Bob Jennings and his wife Barbara Bott moved from Hampton to Foxburg in Armstrong County two years ago, but they visit Pittsburgh’s Downtown once or twice a week. The draw: the city’s cultural and recreational attractions.
They bike along the rivers, dine at restaurants, go to the ballet, opera, theater or Carnegie museums and then spend a night at a hotel. They recognize that many of these amenities — the theaters, the cultural groups that perform there, and even the development of riverfront trails — are gifts, in part, of the region’s foundations.
“The foundations and other donors have really endowed Pittsburgh with perhaps the finest cultural tradition of any city of this size in the country,” said Jennings, 60, a semi-retired attorney.
But the nature of philanthropy is changing in Pittsburgh, and it could ultimately rely less on the foundations that helped shape the region and more on individual contributors.
Pittsburgh has a storied history with philanthropists. At the end of the 19th century, Andrew Carnegie built libraries here and across the country and what became the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. Carnegie and Richard King Mellon created schools that merged to become Carnegie Mellon.
By the mid-20th century, Mellon and Pittsburgh Mayor David Lawrence began the private-public partnership that became Pittsburgh’s trademark. It cleaned the air and beautified Point State Park.
The Scaife family helped fund Jonas Salk’s research that led to a vaccine for polio; it added a gallery to Carnegie Museum in Oakland and restored Station Square.
Joined by other foundations, Jack Heinz and The Heinz Endowments transformed a tawdry, 14-block section of Downtown into the Cultural District.
But the way philanthropy worked back then is not the way it works today.
“In those days, you had to know someone who knew the wealthy person and make your case,” said Peggy M. Outon, executive director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management. “That closed out a lot of people. It’s a lot more open that it used to be.”
Observers say foundations are making bigger but fewer grants to nonprofit groups, which makes it difficult for little groups to get by.
“I have felt it’s more challenging to get an idea across somebody’s desk,” said Stacy de las Alas, a development specialist at Crisis Center North in the North Hills, who said that foundations are giving smaller grants to her group.
The needs of the region expanded, but foundations don’t have the resources to address them all, said Kathy Buechel, senior lecturer and director of the Philanthropy Forum at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
“You have to grow the pool of resources. Individuals are the key way to do that,” she said.
The Pittsburgh Foundation introduced Day of Giving, sometimes called PittsburghGives, in which foundations provide matching money for donations to charities. To help nonprofits attract donors, The Pittsburgh Foundation held seminars teaching employees of nonprofit groups how to use social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
Last year’s Day of Giving on Oct. 4 raised nearly $6.5 million for groups in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties. More than 13,600 people contributed.
“All the work we’re doing with the Day of Giving and PittsburghGives, and the use of social media by nonprofits, is an effort by The Pittsburgh Foundation not only to introduce people to philanthropy in a new way, but to make nonprofits stronger by helping them tell their stories more effectively,” said Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation.
In 2000, the top 50 American foundations made 2,009 grants in the Pittsburgh region at an average of $116,053 each, according to The Foundation Center, a New York City-based group. In 2010, the top 50 gave 1,600 grants here, averaging $131,729 each.
An exception is the Richard King Mellon Foundation. During the past decade, the largest foundation in the region increased its grants from 136 to 160, and the average size soared from $274,024 to $429,040, according to The Foundation Center. Richard King Mellon Foundation officials declined comment for this story.
Many foundations are following up on the earlier conversion of Pittsburgh from a manufacturing hub to an “eds and meds” town — a city that thrives, in part, because of its colleges and universities and medical research.
Since 2000, the DSF Charitable Foundation gave away about $45 million. Of that, it put more than $20 million toward health and health sciences, including $3.9 million last year to the Center for Nucleic Acids Science and Technology at Carnegie Mellon. Among its projects, the center is researching peptide nucleic acids, synthetic molecules similar to DNA.
“We think it has tremendous potential in advancing the treatment of various conditions like cancer and infectious diseases,” said J. Nicholas Beldecos, executive director of the foundation.
“We’ve got to make sure our educational system is world-class,” said Buechel. “Those efforts to focus on education from the earliest form of life, those initiatives will continue to be vital to the region’s future.”