The Pittsburgh Promise: staying audacious

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The numbers -- big, daunting ones with lots of zeroes -- can keep Saleem Ghubril up at night.

The executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, a program that's already dished out more than 3,500 college scholarships to city high school students, was in the news last week. Mr. Ghubril announced the Promise is part of a coalition to attract Latino immigrants to Pittsburgh and its schools.

That's fine. Many city neighborhoods have rebounded and prospered in the past couple of decades, but more could use new energy. Pittsburgh has long lagged other American cities in attracting immigrants, and $10,000 annual college scholarships should entice many a striving family.

Yet for all his optimism, Mr. Ghubril concedes that funding issues "drive me to my knees more than most things do.''

Since its launch five years ago, financing the Promise has been as straightforward as it's been audacious. To finance these scholarships to any college or trade school in Pennsylvania, UPMC agreed to put up as much as $100 million. To get all that, though, the Promise would have to raise $1.50 for every dollar the medical giant contributed.

UPMC kicked in $10 million with no strings to get things going for the city's 2008 graduating class. It promised to throw in another $10 million each year for the next nine years -- provided the Promise raised $15 million each year.

Fundraisers beat that mark in the first fiscal year ending June 2009, and so got the full UPMC match. But the past three years the Promise has fallen short, raising $11.3 million, $12.3 million and $7.6 million. That means UPMC has kicked in only $20.8 million of a potential $30 million. People generally don't slap an "only'' in front of numbers that large, but a multigenerational scholarship program needs to hit its marks to sustain itself.

Mr. Ghubril believes Pittsburgh children yet unborn will be receiving Promise scholarships, but that money has yet to be raised. At worst, there will be enough money for 16 more years of scholarships and, at best, more than 40 years of them. What's likely is in the middle. That would mean the Promise to my public school daughters, 12 and 14, and their schoolmates is intact, but the city's newborns aren't yet so lucky.

"I see a path to about $210 million of the $250 million [needed for full funding of the Promise]," Mr. Ghubril said. "That doesn't mean the path doesn't exist. I just haven't unearthed it yet.''

Mind you, what's already been accomplished is incredible. When Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and former schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt announced the Promise in December 2006, details were as thin as a freshman gymnast. No money had been raised when Mr. Roosevelt confidently promised students, "If you play by the rules ... there will be education after high school in your future, and money will not be what holds you back.''

A year later, UPMC came up big. Mr. Roosevelt proclaimed that a pool of $225 million would fund the scholarships in perpetuity, but Mr. Ghubril said it took "like half a minute'' to see that couldn't happen unless someone fronted the full amount immediately.

The Promise was launched before anyone knew how much money was out there, and the annual deadlines to hit fundraising goals don't mesh with the reality of cultivating relationships with big donors. Mr. Ghubril says the Promise has commitments for $60 million of the $150 million it needs to raise to meet the UPMC match.

UPMC and all nonprofits are lately under scrutiny for their tax-free status, but Mr. Ghubril hopes the medical giant can be flexible in extending the years for matching contributions. He doesn't see Promise fundraising ever stopping. He's stood in front of almost every kid in Pittsburgh above the age of 5, and "at the end of the day I want to be a man of my word and honor the Promise we make to our children.''

There have been more than 2,500 individual Promise donors so far, and Mr. Roosevelt, now president of the relaunched Antioch College in Ohio, thinks other large donors will step up. There are years yet to go, and Mr. Roosevelt said, "I believe there are people who love Pittsburgh enough to do something.''


Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.


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