Pittsburgh Foundation's new leader signals that change is on the way
Grant Oliphant, new president of The Pittsburgh Foundation
Former Pittsburgh Foundation president and CEO William Trueheart
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On the evening of April 7, about 200 people gathered inside the Cabaret Theater in Pittsburgh's Cultural District to meet the future of The Pittsburgh Foundation. Standing at the front of the room, a stage and set furniture behind them, were Gregory Curtis and Grant Oliphant -- the new chairman and president, respectively, of a philanthropy that gives away $35 million annually.
"We are going to do everything we can," Mr. Curtis told the audience of donors and board members, "to make you proud of the community foundation we have in this city."
The promise signaled dramatic changes now under way at the 63-year-old nonprofit -- changes in management style, in funding priorities, in the role a "community" foundation should play in a city of Pittsburgh's size.
Based Downtown, The Pittsburgh Foundation is an unusual charitable organization in that it derives its $750 million in assets not from a well-heeled family or Fortune 500 company but from 1,200 individuals and small organizations across the Pittsburgh area, some of its funds as small as $10,000. Its grants tend to focus on minorities, women and the disadvantaged.
Under former president William Trueheart, who left in September after almost six years at the helm, The Pittsburgh Foundation made some bold, controversial moves. It, along with The Heinz Endowments and The Grable Foundation, pulled funding from the Pittsburgh Public Schools and went public with the decision, attracting plaudits for the wake-up call. It raised its national profile when Mr. Trueheart served as chair of the Independent Sector, a well-known nonprofit trade group in Washington, D.C., and became involved in debates about greater transparency and accountability in the charitable sector. It moved out of expensive 30th-floor offices in One PPG Place, looking to save money where possible, and asked the foundation's trustee banks to reduce their costs.
With buy-in from his board, Mr. Trueheart also initiated a process that narrowed the foundation's areas of focus from 25 to five -- educational excellence, support for families and children, economic development, reduction of health disparities among African-Americans and the arts.
But many of these moves were the subject of tension inside and outside the organization.
Some staff members argued against the decision to pull funding from the schools, feeling it was too confrontational and done without consultation. Some disagreed with the push to winnow the organization's funding priorities, arguing that the new definitions were too narrow and excluded too many organizations depending on support from The Pittsburgh Foundation.
"It hurt people on staff to tell people in organizations that [The Pittsburgh Foundation] is not funding them anymore," said a source familiar with the situation, citing the decision to give less to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, a nonprofit that feeds the hungry. But, "Bill did what he was asked to do," what the "board told him to do."
This source, describing Mr. Trueheart as "tough" and "hard charging," said concerns developed among board members about Mr. Trueheart spending too much time away from Pittsburgh on national issues. Also, board members looked into allegations of "extremely tough" behavior on the part of Mr. Trueheart and his dealings with staff.
"I think he lost some board members' support because of concerns of how rough he was," said this source, who requested anonymity. But, "I did not see it. I am shocked that was going on." In fact, "I think he had a good relationship with some employees." While, "I do believe he was tough and toughest on those who did not perform to a level he considered acceptable," others "learned a lot from him."
Nevertheless, "Once people on a board begin to lose confidence in a leader, that person should move on."
Mr. Trueheart, who now keeps an office at Downtown-based Sheridan Broadcasting Corp. and still lives in Squirrel Hill, declined to comment for this story.
But Arthur White, who hired Mr. Trueheart in the 1990s to run Washington, D.C.-based Reading is Fundamental, was willing to offer up Mr. Trueheart's side of the story. Mr. White said that in a recent conversation, Mr. Trueheart described the narrowing of the foundation's focus, the withdrawal of school funding and the pressure on trustee banks to reduce their costs all as sources of tension -- the trustee banks, in particular, aired their frustrations with board members.
After some board members supportive of Mr. Trueheart left, the former president told Mr. White he ran into problems over job offers he had received from outside foundations. The board asked that he disclose such inquiries, and he did, but board members "just didn't take it well," Mr. White said.
Mr. Trueheart is "not warm and fuzzy," Mr. White acknowledged. He considers the Harvard University Ph.D. graduate "one of the most capable individuals I know," but when Mr. Trueheart experiences pushback, "He doesn't always handle it as well as he might." Also, "There is something about him that is almost forbidding to some people, and that's too bad."
Mr. Trueheart's successor -- Mr. Oliphant -- arrives with a slightly different reputation.
While he and Mr. Trueheart are both praised for their smarts and interest in public policy, supporters of Mr. Oliphant inevitably talk up his affability and sense of humor. If "anybody on the staff feels the need to come in and talk, he is a very easy guy to talk to," said the new chair, Mr. Curtis, the managing director of Shadyside wealth management firm Greycourt & Co. "His door is open. He is not a formal kind of guy. He is not an intimidating kind of guy."
Alfred "Burr" Wishart, who led the foundation from 1970 to 2001, said he "couldn't be more pleased" with Mr. Oliphant's hiring.
The 47-year-old arrives from The Heinz Endowments, the region's second-largest philanthropy, where he served as a longtime No. 2 under Maxwell King. A former press secretary for U.S. Sen. John Heinz, founder of a monthly political magazine in Washington, D.C., and son of famed political cartoonist Pat Oliphant, he will make $240,000 per year in his new post -- less than the $315,574 paid Mr. Trueheart in 2006, according to Internal Revenue Service documents.
If any "angst" exists about The Pittsburgh Foundation, Mr. Oliphant said, it has to do with differing expectations about the appropriate role of a community foundation. Does it exist to simply take money from donors or should it also serve that larger community in other ways? Should it focus its efforts narrowly, in a few areas, or broadly? Mr. Oliphant argues for the latter, saying that The Pittsburgh Foundation needs to be "on top of the key issues of the day."
Board member James Roddey agrees, saying the foundation "needs to be more responsive to the community, No. 1" and a "convener" on "issues of importance."
As a result, Mr. Oliphant is revisiting the foundation's funding priorities. Six years ago, the narrowing from 25 areas of focus to five was the result of a well-intentioned desire to be more effective -- part of shift around the country to so-called "higher-impact philanthropy" -- but "we've learned a lot since then," Mr. Oliphant said. "One of the things that we've learned is it is possible to focus too narrowly and that it is possible to focus so rigidly that you're not able to respond to big things happening in the community around you."
He wants the foundation to be less rigid, more "opportunistic" and "built to change," able to pivot quickly in an effort to get things done. The perception, he conceded, is that The Pittsburgh Foundation has been "not as on top of things, not as engaged in new issues as they emerged and . . . not as responsive to the broader community as we needed to be."
What also has to change at The Pittsburgh Foundation, he said, is how the organization measures success -- a tricky proposition in philanthropy, where hundreds of millions support local nonprofit groups each year without definitive proof that money is being used effectively. The metrics currently used by The Pittsburgh Foundation, he said, are too limiting, resulting in "money flowing through very, very narrow spigots" and too much attention paid to "what can be measured rather than measuring what matters." On the issue of health disparities, for example, the foundation could not address the connection between depression and diabetes in African-American men because such a link did not match the pre-selected illness groups.
"It made it difficult to put money out the door."
In being "responsive to the broader community," Mr. Oliphant pledges not to lose focus on the African-American community, or the disadvantaged. But, "We need to get back to being good at affecting the overall system."
Some nonprofits may see less money as a result of the changes -- "I would be lying if I said nobody needed to worry," he said -- and "we are going to try some big things." One example is The Pittsburgh Promise, a $250 million scholarship program for graduates of city schools backed in part by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He calls the program, which will be managed by The Pittsburgh Foundation and measured with still-to-be-developed report card metrics, "one of the biggest gambles Pittsburgh has undertaken in years. It's a $250 million bet."
Foundations -- and Pittsburgh -- have to be willing to experiment, to accept risk and to face the fear of failure, he said. Such were the themes he stressed during his introductory talk at the Cabaret Theater on April 7. Admitting to being both "honored" and "terrified" by his new assignment, Mr. Oliphant described this as a "time of great opportunity and great challenge" for Pittsburgh and promised to open philanthropy "as wide as a possible" while delivering "impact in the community where we live." He drew vigorous applause when he said, "People talk about bold ideas, and that's what we need right now."
When Mr. Oliphant finished speaking, the audience gave him a standing ovation.
First Published May 4, 2008 12:00 am