Tribute to David Cohen

On November 29, 2015, David Cohen passed away, leaving a gigantic leadership hole in the nonprofit sector.

David has been lobbying for the public interest for nearly 60 years. He promoted advocacy at home and abroad, fighting for civil rights, voting rights, campaign finance reform, congressional reform, nonprofit advocacy rights, and peace in the Middle East. He fought against poverty, the Vietnam War, the MX Missile, and the Iraq War. When it comes to political movements, you might call David Cohen the Dean of Advocacy!

Guided by his Jewish faith, David had a vision of a society where hatred, unfairness, inequality, intolerance, and tyranny had no place. And he walked the walk. As the second president of Common Cause, co-founder of the Advocacy Institute, chair of Council for a Livable World, president of Professionals’ Coalition for Nuclear Arms Control, a board member of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest, and as distinguished lecturer at our Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL) at Georgetown University, he dedicated his life to making American democracy work better.

David mentored and guided many of us as we took on various policy battles.  He was both doer and teacher, often at the same moment. No fight was too small or too big for David when fairness and equality were challenged or undermined. David once wrote that he was proud to be a public interest lobbyist; that it was an honor to tell his family what he did and share such information at class reunions. He celebrated the fight, but always respected the participants. And he always had his wonderful smile and twinkle in his eye that endeared him to all – even his opposition.  

We will always remember his love of social justice, his support of peace and tolerance, and his thirst for knowledge. He was a voracious reader and used the knowledge he gained to bring broader expanses to the silos we all work in. David taught us many things, but the art of listening and the love of advocacy were tops among them. 

One of us, Gary Bass, was lucky enough to co-teach with David the Advocacy in the Public Interest session that is part of CPNL’s certificate program for nonprofit executives. David would riff on his life and how advocacy played an essential role in shaping who he is. He talked about past and present seamlessly, and was always inspirational and insightful when he discussed advocacy campaigns he engaged in. Click here for a video of David.

When David was done with Q&As and it looked like everyone was exhausted, Gary would ask the group the most important thing that David said; what was the top takeaway? Exhaustion melted away, replaced by an exhilarating and energetic form of participation. We started making a list of “lessons learned” which soon became “David’s Advocacy Tips.” David, too, was energized, injecting additional comments.

David argued that successful advocates need to be in the fight for the long haul.  “You may well lose in the short-term,” he wrote. “But the key is what happens over time, both in relation to specific policies and in how people and policymakers think about your issues.” In today’s polarized society, David’s comments are never more important. 

At CPNL, David Cohen will be missed. He is our beacon for democracy, advocacy, and leadership.

By Kathy Kretman, Director, Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership

Gary Bass, Adjunct Professor, Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership