Let's play "Philanthropy!"
It's this great new game from The Pittsburgh Foundation.
You pick a charity. Offer it, say, 50 bucks from your credit card. The foundation kicks in another $25 right away.
Your favorite charity wins!
We'll know in a week how many decide to play, taking advantage of this one-time 50 percent bonus. Wednesday is "Match Day." Anyone can log on to www.pittsburghgives.org starting at 10 a.m. and channel their inner philanthropist.
For those who want do things more like they're done in old Frank Capra movies, there will be a giving event in the PPG Wintergarden Downtown starting at the same time. It will be kind of like the final scene of "It's a Wonderful Life," only all of Jimmy Stewart's friends will have to get in front of eight to 10 computers to go online and give.
"We're democratizing giving," said Grant Oliphant, president and chief executive of The Pittsburgh Foundation. "We want lots of smaller donors to come into the system."
Modern givers want to know everything they can about a charity before they open their wallets. So the PittsburghGives Web site allows people to know everything from board members to financial reports to just how the charity tells its story.
Charities like the chance to get the word out, too. Some 350 Western Pennsylvania charities are eligible for these matching gifts.
Match Day will last until $300,000 in matching funds is exhausted or until noon Oct. 29, whatever comes first. I expect the region can come up with $600,000 in 26 hours, but it's going to take a thousand people or more. The matching money will only be applied to donations up to $2,500, and most people will only be able to spare a fraction of that.
I like the cut-off. Few of us are named Carnegie or Mellon, and this should ensure that we hear from the average Andy and Andi.
It will be interesting to see where we direct our money. Earlier this month, the foundation decided to provide another $100,000, atop the original $300,000, to provide matching funds specifically for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
Off the top of my own pointed head, I'm interested in the Pittsburgh Promise, which provides college scholarships to the graduates of Pittsburgh public schools, and the library that is so short of operating money it plans to go from 19 branches to 14.
I'm interested in those two because I'm the father of two book-loving daughters in the city schools. (They're pretty hot on the library's movies and computers, too.) And I don't think any city can claim greatness or "greenness" if it lops off a quarter of its neighborhood libraries in one fell swoop.
Of course, I'd be far less willing to donate to the library if I knew there is zero chance of stopping the branch closings. No one is going to get a definitive answer on that by Wednesday. Politicians have a lot more posturing to do and, in fairness, finding additional funding streams in this economy is no easy trick.
The Web site doesn't allow donors to comment on why they're giving, but Mr. Oliphant said it could be modified in the future to allow that. There's just never going to be a time when a donor making a $100 gift can dictate what the board does with it.
"Foundations have a hard enough time when we're giving a million dollars," he said.
Pittsburgh is a funny town. There are mountains of Old Money in our foundations. New Money is what we're chronically low on.
The foundations represent one of our most important yet least understood unnatural resources. Their ability to cushion the blows of bad fortune around here goes generally unreported or at least underreported. Equally rare is the chance for any of us to direct even the smallest slice of foundation money in the direction we think best.
So I, America's Cheapest Man, intend to play this game, even if it does start with a $50 minimum. It beats playing the Pennsylvania Lottery, the tax on citizens who can't do math. There's no con in this game that I'm likely to win anything -- other than maybe a little better place to raise our kids.
Brian O'Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.