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Philanthropies respond to COVID-19

PITTSBURGH, MARCH 16, 2020 – Foundations and other philanthropic institutions dedicated to improving quality of life across southwestern Pennsylvania have come together with unprecedented speed, to provide $4 million to create an Emergency Action Fund and as much as $6 million in aligned, coordinated efforts to lessen the damaging effects of the COVID-19 virus on residents, especially the most vulnerable.

Anticipating what national infectious disease experts and government officials predict will be one of the most significant economic, health and human services challenges the country has ever faced, the region’s four largest foundations are organizing to shorten internal approval processes and make grants quickly to organizations on the front lines of providing essential human services, health care support and economic assistance. Preference will be given to those most vulnerable to the negative effects of curtailment of daily economic activities, school operations, transportation options, day care services and a range of government programs.

To inform fund distribution, needs are being assessed in consultation with the Allegheny County Health Department and the Department of Human Services. Funders are also reviewing the results of a community survey of 1,600 nonprofits conducted last week through the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania in conjunction with its 211 help-line. The fund will be held at The Pittsburgh Foundation, which is waiving all credit card and management fees on individual donations. Donations can be made by linking to

The first phase of the rapid-response grants will address:

  • The economic impact of reduced and lost work due to the coronavirus outbreak;
  • Immediate needs of economically vulnerable populations caused by closures and cancellations related to COVID-19;
  • Increased demand for medical information and support for health care;
  • Communications and research support to better assess need and improve information flow for the region’s most vulnerable residents.

In a joint statement further explaining the fund’s purpose, Pittsburgh Foundation President and CEO Lisa Schroeder and United Way President and CEO Bobbi Watt Geer said:

“We are in uncharted territory gauging the full societal harm that will be caused by the COVID-19 virus, and by the necessary suspension of most activities of daily life across our region to combat it. We hope that the public will donate generously to this effort. The establishment of the Emergency Action Fund is the first step from our sector in developing a recovery plan for the long term. Philanthropic organizations in our region have a wide range of strategies and values that govern their giving, but through this fund, we come together as one, with one goal: ensuring rapid and effective assistance for the most vulnerable and other COVID-19 response needs as they arise.”

The heads of the largest foundations in the region – Schroeder, Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments; Sam Reiman, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation; and David Roger, president, The Hillman Family Foundations – said that additional grantmaking by the foundations individually outside of the Emergency Action Fund to respond to the COVID-19 emergency will happen through their Boards and in alignment with their current areas of focus.

Schroeder said that the contributions represent a first round of investment with a plan to review conditions on a regular basis to determine future commitments.
In explaining the Endowments’ decision to support the Action Fund, Oliphant pointed to the crisis that the virus presents to the community “and the hardship that threatens individuals and families, especially among the most vulnerable in our community. “The launch of this emergency fund is only the beginning with initial commitments by Pittsburgh’s philanthropic cohort designed to help with immediate and urgent need. We will continue to monitor the situation and we will respond as the situation develops.”

The desire for speed also was motivation for the Hillman Family Foundations. “We wanted to act quickly to make funds available and are committed to working closely with our community partners to find creative ways to get through this crisis,” said Roger. “Clearly, we’re all very concerned about all of the unknowns at this time, but we wanted to assure our nonprofit partners we will do everything we can to help them with needed support in this very difficult situation.”

Reiman said that while the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the other foundations have different areas of focus, “what binds us together is our commitment to southwestern Pennsylvania. This pandemic is a historic threat to our community health, economy and quality of life, and so our foundation eagerly joins our peer foundations to concentrate resources on the people, places and organizations most at risk.”

The Pittsburgh Foundation will administer grants in partnership with leaders of the Allegheny Department of Human Services, the County Health Department, the United Way and foundations. Together, members will proactively identify potential grant recipients, solicit guidance on recipients from community advisors, and recommend final awards.

More details on the grant-making process will be released publicly and posted on The Pittsburgh Foundation website in the next few days. Contributors expect to make the first round of grants in the next several weeks.

In a joint statement, philanthropic leaders lauded Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and the board and staff of the county Health Department. “Their quick action, attention to science and facts, transparency with the public and moral leadership has made us far safer and better positioned for recovery than we would be otherwise,” group members stated. “We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.”

Doug Root
The Pittsburgh Foundation