Hispanics in America, religion and public life, and the value of pre-kindergarten education.
"Research drives everything we do here," Rimel says. "In every project in which we are engaged, we start by understanding the facts that are known and learning where there are gaps. Then, we work with partners in the field to bring those facts to [the surface.]"
Information, calculation, decision, execution -- the process distills su
rprises and assumptions from the work culture.
"Our challenge is to take an organization that is constantly changing and move it forward, maintaining momentum without destabilizing it or causing unintended consequences," Rimel says. "You never want to say that you could've known more if you took the time to be better-informed. That requires a balance of due diligence and impatience."
Steering good works
Rimel has a few other steadfast rules she sticks by in managing the Trusts. First, no surprises -- no matter what.
"A CEO who keeps the board well-informed avoids the board feeling unaware," she says. "I expect the same from my staff."
Second, trust and respect are reciprocal.
"A board can't know what goes on all day, every day, and that is true in a nonprofit or corporation," she says. "They expect that management will make sure the organization is not going in harm's way and that we deal with problems effectively and thoughtfully."
For Rimel, that means people first, a philosophy that has always defined her ethics and leadership style.
"I am here first to serve the board and the institution," she says. "That is my No. 1 objective."
These rules aren't simple, and their contents can't be contained in a simple list. Rather, emotional innuendoes and personal rites often fill the nonprofit picture, especially because its efforts touch underprivileged children, disadvantaged adults and the weak elderly. In these situations, Rimel turns to her staff -- and her mentors, including Dr. Tom Langfitt, who serves on the board.
Rimel recalls a time in her nursing career when she submitted an article on head injury to a medical journal. To her delight, the editor responded with interest, but asked her to attribute her work to a physician.
"This was quite a hoopla," she says. "The question was, what to do? Would I allow it to be submitted by one of the physicians with whom I worked?"
She asked Langfitt, who offered her the sage advice she considers her Golden Rule.
"Stay true to your convictions," he told her. "Get your facts, stay open-minded, think about your decision and make sure that once you move forward, you will be comfortable with your decision, regardless of the outcome."
Rimel decided the article was a no-go; other opportunities would crop up during her career -- ones she could be honest about and proud of. She declined the publishing proposal.
"I remember Dr. Langfitt told me that I would be judged by the decision that I made, and I would have to be comfortable with that," she says.
Rimel was not at all comfortable -- until the publication reissued its offer.
"In the end, they decided to publish the article with my authorship," she says. "That lesson served me throughout my life."
Today, Rimel refers to this scenario when helping to outline policy solutions, monitor grant monies, endow monies or oversee a Trust-sponsored initiative. She strikes that balance between due diligence and impatience. And at the end of the day, she just feels lucky.
"There is no question at the end of the day whether you've made a tangible impact," she says.
For the love of art
Rimel loves Philadelphia's cultural mosaic -- its dense, historic fabric and artistic energy.
"We are blessed with richness here," she says.
However, this treasure comes tarnished with problems associated with securing funds to maintain the operations of museums and other cultural institutions.
"Over the years, we have lost some of our corporate headquarters, so there aren't as many corporations here that can support the arts," Rimel says. "The corporations we have here are generous, but we don't have an embarrassment of new donors for the organization."
The Trusts works to reverse this. Endowments to ease operational burdens allow Philadelphia's vital arts community to grow and flourish despite corporate acquisitions and relocations that often skim money from the donation pot.
"It's difficult to find sustained support," Rimel says. "Arts can't make it on an earned income; that is not the nature of cultural organizations."
Philadelphia is beating this economic bug. A new facility for The Barnes Foundation will relocate the renowned collection of paintings to a more publicly accessible area, and the $50 million endowment required to start the project will put the museum on more secure financial footing, Rimel says.
These are the things that make her bounce out of bed in the morning, she says. These are the gifts she loves.
"I love the fact that the job is intellectually challenging and diverse and, in some ways, unpredictable," she says.
Rimel loves the storm.
"I love the fact that our work is considered relevant and impactful," she says. "I love the fact that we have best practices here and we are defining and improving them every day. And I couldn't be more pleased that all of that is driven by a strong commitment to serve the public interest and good."
How to reach: Pew Charitable Trusts, www.pewtrusts.com