The president of The Heinz Endowments became the third leader to resign from the region’s second-largest foundation since August.
Robert Vagt, 66, informed staff of his decision on Monday morning and called board members. He set no date for his departure. Heinz Endowments spokeswoman Carmen Lee said the board will conduct a formal search for his successor, but set no timetable.
Vagt declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed. James M. Walton, vice chairman of the board, could not be reached for comment.
“How The Heinz Endowments conducts its business matters a lot,” said Peggy M. Outon, executive director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management. “If there are changes in the way they do their business and their culture, that’s going to have a profound effect on the nonprofit community here. We’re all watching to see what’s next.”
Outon declined to speculate on the reason for Vagt’s departure.
In a prepared statement released by email, he said, “It has been my privilege to serve the Heinz family and the people of this region for six years and to be associated with great colleagues at the endowments and in this philanthropic community. As looming on the horizon is my sixty-seventh birthday, this seemed to be an appropriate time for me to step down.”
Caren Glotfelty, senior director of the environmental program at Heinz, and Douglas L. Root, communications director, left their jobs in August in what observers of the foundation said was a shakeup engineered by Andre Heinz, a board member and son of late Sen. H. John Heinz. Andre Heinz’s mother, Teresa Heinz Kerry, chairwoman of the board, became seriously ill in July.
Sources said Andre Heinz, an advocate of wind, solar and biofuel energy technologies, clashed with Glotfelty over a grant to establish the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, a group of environmentalists and industry leaders who believe drilling can be done safely.
Energy leaders and environmentalists criticized the grant in news stories. In addition, a report by Public Accountability Initiative, a nonprofit group that targets business and government, cited Vagt’s ties to the oil and gas industry, and membership on the board of Kinder Morgan Inc., operator of natural gas pipelines.
“Nonprofits are experiencing a myriad of challenges, and continuity in leadership of the endowments is invaluable, so I greet this announcement with dismay,” said Outon, citing financial instability and the explosion of technology.
Both Outon and Karen Wolk Feinstein, president of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation of Pittsburgh, praised Vagt.
“The Pittsburgh community welcomed Bobby Vagt when he came because he had an interesting set of experiences across the nonprofit sector from serving as a prison warden and its connection to human services to president of Davidson College, which gave him an understanding for the many challenges of nonprofit higher education institutions, to serving as a Presbyterian minister,” Outon said.
Feinstein praised his open-mindedness and leadership in trying to improve the quality of air in the region through the Breathe Project.
“When Bobby was there, you weren’t called to the table to move in a certain direction, but basically you always felt you were there to offer your perspective on an issue so Bobby could get the broadest possible input.”
Averaging $60 million a year in grants to nonprofit groups, Heinz ranks among the 50 largest foundations in the country. The foundation, second in size locally only to the Richard King Mellon Foundation, supports the arts and culture; children, youth and families; community and economic development; education; and the environment.
“Bobby will be missed,” Feinstein said, “but I don’t necessarily see this as the board or family has any intention of abandoning their ongoing agenda.”
Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or [email protected].