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The Pittsburgh Foundation enjoys post-election surge in donations |

The Pittsburgh Foundation enjoys post-election surge in donations

Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Maxwell King, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation.

Maxwell King recalls feeling nervous this past fall as he reviewed The Pittsburgh Foundation’s 2016 fundraising totals.

King, CEO and president of Western Pennsylvania’s third-largest grant-making foundation, was dismayed that year-to-date donations in September and October were significantly below amounts recorded the same time the previous year.

Then something happened that stunned King and his colleagues: charitable contributions came pouring into the community foundation after the presidential election — so fast that the foundation took in donations at almost double the pace it did in the last month of 2015.

“Because of the election and the political climate, people were hesitating and holding off (on giving),” King said. “They were concerned about a variety of things, including where the markets might go and what changes might happen in tax policy.”

In December alone, The Pittsburgh Foundation received cash donations topping $18 million, compared to $10 million raised in December 2015, a foundation report released Friday shows. The totals include money going toward grant-making through the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, acquired by the Pittsburgh Foundation in 2010.

It’s not unprecedented to observe a donation boost in the aftermath of an election, noted King, but the recent surge was “far more pronounced this year than in any previous year that we know of.”

The foundation observed an uptick in donors wanting their dollars to go toward human services, such as through its “100 Percent Pittsburgh Initiative.” The initiative — it seeks to ensure Western Pennsylvanians of all incomes and neighborhoods share in the region’s revitalization — kicked off in 2016 by focusing on improving the lives, education and housing situations of children and single women raising families.

The organization raised a total of $44.6 million in 2016 — down slightly in terms of overall money raised. The foundation collected $50.6 million in 2015 and $53.5 million in 2014.

The number of individual gifts, however, was on the rise in 2016, King said. The reason the overall amount is less than previous years is because the biggest single gift last year was $3 million, whereas in 2015 the foundation received a record-breaking $15 million gift from a Boston couple with Pittsburgh ties — Richard Hunt, grandson of Alcoa founder Alfred E. Hunt, and his wife, Priscilla.

The foundation also saw a bump in gifts from bequests, which climbed from $5 million in 2015 to $8.3 million last year.

Most of the eleventh-hour philanthropic contributions came in the form of donor-advised funds, which have increased in popularity at the foundation for the third straight year. Individuals and families established 49 new donor-advised funds last year, for a total of 963 DAFs now held there. That’s up from just 445 DAFs in 2006.

Foundation-held DAFs distributed more than 3,500 grants last year totaling $20.5 million — accounting for almost half of the foundation’s 7,371 grants totaling $43.1 million last year, for a 22 percent increase in the foundation’s grant-making from 2015.

The DAFs are attractive to donors because they provide the benefits of greater tax deductions, more flexibility over spending and fewer regulatory costs and hassles than they would’ve faced by forming a private foundation. The foundation also provides donor advisers with guidance and subject-matter experts.

DAFs have stirred controversy on a national scale, however, as people increasingly establish DAFs at commercial-backed entities such as Fidelity and Schwab. Critics argue because there is no payout requirement, DAFs enable the wealthy to hoard money and get tax breaks without using the money for the public good.

At The Pittsburgh Foundation, the DAF average payout is 7 percent, above the 5 percent payout required of private foundations, King said. Only about 2 percent of the foundation-held DAFs are considered “inactive.”

“We try to keep a very close look at inactive (donor-advised) funds and make sure that we’re talking to those donors,” said King.

Nationwide, more than 150,000 donors annually are pumping more than $20 billion — or 5.5 percent of all gifts to charitable organizations — into donor-advised funds hosted by mutual funds, brokers or community foundations, National Philanthropic Trust data show .

“Commercial ones have been remarkably successful at pulling in money but not remarkably successful at grant-making,” King said. “They don’t have the staffs that oversee grant-making, and they tend to be national operations that don’t have connections with the community.”

The Pittsburgh Foundation, headquartered in PPG Place, Downtown, is one of the nation’s oldest community foundations. With more than $1 billion in net assets, it’s the 13th largest among U.S. community foundations. Its mission is to improve the quality of life in Greater Pittsburgh by identifying and responding to community issues, promoting responsible philanthropy and connecting donors to critical needs.

In addition to direct grant-making, the foundation helps individual nonprofits raise money through the likes of regional fundraisers.

The foundation will host its next “critical needs alert” campaign next month.

The goal is to raise $600,000 for 93 nonprofits in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties. Charitable causes span programs that support local people who need assistance with food, child care, housing, transportation and physical and mental health treatment.

Donors can contribute from 8 a.m. to midnight May 23 via

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or

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