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Our Most Generous City

America's Most Livable City also tops the charts for charitable giving.

(page 1 of 2)

However wealth is defined, the Pittsburgh region is a rich one. It has highly valued arts institutions. It’s ethnically diverse, with an abundance of cultural traditions. Its natural setting, community spirit, intellect and innovation are intangible fortunes, shared by the people who live in or near the country’s most livable city.

Now, Pittsburgh is adding “most generous” to its lengthening list of laurels. In 2010, Charity Navigator, an independent online analyzer of nonprofit effectiveness, placed the city at the top of metro areas in nonprofit performance, based in part on its strong contributions record.

With median donations of $4.5 million to the area’s largest charities, our region surpassed Charity Navigator’s national average by nearly $1 million, all during a recession that placed stress on nonprofits as well as donors.

The 30-city national survey—in which Pittsburgh led Houston, Dallas, San Francisco and Kansas City—didn’t focus merely on fundraising in studying the factors that define nonprofits’ fiscal health. Overall, the Pittsburgh region’s 43 largest charities have a strong record, thanks to strong philanthropic support.

“Pittsburgh is home to an old, well-established nonprofit sector,” says Sandra Miniutti of Charity Navigator. “The city’s donors, charity executives and community leaders should be proud of their efforts in building and shepherding a very sophisticated network.”

The city’s million-dollar giving advantage over other cities in the Charity Navigator rankings demonstrates that wealth that’s built here stays here. From the 19th-century onwards, Pittsburghers have given generously to sustain causes and institutions that enhance our quality of life.

Andrew Carnegie, who built and equipped the local museums and libraries that bear his name, didn’t only create his first charitable foundation in Pittsburgh—he also set a high standard for future philanthropy. By insisting that local authorities contribute to institutional support, he created an example for strong community collaborations that continue to serve the area.

Tycoons like Henry Clay Frick, Thomas Mellon, H.J. Heinz, Henry Buhl Jr. and Michael Benedum left legacies that continue to sustain the region’s charitable organizations. Major corporations with headquarters here, including Alcoa and PPG Industries, also distribute millions of dollars through their foundations worldwide.

In fact, there are 1,400-plus foundations registered in the Pittsburgh region, with total assets of more than $10.3 billion. In 2009, they gave away a total of $570 million, according to the Foundation Center, a source of worldwide philanthropic data.

These foundations range in size and organization from corporate foundations to private philanthropies to small funds directed by individual donors. Working with a surprising degree of unanimity, they have helped create and sustain the amenities that have led to Pittsburgh’s 21st-century rebirth, as well as supporting public education, health research and social-service agencies.

Where do foundation funds work? Education garnered the lion’s share of the region’s foundation giving in 2009, constituting 28 percent of all grants. Arts and culture, human services and public-affairs/societal-benefit projects received roughly 15 percent each. Smaller amounts were directed to environmental, animal welfare and health concerns.

Local foundations take the long view, aiming to effect lasting improvements in the community. “We would be squandering trust if we didn’t look at how best to spend funds to benefit the community, not just immediately but 20 years from now,” explains Robert “Bobby” Vagt, president of the Heinz Endowments since January 2008.

Three ambitious, big-ticket projects, jointly supported by city foundations, have gained national attention: Early childhood education, the revitalization of the city’s waterfront and the downtown Cultural District.


Heinz Hall and the Benedum Center were once islands on forgotten and run-down Penn Avenue. Now, thanks to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's heavy investment in the area, two million patrons attend shows in the Cultural District each year.

 

PNC Foundation, the giving arm of PNC Financial Services, began years of work by asking its employees to choose a direction for grant-making that could have a lasting influence.

“Our employees said, ‘Focus on children and education,’” reports Eva Blum, chairwoman and president of the foundation. “We sought a newly emerging issue, and we wanted to be able to measure our impact over time. We found that early-childhood education was not being emphasized.” Parents, particularly those placing their children in day care, were looking for guidance on which settings gave pre-schoolers the best start.

Local independent foundations, particularly the Heinz Endowments and the Grable Foundation, had already underwritten millions of dollars of spadework on the issue during the 1990s. Researchers who evaluated foundation-funded projects were proving that high-quality early-childhood care could give children under 5 a better chance at school success.

“The experts said, ‘We know the solutions, but we can’t get anyone to pay attention,’” Blum explains. “A big corporation can open doors.”

In 2004, PNC launched its Grow Up Great campaign, benefiting from the strategies and advice of foundation leaders. It also advocated for Pennsylvania to support Head Start and the Pre-K Counts programs to create effective statewide standards for early education. Those efforts have been copied around the country—in Colorado, Michigan and other states.

To date, PNC has invested $40 million in its early-learning effort in its 15-state market. As the foundation supports effective pre-school curricula in the arts, math and science, it also enlists employees to get involved. More than 800 PNC volunteers have built six community playgrounds with KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit.

At the turn of the millennium, as the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Heinz Field and PNC Park rose along the Allegheny River, the Riverlife Task Force proposed a facelift for the downtown waterfront.

Riverlife planners proposed orienting the stadiums so spectators could enjoy the waterfront scene while bikers and boaters play nearby. The organization’s vision became a much-honored master plan that has been realized in three other projects along the downtown waterfront. Now simply called Riverlife, it has been working on developing Three Rivers Park, a 13-mile interconnected loop of riverfront parks and trails; to date, 80 percent of the loop is complete. Foundation commitments of $22 million, along with major private investments on the North Shore and South Side, made the concept a reality.

Among the key components of the Riverlife plan are the Convention Center’s Riverfront Plaza, a promenade that links the Strip District to the Golden Triangle; the ongoing renovations of Point State Park; and the Hot Metal Bridge over the Monongahela River. The former steel mill bridge is now a multiuse artery for cars, bikes and pedestrians.

The vision to reclaim a declining and somewhat seedy Penn Avenue into a cultural destination originated with the late H.J. “Jack” Heinz II, chairman of the H.J. Heinz Co., in the 1980s. After directing the revitalization of Heinz Hall, he convened other civic leaders to plan a new art neighborhood around that cornerstone.

The Heinz Endowments, the R.K. Mellon Foundation, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and many others contributed more than $200 million to fund the work of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, a unique nonprofit arts and development agency. Founded in 1984, the trust patiently renovated old theaters and built new ones, opened art galleries and attracted world-class artists to create public artwork.

A quarter-century later, the downtown arts scene attracts two million patrons per year to performances and events at 14 cultural facilities. But local foundations also step up to solve immediate issues. As the recession reached western Pennsylvania in 2008, social-services agencies were swamped with requests for aid. The Pittsburgh Foundation’s emergency Neighbor-Aid Fund, through a partnership with the United Way of Allegheny County, funneled more than $1 million to nonprofit organizations serving individuals and families.

When Duquesne University decided to sell WDUQ-FM in 2010, foundations provided the funds that froze the bidding rights while local parties organized their offers.

After a nonprofit partnership between local station WYEP and Public Media Co. acquired the station license, more help followed.

Foundations including R.K. Mellon, The Pittsburgh Foundation, Heinz Endowments and the Fisher Family Fund have provided nearly $4 million to put the new station on the air, says Marco Cardamone, who chairs the new nonprofit, Essential Public Media. The station gives Pittsburgh its first 24-hour NPR News & Information station and a high-definition jazz channel.

“We have worked with over 200 public broadcasting operations,” says Susan Harmon, managing director of Public Radio Capital. “In our projects, we’ve never seen anything like Pittsburgh’s response. There’s such strong communication among foundations—they can get to new ideas so quickly.”

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