For nearly two decades, Sylvia Fields built a solid career in grant making and community relations at Duquesne Light Co. -- the only place she worked after graduating from college in 1978.
But when she learned the Eden Hall Foundation was looking for a program director, Ms. Fields was intrigued and took a closer look at the organization she had observed as "a very quiet foundation" that had "pretty much flown under the radar."
It was the foundation's focus on grants to benefit women and girls that sold her.
"I was really impressed. I thought they were very forward thinking."
Ms. Fields was hired by the foundation in 1996, left behind the big company culture at Duquesne Light and settled into an office where she worked with only one other employee.
In 2007, she was named executive director -- a move that confirmed her instincts that Eden Hall was a progressive organization. "It was a bold step to hire a female, who was also an African-American, to take the helm," she said.
Elevating her as the first black woman to steer a foundation in the Pittsburgh region wasn't a deliberate goal of Eden Hall's board when they conducted a search 16 years ago for a program manager.
"The fact she was African-American was not at the top of our minds," said Debora Foster, board member. "We selected Sylvia because she seemed a good fit with us and what we were trying to do."
By all accounts, though, Ms. Fields has made a strong impression as a woman of color in local foundation and nonprofit circles.
"She's just a consistent champion for women leaders in Pittsburgh," said Peggy Morrison Outon, executive director at the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University. "She's dedicated to seeing that women are appreciated.
"And the significance of her being African-American is incredibly important. We know our region struggles with diversity. It's really important that she has such a visible role."
Not only in Pittsburgh is Ms. Fields a rarity as a minority who holds a top job at a foundation. According to a 2011 survey by the Arlington, Va.-based Council on Foundations, only 9 percent of chief executives at foundations and corporate giving programs were minorities. The survey included 800 organizations in the U.S.
Women were far better represented overall than minorities, however, with 55 percent of those surveyed having a female in the top executive post.
"I think [Sylvia] represents us very well," said George Greer, chair of Eden Hall's board and a retired H.J. Heinz Co. executive. He acknowledged the foundation has rarely sought publicity but Ms. Fields has raised its profile.
"She's an exemplary leader," he said. "She's very effective with her staff and with us trustees ... and gets a good feel for the organizations that are requesting money. I think she's brought new respect to our foundation in the general foundation community."
Ms. Fields oversees a foundation with $160 million in total assets, according to the 990 return it filed in 2010 with the Internal Revenue Service. It distributed just over $9 million in grants last year, making it 15th largest among local foundations ranked by the amount of money dispersed.
While its overall giving theme targets women, the foundation makes grants in four primary areas: education, social welfare, health, and arts and culture. And its funding ranges from hundreds to millions of dollars.
In 2010, according to the federal 990 filing, small grants included $250 to Carnegie Mellon University and PghTech Women Network to help sponsor an all-girls team in a high school robotics competition; and $300 to the Friends of Hopital Albert Schweitzer Haiti.
Among its medium-sized awards were $45,000 to the Girl Scouts Western Pennsylvania and $76,000 to Magee-Womens Research Institute & Foundation.
Large grants included $350,000 for construction of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture and $3.5 million to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for artistic programs and a fundraising campaign.
Eden Hall Foundation was created in 1983 as a successor to the Eden Hall Farm Foundation, a nonprofit established in the 1930s to maintain Eden Hall, a Richland estate owned by H.J. Heinz Co. executive Sebastian Mueller.
Mueller used the property as a summer getaway and also invited Heinz employees to use it as a recreational center and for company outings. Before he died in 1938, leaving no heirs, he instructed that it be used as a retreat center for working women, especially Heinz's female employees.
If the Eden Hall Foundation was barely known in the decades it was responsible for maintaining the sprawling Richland farm, it gained widespread visibility in 2008 when it donated all 388 acres and existing buildings on the site to Chatham University.
Ms. Fields calls that grant "transformational."
The property "was highly sought after by developers and others," she said. "We went through many years of research, planning and a lot of thought" before gifting it to Chatham. The university is using the farm as the focal point of its School of Sustainability and the Environment.
"We found Chatham to be forward thinking, capable and, of course, women-centered. It will allow the university to do some things they would have liked but because of being landlocked [in the city's Shadyside neighborhood] would be just impossible. They can do a lot of work around sustainability, food and management. The sky's the limit."
Among other major grants she considers to be highlights of her tenure include funding to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy for restoration and building projects, such as the Schenley Welcome Center and Schenley Plaza at Schenley Park in Oakland, and the revitalization of Mellon Square, Downtown.
"We view our support for the parks as a way of paying it forward. These great industrialists left these beautiful parks to us. Now it's our turn to do what we can to ensure they are there for our children and that they look beautiful for the next 100 years."
One project she considers important because of the civic collaboration it sparked came in 2004 when Eden Hall joined with other local foundations, corporations and private individuals to raise $625,000 to fund the operation of city pools that otherwise would have been closed for the season because of budget restraints.
"It just needed to happen for the good of the community. The foundations came together and said, 'Yes. We'll do this.' "
Another she held up as significant is a grant for "74 Percent: Exploring the Lives of Women in Nonprofits," a research effort by the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management that is studying gender disparity issues in the nonprofit sector such as the wide gap between women's and men's earnings. The Bayer USA Foundation is co-funder.
On a smaller scale, Ms. Fields pointed to Eden Hall's first-time funding last year of the Hill District Education Council, which encourages children to work hard in school. Last August the council conducted an outdoor back-to-school celebration in the Hill District with games and prizes and distributed backpacks filled with school supplies.
"I loved this project. We were looking for ways to get behind what we think is a creative community effort," Ms. Fields said. "We're happy to see kids acknowledged for academic achievement. We don't see enough of this, and, frankly, I find it refreshing."
It's also the type of grant that gives Ms. Fields the chance to see first-hand how Eden Hall's resources are put to use -- a major requirement of doing her job effectively, she said. She spends about 40 percent of her time outside of the office "investigating potential grants, evaluating or kind of monitoring" the nonprofits that receive funds from Eden Hall.
"You really have to get out. There is no way you can be a successful grant maker without getting out of your office. You must see the work that you're involved in to better understand it."
Ms. Fields, 56, didn't set out to work in philanthropy.
A native of Trafford, Westmoreland County, she was the middle child in a family of seven children with a single mother. Her father died when she was 7.
"My mother, a retired librarian, went to work and back to college while I was growing up. I have memories of sitting at the dining room table with my mother and all of us doing homework including her. She always encouraged the girls as much as the boys to do well and get their education. Always."
Ms. Fields earned a bachelor's degree in political science in 1978 at what was then the all-women Seton Hill College (now Seton Hill University) and in 1998 obtained a master's in public administration from Carnegie Mellon University.
At Seton Hill, she wasn't Catholic but was strongly inspired by two Sisters of Charity on the faculty: Sister Rosalie O'Hara, who taught her visual arts, and Sister Mary Janet Ryan, who taught her history.
"They were really progressive. In my college years, I began to really understand that opportunities for me went beyond what I had envisioned for myself."
In the professional world, her mentors have been male: Regis Bobonis Sr., the former manager of public affairs at Duquesne Light; and Mr. Greer, the Eden Hall board chair.
"Interesting that I would name two men. That's the way it is."
She and her husband, an engineer, have two children: a son, 22, who attends Dean College in Franklin, Mass.; and a daughter, 20, who attends CMU.
What little personal time she carves out between overseeing Eden Hall and serving on a number of boards is spent with family and working out with the Steel City Rowing Club.
"On Saturday mornings, you'll find me on the Allegheny River about 7 o'clock."
Chatting in her small, tidy office in the U.S. Steel Tower where a portrait of Mueller hangs on the wall and a window overlooks Uptown and the Consol Energy Center, Ms. Fields reflects on being one of the few black women to hold a prominent position in Pittsburgh's philanthropic sector.
"It really makes me proud of the foundation I represent. It speaks volumes for this foundation. But it also reminds me as a woman and as an African-American, we have a long way to go."
She isn't sure why a foundation-rich community like Pittsburgh doesn't have more minority females in top positions.
"I have no answer to that," she laughed. "Maybe we'll look to the '74 Percent' project at the Bayer Center for some answers."
Joyce Gannon: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1580.