Our Most Generous City

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

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As nonprofits struggle through a lingering recession in a slow-growth city with constrained public revenue, charitable giving has never been more important. Responding to a survey by Grantmakers of Western Pennsylvania, local foundations said that funding requests from human-services organizations alone were anticipated to increase by 75 percent this year.

Bob Nelkin, president of the United Way of Allegheny County, calls the effect “the triple whammy.” As he explains, “There’s increased need. Meanwhile, charitable contributions to human-service agencies are down 20 percent nationwide since 2007. And government is now contracting.”

Moreover, while Pittsburgh’s United Way campaign outperforms its peers nationally, raising nearly $32 million last year, Nelkin says more communication about the long-term effect of  human-service programs is necessary. The Pittsburgh Foundation has helped fund an advocacy project to retain those public investments: Last year’s Why Cut What Works campaign urged legislators to retain budgets for human services.

Growing need—plus some battering of their endowments by the gyrating stock markets—has led foundations to encourage more individual giving. “We do a lot of matches—as a piece of incentive,” says the Heinz Endowments’ Vagt. “If people scoff—if they say, ‘Why would I give? They’ll never raise a million’—well, if we give $750,000, that other $250,000 is a possibility.”

The Pittsburgh Foundation is also trying to boost grass-roots donations. “Our experience is that this is a tremendously generous town,” says Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation. But he acknowledges that the region’s Charity Navigator ranking is “both accurate and potentially misleading, in the sense that on some measures, there’s a low level of individual giving.

Nonprofits automatically go to where the pot is biggest, so historically, it was easier to go to bigger [foundations] than to go after individual donors. We have a treasure trove of nonprofits in everything from the arts to feeding the hungry. But building a broader giving base in really important. If you can spread the cost of an organization over 10,000 people, it begins to be not too expensive.”

That’s why local charities and foundations are working together to make giving easier and more meaningful for a new generation of donors.

On Oct. 4 at 12:01 a.m., The Pittsburgh Foundation will once again host an online Day of Giving through PittsburghGives online program, which offers matching funds for every contribution made during the 24-hour challenge. A click and a card number send a donation to the donor’s choice of approximately 650 registered nonprofit organizations, from A+ Schools (a nonprofit advocate for Pittsburgh Public Schools) to local YMCAs. The Pittsburgh Foundation is anticipating to add $750,000 to the match pool; the WestmorelandGives campaign will make a $100,000 match in that county. All of the charities on the PittsburghGives site will be eligible to receive contributions from donors, and this in turn will qualify them for equal pro-rated shares of matching funds.

“Methods of raising money from individuals, like phone banks and direct mail, have been difficult and expensive,” Oliphant points out. “Technology has already changed that. These days, you can make a $1 gift to anywhere around the world.”

The Day of Giving events make it as simple to support a local organization as an international one. The idea, adopted from Columbus and Minneapolis and then tweaked as time went on, was almost an immediate success. In fact, the Day of Giving servers were so overwhelmed by the response to the first 24-hour campaign in 2009, that the system crashed. The event still managed to generate $1.5 million; in 2010, bolstered by online improvements, it more than doubled that take. Over the span of two years, giving events have raised $7 million for local nonprofits. A separate Day of Arts Giving in May raised $1.9 million, including matching funds.

Pittsburgh Social Venture Partners offers nonprofits not only cash but also expertise. Some of the 46 partners (a mix of individuals, spouses and associates) commit two years and $4,000 apiece to organizations that serve children; included in the group are eight associates who pay $1,000 per year. The Pittsburgh Social Venture Partners, chaired by John Denny of the Hillman Co., attracts individual philanthropists.

“Some of them are recently retired entrepreneurs looking for a different kind of meaning to their work,” says Denny, one of PSVP’s founding partners. “Others are experienced, successful women under 40 who are currently stay-at-home moms.” Since 2001, PSVP has donated $900,000 to grantees, who “pitch” their ideas to the partners at three annual events.

“Writing a check feels good, but PSVP offers a way to have more depth,” says Tessa Nicholson, a longtime member from Point Breeze. “It offered me the possibility of leveraging money with time and talent.”

Other local grant-makers shine a spotlight on specific communities. The Poise Foundation supports projects that address the needs of the local African-American community, particularly in education. The Women and Girls Foundation advocates for gender-related changes in corporate and public policy, pooling funds from donors across the community.

“Anyone can invest, from a dollar to a million dollars,” says Heather Arnet, CEO of the community-based foundation. The group has highlighted disparities in economic issues such as wage parity across the state. Arnet says its efforts in school sports funding and reproductive rights have resulted in measurable progress. Support from “several hundred” donors has changed 12 government regulations and has substantially increased the number of women serving on local boards of directors. Two types of funds—donor advised and donor designated—allow givers to tailor giving to specific programs; they can form giving circles to boost support of common causes.

Even smaller neighborhood groups can pool resources for fundraiser. A group of nine South Hills women meets once a month for “dinner, drinks and donations,” dubbing itself D3. Mt. Lebanon’s Michelle Pagano Heck, senior consultant at nonprofit consulting firm Dewey & Kaye, founded a local “giving circle” in 2009. Members pool their monthly contributions and identify charities worth their support. Last year, D3 made a donation of $5,000 to Lydia’s Place, which supports incarcerated mothers and their children.

More casual alliances of donors combine socializing and philanthropy. Party With a Purpose creates networking events for young professionals: The Oct. 22 event at East Liberty’s Shadow Lounge will benefit GTECH Strategies, a nonprofit devoted to “green” economic development. Since Carnegie Mellon graduate students founded PPP in 2006, the group has raised $30,000, benefiting 16 organizations in the region.

“We wanted to provide young professionals a chance to network and to get to know other non-profits,” says Vanessa Veltre. The 30-year-old co-director of the group states its mission simply: “It’s an excuse to have fun and contribute at the same time,” she says.

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