Barbara Finberg, Nonprofit Leader, Dies At 76


Barbara Denning Finberg
February 26, 1929 - March 5, 2005

Barbara Denning Finberg the philanthropist and nonprofit leader credited with focusing the nation's attention on the need for early childhood education policy, died early Saturday morning at home in Manhattan. Her work during her years at Carnegie Corporation of New York spotlighted the need for research about how babies and toddlers learn and revealed the absence of a national policy concerning the early years of children's development. Her work led directly to the creation and launching of the PBS television show Sesame Street, which was funded by the Corporation.

The cause of death was respiratory failure following a long struggle with breast cancer. 

Finberg spent 38 years at Carnegie Corporation of New York, after being hired by John Gardner as an editorial associate from the Institute of International Education where she administered the American Fulbright program for Germany. While at Carnegie Corporation, Finberg, both a program officer and corporate officer, shaped the early childhood education field and made many grants that advanced research and practice in the nascent field. She and Gardner talked about the dearth of good television available for children and, after some initial meetings with Joan Ganz Cooney, Children's Television Workshop (CTW) was born. 

"Few realized when Barbara first began working with CTW to craft a television program starring the Muppets and the alphabet, that it would launch a pre-kindergarten television learning experience that would teach millions of young Americans the first elements of reading, and would transform Big Bird and Elmo into American cultural icons," said Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York. "I didn't have the pleasure of working with Barbara directly, but I know from our collaborations since I joined the Corporation that her fingerprint is on much of our work and the success we've achieved in early childhood education. She was a woman of ideas and follow-through."

"Barbara was a leader who helped develop modern philanthropy," said Helene L. Kaplan, chair of Carnegie Corporation's board who also served as a trustee in the 1980s and knew Finberg well. "She felt passionate about the role philanthropy could play in society and accented both its creativity and its responsibility. Because improving American Indian Youth's education was a lifelong commitment for Barbara, she created grantmaking strategies that advanced the cause and testified a number of times before Congress to make the case." 

When she retired from Carnegie Corporation in 1996, Finberg was executive vice president overseeing the administrative and programmatic work of the foundation begun by Andrew Carnegie in 1911. While serving as the COO during the presidency of David Hamburg, Finberg continued to lead the early childhood work, but was also responsible for the grantmaking underway in other education fields, in African development and in peace and security work.

Upon retirement, Finberg became a partner with Margaret Mahoney in MEM Associates, a consultancy for philanthropy and nonprofits.

"As a fellow graduate of Stanford University, Barbara and I always shared an attitude toward life and learning," said David Hamburg, president emeritus of Carnegie Corporation of New York. "She was a colleague who brought a precise eye for ideas and trends that were ahead of their time and she knew how to mobilize a foundation to make a difference. That precise eye also kept its focus on the need for due diligence so that under her administrative leadership no detail was left undone."

"It's hard for me to single out one contribution Barbara made during her long and illustrious career in philanthropy," said Margaret Mahoney, the former president of the Commonwealth Fund who began her career with Finberg at Carnegie Corporation. "Barbara was a quiet and persistent leader who believed deeply in the power of research to engage and educate policy leaders. Her years at the Corporation bear her mark of systematic planning, intense analysis and careful study--all attributes she learned at her beloved alma mater Stanford University. But her reach extends beyond the Corporation because of her work with organizations that advanced the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. She is a presence many of us will miss intensely."

"There were few more inspiring human rights supporters than Barbara Finberg," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "With her quiet wisdom and self-effacing manner, she was a real moral leader, especially when it came to defending the rights of women and children. She was particularly committed to educating the next generation of human rights activists, for whom she endowed a fellowship in her late husband Alan's name. She was a beloved part of the family at Human Rights Watch. We will miss her deeply."

As a leader in advancing the nonprofit mission, Finberg served as a board member and chair of Independent Sector, an institution begun by John Gardner in Washington, D.C. that focuses on both the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. She was active at Stanford University for many years and served as vice chairman of the board of trustees, as well as chairman of both the Committee for Stanford University Libraries and its National Advisory Panel, Institute for Research on Women and Gender. She also was a member of the board of Human Rights Watch, the New York Foundation, the Association of American Law Schools, the Investor Responsibility Research Center, Inc., the Consortium for the Advancement of Private Higher Education, the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp Fund, the Bard Musical Festival, and the Society for Research in Child Development. 

Born in Colorado in 1929, Finberg pursued a degree in international relations at Stanford University where she became a campus leader. She received a Masters in Political Science, Near Eastern Studies from the American University of Beirut. Her first jobs were in the State Department. She married Alan Finberg in 1953 and the couple lived in Manhattan until Alan's death in 1995. Alan Finberg was general counsel to Kathryn Graham at the Washington Post Company. Although they never had children, Finberg was a mentor to hundreds of young people who sought careers in the nonprofit world. 

Finberg is survived by her brother Bob Denning and his wife Kate, her brother and sister-in-law Don and Helen Finberg, and her two nieces, Karen and Dana Finberg.

The family asked that in lieu of flowers contributions be made to the Barbara and Alan Finberg Scholarship Fund at Stanford University. A memorial in her honor will be announced at a later date.