Those who have read my writing or heard me speak have invariably come across a reference to Paul Ylvisaker. It is important to me that my work includes stories and quotes of our philanthropic thinkers and mentors, particularly those who have shaped the tradition and practice we carry on today. Philanthropy’s need to respond to current demands and even anticipate them can make it hard to find the time or inclination to seek guidance in the voices of our past. As someone who has profoundly benefited from my teachers and mentors (and has been around long enough to have had many), I like to share their wisdom by introducing these leaders to new generations.

Paul Ylvisaker, who passed away in 1992, is the mentor I cite most often. Lamentably, few in our field today were among the thousands in Paul’s audiences and classrooms, and many family philanthropists have never heard of this giant in our field. In this issue, where we are re-introducing Paul’s landmark monograph, Small Can Be Effective, 20 years after he wrote it, I’d like to tell you a bit about him.

To give you his CV credits would be impressive enough. He was a university professor and dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, deputy to the mayor of Philadelphia, Ford Foundation staff person and trustee of family and community foundations, the first Commissioner for Community Affairs for New Jersey, advisor to philanthropists, foundations, and companies around the world, and mentor to many. He turned down offers for university presidencies and for the opportunity to run for the United States Senate.

The array of projects he worked on is even more striking: the “Gray Areas” project that sought to revitalize the poorest communities in our urban centers; the effort to reclaim the Meadowlands from the garbage dumpers to become a vibrant mixed-use center for New Jersey; making public schools more of a partner with government, business and social structures and more a reflection of the communities they serve; alleviating tensions and bringing hostile factions to the discussion table in the midst of the Newark and Plainfield riots of the late 1960s; the building of a distinguished school of the arts in North Carolina; the effort to launch children’s educational television; encouraging new philanthropists around the world, and writing the first published essay on family giving – to name a few. He spoke widely and wrote on urban issues, education, philanthropy, and community and social affairs.

He worked with, supported, and outright challenged the thinking of some of the greatest leaders of the last half of the 20th Century – from presidents to international business leaders to university and foundation heads to those in neighborhood groups working to advance the quality of life for their citizens. And he accomplished all of this while fighting a lifelong battle with diabetes, heart disease, and being legally blind.

I was amazingly lucky when Jim Joseph, as he began his tenure as president of the Council on Foundations in 1982, asked Paul to serve as a senior consultant. In addition to personally advising Jim, Paul took on the specific assignment of advising the development of an education department – a department I managed. We worked together for 10 years. In the months before Paul’s death, the two of us developed a plan to co-author the first book on family giving. While we didn’t have the time to complete that project, I found myself collecting and, ultimately, publishing a book of Paul’s essays and speeches, Conscience and Community: The Legacy of Paul Ylvisaker.

Paul’s writings reflect his talent, his knowledge and his contradictions. He could be tirelessly diplomatic and breathtakingly candid. He could give comfort and incite. And my personal favorite – he could take a roomful of sinners and not only convert them but make them enjoy it and think it was all their doing. Through it all, he was devilishly charming.

Next month will mark the 16th anniversary of Paul’s death. He is such a presence in my life, that I find that passage of time incomprehensible. But while I remember fondly the charm, wit, and encouragement, the force I carry with me that is truly Paul is the need to work toward the world and the field of philanthropy he imagined.


Virginia M. Esposito
President, National Center for Family Philanthropy