Born in 1951, Rebecca W. Rimel is the past President and Chief Executive Officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts (PCT). She was succeeded in that position on July 1, 2020 by Susan K. Urahn. She began her tenure with Pew in 1983 as its Health Program manager. Five years later she became Executive Director and thereafter ascended to her current position when her mentor, neurosurgeon Thomas W. Langfitt, retired in 1994. It was Langfitt who, in the late 1980s, changed the cultural and political direction of the foundation by transforming a wealthy but old-fashioned family philanthropy into his vision of a modern-day leftist foundation. Thus the originally publicity-shy, modestly religious, and staunchly rightwing PCT became an organization characterized by self-promoting corporate liberalism. Rebecca Rimel has carried on this political changeover with zeal.
Rimel earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia School of Nursing in 1973 and an M.B.A. from James Madison University ten years later. She is a former emergency-room nurse and was an assistant professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Virginia Hospital from 1981 through 1983.
Rimel is a self-described 1960s leftist who once said, “If we could re-infuse the idealism of the Sixties into our work, there [would be] nothing this country couldn’t do.” She is known in philanthropic circles as a controlling individual who wants prospective grantees to demonstrate their solidarity with Pew’s leftwing ideals before she will consider giving money to them. The Tides Foundation and Tides Center are among her favorite grantees.
Rimel states that her major objective is to see her PCT projects make a social impact; financial profitability is only a secondary concern. “We are highly driven to make a difference in the key issues that matter to the health and happiness of our stakeholders — the public,” Rimel said during a leadership talk at the Wharton Business School. “We play to win and choose initiatives where we think we can do that.” When deciding how to allocate her foundation’s philanthropic dollars, she aims to select projects with the potential to yield tangible results within three to five years.
Under Rimel’s stewardship, fully 80 percent of PCT’s funding goes to pubic-policy initiatives related to the environment, health and human services, and state policy issues. The PCT environment initiative has three primary objectives: “reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming; halting the destruction of the marine environment, and protecting intact wilderness ecosystems on public lands.” Says Rimel:
“Close your eyes, go back 11 years and think about global warming. Most of the public, none of the policy makers and no one in corporate America believed it was real. They thought it was pseudoscience, environmentalists gone berserk.”
To alter that perception, Rimel and PCT focused their efforts on funding the work of scientists whose research might ultimately persuade legislators and business leaders to support initiatives aimed at stemming the tide of global warming. In a related effort, Rimel and Pew worked to enlist the support of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. “This was a big deal,” says Rimel. “We got 38 [CEOs] who broke ranks … who were willing to say that global warming indeed does exist. They took the position that it is not only a problem, but it is putting us in a non-competitive position in the world market.”
Rimel and Pew also have directed their philanthropy toward the promotion of legislative initiatives that someday will mandate taxpayer-funded, universal preschool education across the U.S. Initially, Pew focused on advancing these measures in ten states which it believed were ready to support such legislation. “As go those 10 states, so goes the nation,” said Rimel.
Under Rimel’s leadership, PCT also focuses heavily on such issues as developing “healthier oceans”; “conservation of forests”; “strengthening financial security of families through measures such as The Partnership to Reduce Student Debt and The Retirement Security Project”; “foster care reform”; and “campaign finance reform to close loopholes in the way political campaigns are funded.”
In addition to her work at Pew, Rimel serves on the Deutsche Bank Scudder Funds board and the PNC Bank advisory board. She is also a member of the American Philosophical Society; a fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia; and trustee emeritus of Monticello (the Thomas Jefferson Foundation).