Denny Civic Solutions brings together stakeholders on community issues

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During a stint as a program officer with the Hillman Foundation, one of Pittsburgh's most prestigious philanthropies, John Denny frequently found himself frustrated not to be more involved with hands-on strategy for the nonprofit and community groups that received the foundation's grants.

"Giving away money was the easy part," he said. "That's the old approach of philanthropy: to give money and be hands off."

Now that he runs his own consulting firm, Denny Civic Solutions, Mr. Denny looks for ways to bring nonprofits and foundations together with government and political leaders to craft what he hopes will be effective solutions to critical community issues such as transportation funding and human services.

Mr. Denny, 49, has a long history in Republican politics that goes back to working for the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the 1980s. He later spent three years with the Hillman Foundation and 12 years as community relations director for the Hillman Co.

The difference between a political campaign and a civic campaign, he said, is that while politicians are trying to win votes, "In a civic campaign, the people are trying to get the politician to vote for our mission or our needs."

His most high-profile client to date is the Campaign for What Works, a joint initiative of the United Way of Allegheny County, the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership that has a mission to save social service programs impacted by state budget cuts.

"It was born out of a frustration over cuts to human services," Mr. Denny said.

He has worked with leaders of the initiative to adopt a message focused on "what we were for rather than what we were against ... and be precise in what we were asking for."

Some steps the campaign took to protest 2012 state budget cuts included organizing or participating in public rallies; partnering with commissioners in 15 Pennsylvania counties to gain broader statewide support; and reaching out to United Way regional offices elsewhere in the state and to foundations in Philadelphia to garner even more influence.

On the campaign's websites, the public can access electronic links to contact state legislators directly through emails, Facebook messages or Tweets.

In the final $27.7 billion budget passed by the legislature in June, $84 million originally targeted for cuts was restored to social service programs.

Though Mr. Denny is pleased the campaign helped reduce the total amount of funds expected to be slashed, "I can't celebrate that as a win," he said. "We would have liked to get more restored."

Among the campaign's goals for the state's 2013-14 fiscal year are: no new budget cuts in human service programs; establishment of a new independent fiscal office that would analyze what state-funded programs work and which ones don't; and supporting proposed legislation that would change the name of the state Department of Public Welfare to something more akin to human services.

"It's a demeaning name," Mr. Denny said. "We are one of the only states that has something called welfare."

While he is still associated with political maven Elsie Hillman as a special assistant and advisor on her community and political activities, and maintains a base in her office suite in the Grant Building, Downtown, Mr. Denny is more likely found doing business over coffee in spots like the lobby of the Omni William Penn Hotel and checking messages on a smartphone or iPad. "I spend most of my time out in the field; I can work virtually."

His ease with networking and ability to reach the right people in business, nonprofit and government sectors is an asset, said Roger Cranville, the honorary consul for Canada in Western Pennsylvania who formerly held executive positions with Global Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.

Mr. Denny's business model is likely to benefit the region, Mr. Cranville said. "We have a plethora of nonprofit organizations and foundations that are navigating government relations. And nobody has greater knowledge of those organizations, the foundations and the links between them than John."

A native of Derry, Westmoreland County, Mr. Denny met Mrs. Hillman when he was a junior in high school and was assigned to write a paper on the first President Bush. He started campaigning for the Reagan-Bush ticket in Westmoreland County and as a student at Robert Morris University interned in Mrs. Hillman's office. At age 25, he was statewide manager for the 1988 Bush presidential campaign.

After four years with a political consulting firm in Washington, D.C., he returned to Pittsburgh and worked again for Mrs. Hillman and then her family's foundation and company.

Along the way, he earned a master's in public management at the Heinz School at Carnegie Mellon University; opened a bed-and-breakfast in Shadyside; and founded Pittsburgh Social Venture Partners, a network of individuals who fund nonprofits.

Before he worked for the Hillman Foundation, Mr. Denny admits he was naive about why nonprofits -- especially those with programs that provide basic human services -- need a coalition of support not only from the foundation community but from the business and public sectors.

"I saw that some layers of these organizations never connect. I got much more excitement seeing them come together and find each other than I did in giving the money away."

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


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