Nonprofits get funds, training at Fast Pitch

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During a three-minute presentation at the annual Fast Pitch competition last year, Maura Rodgers asked the audience at the Fairmont Hotel, Downtown, to conjure up thoughts of spring, pick-up baseball and ice cream after the game.

Without using props or Power Point slides, she then injected into those warm and fuzzy images a description of a boy with no verbal skills who was wheelchair bound on the baseball field's sideline.

Through the nonprofit she runs, the Miracle League of the South Hills, Ms. Rodgers said the boy would be able to join a team and play on a specially designed baseball field in Upper St. Clair in front of fans and volunteers who get "an education in empathy" from helping disabled children and adults.

The league's next project, she told the crowd, would be to develop a $750,000 playground with equipment custom designed to accommodate people with disabilities.

Ms. Rodgers helped her organization beat out nine other nonprofits for the contest's top prize of $20,000 by focusing less on the details of constructing the field and playground and more on how Miracle League helps a community interact with people with special needs.

Though not all of the nonprofits left Fast Pitch with the big cash, some received smaller financial awards, and all took home lessons in how to communicate their message. They also received exposure to a roomful of business leaders, entrepreneurs, foundation representatives and individual philanthropists who could potentially provide donations or other assistance down the road.

"The objective is to train nonprofit leaders who have to speak for their own organizations ... and to raise awareness about the work the nonprofits are doing for the greater good," said Elizabeth Visnic, director of Social Venture Partners Pittsburgh, which coordinates the annual event.

This year's Fast Pitch will be held 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., March 6, at the Circuit Center, 5 Hot Metal St., South Side. It is open to the public. More than $30,000 will be awarded to the competing nonprofits, including the $20,000 top prize, a $5,000 second prize and a $2,000 coaches' prize.

Members of Social Venture Partners Pittsburgh contribute about $15,000 to the prize pot and the Pittsburgh Foundation funds the balance, said Ms. Visnic.

Social Venture Partners Pittsburgh is one of 40 social venture partner groups worldwide; the Pittsburgh chapter was founded in 2001, initially to fund nonprofits that assisted at-risk children. It later broadened its scope to a range of charitable causes.

The local group currently includes about 40 partners who not only invest dollars but who participate as volunteers and act as advisers to nonprofit managers and directors.

"You don't have to have a trust fund," said Ms. Visnic. "You just have to be engaged in giving."

Since being hired in 2011, she has been managing the partnership from a virtual office in her North Hills home but she is preparing to move its operations to a bricks-and-mortar space on Liberty Avenue, Bloomfield, where she'll have a desk and conference room space. The Grable Foundation provided $20,000 to establish the new space, fund partner education and "allow us to go to the next level," she said.

Last fall, Social Venture Partners Pittsburgh sent out proposal requests to registered nonprofits in Allegheny County that might be interested in Fast Pitch. The partners selected 12 semi-finalists and paired each with two coaches who have been donating their time since early January to help the organizations develop succinct, fact-filled pitches that also highlight how the charities' work and programs make an impact on society.

This year's semi-finalists: CARE Ownership Asset Development & Training Program; CHS Homeless Assistance Programs; First Tee of Pittsburgh; High School Urban Eco Stewards: Young Naturalist Educators; Homeless Education Network; Lending Hearts; Music Smiles; Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse; Reuse Everything Institute; South Hills Interfaith Ministries; Small Seeds Development Inc.; and Treasure House Fashions.

At a final run-through scheduled for March 3, 10 finalists will be selected.

Ms. Visnic expects several hundred people to attend the competition where audience members will vote on the recipients of the top two cash awards.

"It's an opportunity for presenters to give their pitch to the greater philanthropic collective of Pittsburgh," she said.

Tickets to the March 6 Fast Pitch are $75 through Friday. After that, individual tickets are $100 with group discounts available. To register, go to www.svppittsburgh.org.


Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.

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