Carol Pitchersky, 57, whose fundraising skills saved the American Civil Liberties Union from bankruptcy and who helped put dozens of other public interest groups on solid financial ground, died Oct. 19 of breast cancer at her home in Washington.
From the time she moved to Washington at age 21, she showed a knack for building structures that allowed nonprofit groups on shoestring budgets to reach fiscal stability. She continued to work as a consultant until Oct. 1, but her greatest achievement, by all accounts, came during her nine years at the ACLU.
She joined the activist group when wounds from the court battle over Nazis' right to march on Skokie, Ill., in the late 1970s were still fresh. In that case, the ACLU supported the right of the Nazi party to march through a Chicago suburb heavily populated by Jewish immigrants who had survived the Holocaust. That position led to an exodus from the ACLU's membership rolls.
In early 1979, Ms. Pitchersky was one of the first people hired by the ailing organization's new executive director, Ira Glasser, who led the ACLU for 23 years.
"She was the best single hire and the most important decision I made in all that time," he said. "Over the next 10 years, it's fair to say the organization was resurrected financially and organizationally. I was the director, but the truth is, Carol deserves most of the credit."
In 1979, Glasser said, the ACLU was "close to bankrupt," and its membership was shrinking. It took in about $300,000 in small donations each year and had no cash reserves or endowment. By the time Ms. Pitchersky left in 1988 as associate director, the ACLU was receiving $3 million in annual donations. Today, its endowment is $150 million, and the group owns its buildings in Washington and New York.
Since 1988, she had been an independent consultant, helping set up boards of directors and financial networks for dozens of mostly liberal groups, including Common Cause, Friends of the Earth, the National Abortion Rights Action League, Planned Parenthood and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
"There are a lot of really good fundraisers in this country," said a former colleague, David S. Tatel, now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Washington. "Carol was in a league by herself."
Ms. Pitchersky was born in Brooklyn and graduated from Hunter College in New York. An early marriage to Howard Hoffman ended in divorce.
She arrived in Washington in 1968 to work for J.R. Taft Corp., which raised money for colleges, arts organizations and community groups. In 1971, she wrote a report that is widely considered the first handbook on nonprofit fundraising.
From 1972 to 1976, she was development director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which was founded in the 1960s to promote justice during the civil rights era.
"The two years that Carol was there," Tatel said, "were the years it went from a relatively small funding base to a truly national organization. Here's a person who had a major role in building two of the major civil rights groups.
"She wasn't just a fundraiser," he added. "She understood the mission of the organization, and it was infectious."
Ms. Pitchersky helped recruit executives to the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare as a special consultant in 1977 and 1978.
In the past year, according to her husband, Morton H. Halperin, she was instrumental in organizing Americans Coming Together, a group partially backed by financier George Soros that seeks to elect Democrats in the coming election.
In her earlier years, Ms. Pitchersky made pottery in her spare time. More recently, she and her husband collected antiques and contemporary art.
Survivors include her husband, a Defense Department official in the Johnson administration and a State Department official under President Bill Clinton, of Washington; her father, Arthur Pitchersky of Rockville; and two sisters, Karen Williams of Poolesville and Laura Crisp of Herndon.
"She would always say," Halperin said, " 'If you are doing something important, and you are explaining it properly, you won't have trouble raising money.' "