The Give Guide

Learn how to live and give your best to charities, non-profits and more.

Since our ranking as the most generous city in America, recently published by Charity Navigator, we thought it was a good time to talk to those who give for a living and those who want to start or give more to their communities.

The pros agree that your gift—big or small—should be “smart” and well-researched. Making the biggest impact with one dollar or one million dollars starts the same way: a desire to support a need that you are passionate about. Giving should be as beneficial to the donor as it is to the recipient. The act of giving to a stranger can be as personal as giving a relative a birthday gift.

Bernita Buncher, of the Buncher Family Foundation, gives enormous amounts of money to various causes, as do her children. But she can have a laser-focused checkbook. Buncher provided a grant through The Pittsburgh Foundation to the Watson Institute for a bicycle that can be adapted to suit the physical requirements of students ages 3 to 21 with special needs, for home use. “It’s a privilege to give back,” Buncher says. “Everyone in this world is capable of doing something; it doesn’t always have to be money. Just helping a neighbor shovel snow is an act of support.”

As a long-time aid to Elsie Hillman and director of the Hillman Company’s Community Relations department, John Denny has seen what a powerful philanthropic effort can do. Working to solve problems is what defines the work that Denny has done with Hillman during his time as her aid.

An incident in the summer of 2004 brought to light the amazing ways that philanthropy can help make change in the world. Pools and recreational centers in Pittsburgh were proposed to close due to budget concerns. Through the swift leadership of Hillman, Denny and the rest of the staff began looking into solving long-term fiscal deficits. Hillman asked the pools and recreational centers to stay open while they worked on figuring out a long-term plan since people needed respite from the heat.

Persistence and influence paid off in the end, and only half the pools and centers had to close. The short term charitable funding saved people from suffering as long-term philanthropic solutions were discussed. 

A donor and a cause should form a relationship and try to understand each other’s needs. Do you want to see the family name on a building? Do you need to meet the child you helped? Would you prefer to remain anonymous? All of these are fair and important questions to ask before you give. Once you do, you will find that by giving smart, you have contributed to Pittsburgh’s riches.

Giving in Transition

“What nonprofits need most are regular, reliable donors,” says Grant Oliphant, president of The Pittsburgh Foundation. “We were a company town and then a foundation town. We don’t typically have the history of individual giving beyond the legacy of wealth from certain founding families.”

That was the impetus behind the creation of PittsburghGives, which has successfully harnessed giving by teaching people how to make gifts and designating one day of the year to do it. The United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania continues to be an integral supporter in its annual fund-raising campaign, which focuses on employer-based giving.

The Day of Giving begins at midnight on Wed., Oct. 4 for the ensuring 24 hours, matching gifts.

With nearly 4,000 nonprofit organizations in Southwestern Pennsylvania, the internet is your best research tool in sorting out the options. The most comprehensive local lists categorize agencies (education, women’s issues, economic development, etc.) and can be found at and There are nonprofit directories in most public libraries, too. 

Having a passion and connecting that passion with a purpose is what giving with impact is all about. Kathy Buechel, 55, directs the Pittsburgh Philanthropy Project, and she hopes the project will help people begin to appreciate how Pittsburgh’s diverse philanthropic past teaches how to give well today. Through her experiences as former president of Alcoa Foundation and her work as the current executive director of The Benter Foundation and as senior lecturer of the Philanthropy Forum through the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, Buechel has extensive knowledge of what makes Pittsburgh givers tick.

“We are trying to help people understand that over time, the work of Pittsburgh philanthropy broke new ground and shaped modern philanthropy’s tool kit. Entrepreneurial leaders and everyday Pittsburghers shared a commitment to help each other and this region,” Buechel says. “It’s worth considering how their civic engagement and philanthropy might help advance communities today.”

Buechel, along with her team of scholars, have been compiling an oral history of Pittsburgh philanthropy and have plans to publish a book of essays chronicling Pittsburgh’s philanthropic milestones. For more information on the project, visit

The New Breed

Many of today’s donors are a different breed. They are more interested in an investment opportunity that has measurable impact than simply writing a check to a more traditional cause and forgetting about it. Nonprofits of all shapes and sizes are responding to these changing needs by engaging with donors in new and different ways. Meanwhile, individuals are inventing new ways to give in high-impact ways that satisfy their need to contribute.

Stacy Dee, 39, is a partner at Thorp Reed & Armstrong, a corporate law firm downtown. She is a member of “Dinner, Drinks and Donations,” a fund-raising group that comprises a small group of women who take turns hosting dinner. Each dinner guest brings an envelope with the money they would have spent going out to dinner that night. Over the course of a year, they raised $5,000.

The group created a selection process in which each woman picked two potential causes and met with the executive director of each organization, reporting back to the group on their findings. They decided on two finalists, which they asked to present to the full group. “It was the first time in my life that I met the people who were receiving my money,” Dee says. The winning organization was Lydia’s Place, an agency focused on incarcerated women and their families.

Giving Back

Tara Marks, co-director of Just Harvest, understands the value of a dollar. Growing up in an Ohio town, Marks led a charmed life. After moving to Pittsburgh, she began to experience hardships that tested her tenacity in every way. Marks fell into poverty after becoming a single mother and soon hit rock bottom.

“I will never forget the day that I realized I had to seek help. I was scrounging through our cabinets and realized I had food for about three meals for my son and nothing at all for me,” she recounts. Marks had to make a difficult decision to apply for food stamps, despite the long road she knew was ahead of her.

Her pursuits of a solution for her newfound poverty lead her to Just Harvest. The organization counseled her through the food stamp paperwork.

“Food stamps literally mean just that. You may not purchase anything you cannot eat,” says Marks.

Her connection with Just Harvest proved to be the turning point in her life. The agency acts as a connector for low-income people to begin the journey out of poverty. Just Harvest so believed in Tara’s potential that they trained her to share her story with policy makers at the state and national level. 

In 2010, Marks landed the job of co-director of Just Harvest, having finally graduated from CCAC. Now at the helm of Just Harvest for over a year, Marks is grateful for her life. She understands that every dollar counts, and through giving, even the smallest donation can make the biggest difference.

Following in the Right Footsteps

For some, giving is a way of life instilled in them when they are young. Influenced by family upbringing or just having the want to donate your time or money, there are ample chances to give back no matter where you come from.

For Todd Palcic, entrepreneur and board member at Pittsburgh Social Venture Partners, giving is a no-brainer.

“For me, giving is a duty. I believe that it comes from my Catholic cultural upbringing,” says Palcic. “Still emblazoned in my mind is my mother’s influence.” His background has pushed him to get fully involved in smart giving through his work at both the PSVP and The Sprout Fund.

Palcic has been directly influenced in his charitable ways by two of Pittsburgh’s most influential women: Theresa Heinz and Elsie Hillman. As Palcic continues his work of developing properties in the Cultural District and trying his hand at social entrepreneurship, he has the leadership and philanthropic ways of Jack and Theresa Heinz and Elsie Hillman to look up to. They may be big shoes to fill, but anyone looking to give should be ready to take on the challenge.

Kristie Shanahan, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mom and former Wilkinsburg district school teacher, credits her family for providing her with the passion to give back.

“I always witnessed my folks helping relatives out with physical labor, driving elderly friends around and donating clothing,” she remembers. There hasn’t been a time that giving to charity wasn’t a large part of her life.

When she was younger, her parents exposed her to a steady stream of educational programming. She now does the same with her daughters and supports public television stations like WQED who stream shows that are both educational and fun for kids.  

For her family, donating has become something they can get involved in together. Shanahan and her daughters often drop off food at their local Community Food Bank. A portion of the goods donated are purchased by her girls with their allowance money.   

Donating time or funds is something that makes Shanahan happy, regardless of the amount. 

“Even if you only have a dollar or two to give, it feels tremendous,” says Shanahan. “Go out and do it!”

Three Ways to Give at the Office

Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program
Provide tax credits to eligible businesses contributing to a Scholarship Organization, an Educational Improvement Organization, and/or a Pre-Kindergarten Scholarship Organization. Visit for more information.

When you choose the nonprofit you will invest in, search online to confirm that they accept corporate matches. Your payroll department will walk you through the rest.

United Way Payroll Deduction
You choose where it goes, how much to give out of each pay and the United Way simply manages the transaction.

Six Questions to Ask Your Tax Preparer

  • Can I deduct the full price of the ticket for a charitable event?
  • Can I get a deduction for donating my car to charity?
  • Can I deduct all my giving?
  • How do I establish the market value of used items I donate to charity?
  • Can we deduct the cost of old furniture we donate to a local homeless shelter?
  • Can I deduct donations made from an IRA?

Source: Charity Navigator

Steps to Organizing a Successful Event

Decide what type of event you will host: theme, location, food and beverages, prizes and programming.

The green light
Be sure to get approval from the Development Office at least six weeks prior to the tentative date of your event.

Form a committee
Gather enthusiastic family, friends and colleagues to start planning.

Prepare a budget
Establish a fund-raising goal and identify potential sources of income and expenses.

Plan a timeline
Develop a timeline to know when important tasks are due and who is responsible.

Spread the word
Send invitations and e-mails to everyone you know and ask them to help by telling their circle of friends. Give yourself plenty of time for invitations and publicity.

Have fun!
Hold your event and have a great time and raise awareness about the worthy cause for which you are raising money.

Don’t forget
Collect funds for the event you hosted and send one check, made payable to the organization’s Development Office within 60 days of your event.

Congratulate yourself and your committee for planning a successful event. Acknowledge and thank your donors, participants, sponsors and in-kind donors.

Organize a follow-up meeting with your committee to discuss and evaluate your event…and start the planning for next year.