News & Politics

David Hunter, Philanthropic Pioneer, Dies at 84

By seeding many of the great social movements of the last three decades, progressive philanthropist David Hunter left a legacy of profound social change.
Recently two Davids, both giants in their fields, passed on. David Brower, one the world's most famous conservationists and political powerhouses, was known the world over. The other David -- David Hunter -- was much less known, but was equally influential in his world of progressive philanthropy. In fact, one could argue that by seeding many of the great social movements of the last three decades, Hunter's social impact was at least as great as Brower's. What follows is an edited version of Hunter's obituary, prepared by friends and colleagues.

David Romeyn Hunter, widely recognized as the "godfather" of progressive, socially conscious philanthropy in the United States, died November 25, 2000 after a long illness.

Hunter will be remembered best as one of the most influential advisors to wealthy, progressive donors and family foundations, many who came of age in the 1960's and sought to put their family fortunes to positive use. First as executive director of the Stern Fund, a liberal New York-based family foundation whose money came from the Sears Roebuck fortune, and then as the director of the Ottinger Foundation, Hunter came to be a philanthropic advisor to half a dozen other similarly minded foundations and individuals. It was in this position, for the next several decades, that Hunter gradually mentored people throughout the country who tried to apply the American tradition of private philanthropy to issues of social and economic justice.

Many of those Hunter worked with found his support invaluable. In 1996, some 200 donors and leaders of public interest organizations gathered in New York for a daylong celebration of Hunter's 80th birthday (at his insistence, part of the day was devoted to a panel discussion of the prospects for social change in America). When Jim Hightower, the Texas activist and journalist who acted as master of ceremonies, asked everyone to stand who had gotten his or her first grant through David Hunter, most of the people in the room rose.

Hunter's philanthropic career began in 1959 at the Ford Foundation. He and a small group of colleagues crafted inner city anti-poverty programs that became a prototype for President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Building on this work, Hunter wrote "The Slums: Challenge and Response," a book published by the Free Press in 1964. An initial grant from Hunter supported work which eventually led to "motor voter" legislation that made voter registration much easier.

Always a shrewd matchmaker, Hunter was known for bringing together open-minded philanthropists and foundations with activist for dozen or causes, ranging from women's rights to labor union democracy to non-intervention in Central America to self-help in Appalachia. When Hunter found a cause he believed in or an activist whose work he respected, he found people who could provide the money.

His reputation and courtly manner -- often, among his activist friends, he was the only person in the room with a suit and tie -- gave him access to the mainstream foundation world. In 1975, he said in a speech to the Council on Foundations that philanthropy's raison d'etre should be the work of "extending democracy in the world." The speech "made half of them mad as hell," he later told the New York Times, with some satisfaction.

However, some of the other half listened. And many of them joined a series of Hunter's "donor working groups" that brought together philanthropists who had special interests in certain areas, like reducing the danger of nuclear war, protecting the environment or economic justice. Officials of mainstream foundations who cared about these issues but worried that they were getting involved with radicals and firebrands always found Hunter's soft-spoken style reassuring. Ironically, some of the meetings he organized took place in New York City Yacht Club, with Hunter, in the words of philanthropist Philip Stern, serving as the "bridge" between the worlds of haves and have-nots.

Hunter's godfathering included being a mentor for a group of younger philanthropists -- many of them 3rd or 4th generation members of wealthy families -- who formed a chain of regionally-based progressive foundations in the 1970s: the Vanguard Foundation in San Francisco, the Haymarket People's Fund in Boston and the North Star Fund in New York, among others.

When the Stern Fund ended its activities, David Hunter did not retire. He continued his networking from his office at his home in Port Washington. In 1984, the North Star Fund gave Hunter its first annual Frederick Douglas Award. The International Center for Development Policy in Washington, D.C. named its building after him. For his efforts to promote sustainable development on Long Island, he received the Paul Gutierrez award for Contributions to Human Dignity from the Long Island Progressive Coalition.

Until the end he questioned visitors to his nursing home room about strategies for narrowing the income gap, taming the injustices of globalization and increasing grassroots democracy. He asked visitors to send him books and articles about these and other issues he cared about.

Mr. Hunter was born May 17, 1916 in Evanston, Illinois. His mother was a Montessori teacher, his father a Presbyterian minister and prominent social worker. After getting a master's degree in social work from the University of Chicago, Hunter held a variety of government and non-profit posts. He worked with refugees for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Europe. Then for nine years, two of them in Mexico, he worked for UNICEF.

In his spare time, Hunter was an avid sculptor who worked in marble. He often spent vacations visiting archeological ruins, exploring the globe both in passenger liners and freighters.

David Hunter married the former Barbara Avallon in 1954. He is survived by her, by two stepsons, Steven L. Moss and Daniel A. Moss, and by two grandchildren, Alexandra B. Moss and Jason L. Moss.

Memorial plans will be announced.
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