The not-so-small world of philanthropy

Diving into Pittsburgh’s foundation and nonprofit sector — while trying not to hit bottom

I’ve spent six weeks exploring Pittsburgh’s philanthropic and nonprofit sector. It’s been an interesting and somewhat overwhelming journey.

I think my biggest takeaway is that the region’s foundation and nonprofit community is complex — very complex.

Peaking my interest

I got the idea for a themed story last year at our inaugural Chase Smart 50 event when keynote speaker Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, mentioned the sector.

He credited Pittsburgh’s significant philanthropic investments as one of the lesser-recognized reasons for Pittsburgh’s recent renaissance. He also said that the Pittsburgh region has one of the highest concentrations of philanthropic assets in the country, and that every year more than $350 million is invested in the area.

Then, I did an interview with one of our Insights clients, Dotti Bechtol of Fragasso Financial Advisors on building a powerful nonprofit board of directors.

She spoke about how in a nonprofit rich environment like Pittsburgh it’s incredibly competitive for funding, so a strong nonprofit board is a must.

These two peaked my interest. I was determined to take a deep look at a sector that I don’t normally discuss much.

Building a clear picture

Thanks to some guidance from sources along the way, I talked to a number of players, big and small, insiders and outsiders. It was interesting to hear different perspectives on the same issues.

Some nonprofit organizations struggled more than others, although they all face challenges. I also discovered it was hard to separate the challenges that all nonprofits face with those unique to Pittsburgh.

Even determining the sector’s trends varied from contact to contact.

People kept asking me for my elevator pitch about the direction of the story. After I stammered through a few times — and did more and more interviews — I was able to start sounding more coherent.

There are many things that I didn’t get to put into my final story.

I didn’t focus much on the history of philanthropy, even though some say that Pittsburgh’s industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon and Howard Heinz gave birth to American philanthropy, as it exists today.

I also focused more on health and human services nonprofits than those that provide arts and culture, with the exception of the Uniquely Pittsburgh on City of Asylum.

But hopefully I did justice to a complicated sector that plays an important role in the lives of Pittsburghers, even if they don’t always realize it.