Family affair? The exits at the Heinz Endowments are a concern

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The Heinz Endowments is a potent and respected philanthropic force in Pittsburgh and beyond.

With assets of $1.4 billion, it makes grants of $60 million a year, on average, and wields considerable influence in arts and culture; children, youth and families; community and economic development; education; and environment. While that's enough financial punch to make it a national player, the Heinz Endowments, chaired by Teresa Heinz Kerry, chooses to use most of its dollars and clout in southwestern Pennsylvania.

This region is better for it.

So it is only natural to be concerned about the sudden departures of high-ranking personnel that have occurred unceremoniously at the endowments. In August it was announced that Caren Glotfelty, the organization's director of environmental programs, was leaving. Then, Douglas Root, its media director, was gone. Both had been with the endowments for more than 10 years. Last week Robert Vagt, who has been president of the philanthropy for five years, said he will be stepping down.

The community has been left puzzled and perplexed by the high-profile exits since no official reason has been given by the Heinz Endowments. But all signs suggest the culprit has been these leaders' advocacy, on behalf of Heinz, of an initiative that seeks a middle ground with natural gas frackers. Since this was not the course personally espoused by one or more Heinz family members, goes the speculation, the path charted by the endowments leaders could not be tolerated.

The initiative is the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, launched in March by a coalition of foundations, environmental groups and gas developers as a way to create best practices, over and above state regulations, for Marcellus Shale drilling in Pennsylvania. Besides Consol Energy, Chevron and the Heinz Endowments, some of the founding participants were the Clean Air Task Force, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Group Against Smog and Pollution, PennFuture and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

Among CSSD's board members are Jared Cohon, president emeritus of Carnegie Mellon University; Paul O'Neill, former U.S. Treasury secretary; and Christine Todd Whitman, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Not exactly a bunch of wild-eyed polluters.

All that said, a philanthropic family has a right to set its endowments' direction, and that could be what is happening here. It will not diminish the charity's value to Pittsburgh or the impact of its civic leadership.

What gives us pause, though, is the endowments has been capably steered by a board whose members live here, work here and are attuned to the needs of Pittsburgh. To take the rudder out of their hands would inhibit their ability to act for the benefit of the region they know.

A change in course for the endowments on the CSSD would become a lost opportunity to affect for the better the state's newest and highest-profile growth industry. It would also be a departure, sadly, from the enduring spirit of the late Sen. John Heinz, who spent his career in Washington reaching across the aisle in the hopes of finding common ground.

Just when so much of the nation's public discourse has grown fractious and divisive, a loss such as this would be incalculable.


First Published October 20, 2013 8:00 PM


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