The New Pittsburgh Philanthropy

As part of my occasional series on The New Pittsburgh, I've been waiting for an opportunity to write something about local philanthropic and not-for-profit communities. I found it in this sidebar to today's announcement that the merger wave in banking has finally crashed over Mellon Bank. Recipients of Mellon's foundation largesse are being assured that their financial gravy train will continue uninterrupted:
As part of the unveiling of its merger with Bank of New York, Mellon announced the creation of a new $80 million Mellon Financial Foundation that will give out twice as much money to southwestern Pennsylvania as the previous foundation did -- $4 million a year, double the previous $2 million. It also pledged that the $1 million that it currently spends per year on area sponsorships and nonprofits will not change.

That's nice, obviously, as long as it lasts, but it raises a bigger question about the structure of local philanthropy.

Pittsburgh is legendary among cities its size for the quality of its foundation community, which I have always understood to be a legacy of the city's industrial history. The Mellon announcement underscores that belief. The not-for-profit community that is supported by those foundations, and by the elaborate fundraisers that are reported in the social section of the Post-Gazette, also strikes me as impressive. Going forward, it's clear that the not-for-profit sector of Pittsburgh has to remain vibrant and both well-supported and well-funded if the city is to have any chance of recovering and maintaining any semblance of urban vibrancy.

And yet. I wonder about the not-for-profit sector's dependence on foundation money and on big fancy fundraisers. I wonder about the sustainability of that model as big institutional donors -- individuals and foundations alike -- either leave town or decide to leave the dance, so to speak. When the checkbooks are gone, where does that leave the organizations? I don't know enough about the community to have a good sense here; I'll invite comments. Is membership and community building a strategy of choice in Pittsburgh? If it is (or even if it isn't) -- why, or why not? Does the not-for-profit sector struggle with the same inertia that characterizes so much of Pittsburgh? My sense is that it does, but I'd appreciate your thoughts.


2 Responses to "The New Pittsburgh Philanthropy"

Anonymous said... 12/07/2006 3:28 PM

While many philanthropies are involved in institution building, bank foundations are typically promotional devices. I've heard that one bank relatively new to the Pittsburgh market actually administers their grantmaking out of their PR Department. The banks in this case need approval for the merger, and they don't need anyone expressing concern over the ill effects of continued bank consolidation. It will be interesting to see what kind of money goes into citizens advocacy organizations for better banking practices, and then the role those advocacy organizations then take in the merger discussions.

Anonymous said... 12/12/2006 10:18 AM

Shrinking the funding pools available nonprofits might actually work in favor of the communities/populations that they are intended to serve. I suspect that a scan of the non-profit industry in Pittsburgh would reveal a significant amount of overlap in terms of mission and service area. Certainly, there's plenty of evidence in the tech-serving non-profit industry.

The city's philanthropic largesse has created a culture with little accountability, where multiple organizations claim the same success stories. Tightening the belt might actually force competitiveness and improved performance, especially among those nonprofits that continually eat the biggest pieces of the philanthropic pie.

I also think it's important to note that, at the end of the day, the smallest organizations like literacy councils or legal-aid groups are competing for the same pool of foundation, corporate, or government dollars that ACCD or the Tech Council are after. If the big budget groups could perform their jobs well, it might free up funds for programs in other service areas.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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