Robert Imbrie Smith

By Gould, John Wells | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Robert Imbrie Smith


Gould, John Wells, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


23 FEBRUARY 1931 * 1 NOVEMBER 2008

ROBERT IMBRIE SMITH died in 2008 after a long, difficult siege with many ailments. He had a classic pedigree that fitted him out to be a quintessential clubman and successful businessman. When one met Bob, "hail fellow" immediately came to mind.

But Bob's life took a turn that made him one of the most successful foundation leaders in the country. On his watch, the nascent Pew Charitable Trusts were transformed from a secretive family philanthropy founded in 1948 as the Pew Memorial Foundation into a professionally staffed foundation of national and international scope and reputation.

Born in New York City and later in life imported to Philadelphia, Bob was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, Yale University, and the Columbia Business School. Though he had a soft spot in his heart for Exeter, Bob loved Yale and served it in many capacities over the years. He was an associate fellow of Timothy Dwight College, a member of the University Council and of the Council's executive committee, and an associate of Yale's Board of Governors. He received the Yale University Medal in 1982. A surprising number of those hired as part of the staff expansion at Pew had at least a touch of Old Blue in their backgrounds.

Bob came to Philadelphia to join the Sun Oil Company as an executive and over the years rose up through the ranks, coming to the attention of the Pew family. Robert Dunlop, a former CEO of Sun, became his mentor and encouraged him to join the Glenmede Trust Company in 1972.

Glenmede, named after the Pew family home in Bryn Mawr, had been created in 1956 to assist the Pew family in managing their philanthropic assets and to continue to provide foundation services to the family. The family dissolved the original Pew Memorial Foundation and over thirty-one years created seven trusts that fueled their philanthropic interests. It was no accident that these trusts taken together held the largest bloc of Sun Oil stock at that time. Well before the idea of a "poison pill" became popular, the Pew family had created a robust defense against an unwanted takeover of the Sun Oil Company. Because of the total value of the family's Sun Oil stock in their charitable trust holdings, the Sun Oil board always had a seat reserved for the president of Glenmede. What later came to be known as The Pew Charitable Trusts began as the Foundation Department of Glenmede. So integrated was Glenmede before Bob, that the foundation staff observed all the banking holidays and received bonuses if the investment side turned a profit.

In 1977, Bob became president of the Glenmede Trust Company and set about accelerating the evolution of both its investment and its foundation functions. Bob brought the investment side into the light, seeking new clients and advertising its skills to individuals and families "of significant means." He encouraged the search for international clients and international venues for investing, a sound business choice that also allowed him to travel occasionally to London, where he could slake his interest in all things English. Dining with Bob at Daphne's was a special treat for those who had the good fortune to accompany him.

On the foundation side, Bob inherited philanthropy shy of publicity, the Pew family still preferring that grants be made anonymously. There was no set philanthropic budget overall. Various program areas totaled up their grants at the end of the year to discover how much they had spent on health, education, or religion. Priorities were driven by family interests, which tended to be conservative and focused on Philadelphia. Each member of the small staff reviewed all types of proposals, primarily to summarize them for the Glenmede Committee on Grants, which was in the main made up of Pew family members and a few trusted friends. Foundation staff was regularly admonished that it would never be allowed to "run away" with The Pew Charitable Trusts, as had happened at the Ford Foundation. …

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