Pittsburgh’s philanthropic sector drives community change as nonprofits evolve

There’s an old saying that Pittsburgh business and government leaders have an ability to come together to transform the city. That may have been true in the 1940s and 1950s; today, the dynamic is more complex.

In the wake of the collapse of the steel industry, many rust belt cities rolled up their sidewalks for a long time, says Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments.

Pittsburgh, however, had the foundation community that continued to invest. Even while the city was in decline, the Cultural District — and later the riverfront development — attracted a new generation of people.

“I would argue that the investments that the foundations made and have made over the course of the past 40 years really provided a reason for people to stay in Pittsburgh,” Oliphant says.

“At a time when many of our sister cities really experienced the virtual death of their downtown, Pittsburgh survived,” he says, “and that was in part because of the foundation sector.”

Now, the city’s four significant leadership forces are business, government, the foundations and the universities, says Bill Flanagan, chief corporate relations officer, Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

He says the foundations hold the community accountable, helping bring best practices to the city. They are front and center in the conversation about how to engineer Pittsburgh’s recovery and improve its quality of life.

pit_cs_Phil_ConventionCenterFor example, the foundations wanted to make the David L. Lawrence Convention Center green when it was built 12 years ago. Flanagan says few city officials or business leaders had even heard of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design at the time.

The foundations agreed to pay for an international design competition if the facility was green.

That decision helped bring the G-20 to Pittsburgh in 2009 and leveraged skill sets around material sciences to form an economic cluster of companies that develop green building products and services.

“And today, it’s part of our economy. I don’t think you could build a serious building in Pittsburgh today without it being green,” he says. “In fact today, if your CEO is putting up a new building, the other CEOs won’t ask him ‘Is it going to be green?’ They will ask him ‘What level of green are you going for? Is it going to be silver, gold or platinum?’”

The ROI and compounding effect have been enormous — all because of seeds planted in the late 1990s by the foundations, Flanagan says.

“I think they act as a collective conscious for the community in some respects by pushing everybody to try a little harder, think a little more creatively and try to do a little better than anybody else,” he says.

But you can’t talk about the foundation community without mentioning the nonprofit sector.

Kate Dewey, president of The Forbes Funds, says the foundations create spaces for nonprofits that collectively create 75,000 direct jobs per year. That’s equal to the manufacturing or construction industry.

These community-focused organizations, which don’t include nonprofits like UPMC and Carnegie Mellon University, also pump about $4.4 billion into the economy.

“What that tells us is the nonprofit sector here is an economic driver — it’s a significant employer and it’s a critical service provider,” she says.

A service model

Unlike other cities with large foundation assets — such as Seattle and the Gates Foundation — Pittsburgh’s foundations have either a requirement or tradition of significant spending in the region, Oliphant says.

“We all have different flavors, based on our charter, our founders and what are the interests of the foundation in terms of what it was set up to do, but because we are all regionally focused we tend to overlap more than not,” he says.

Although the philanthropic sector sometimes get undervalued, you can see the results as the foundations ensure new development is environmentally responsible, inclusive, looks good and sets a new tone for the city, Oliphant says.

A long attention span on the community — almost a civic duty — is part of what makes Pittsburgh foundations so unique, says Thomas Crawford, associate vice chancellor, Corporate and Foundation Relations at the University of Pittsburgh.

At the same time, because Pittsburgh’s foundations are focused on setting a community agenda, they collaborate more than any other place he can think of.

He sees national foundations churn through staff, shift their mission and set up firewalls so it’s difficult to meet face-to-face.

“The people here are actually out involved in the community. They’re not in their office,” Crawford says. “They are out and they are always visiting or looking under the rocks.”

There’s also a continuity of program officers and foundation boards, he says. That gives them a different perspective — if you’ve been at a place for 30 years, you know what works and what doesn’t.

That accessibility and willingness to listen is something nonprofit leaders can appreciate.