Ask a person from Pittsburgh to Define philanthropy and they will most likely mention an industrialist like Andrew Carnegie or a patriarch named Heinz or Mellon. These economic giants play a big role in Pittsburgh. The word “Pittsburgh” and its Golden Age legacy are so intertwined that some believe that it was here that these industrialists invented philanthropy. Experiences in Carnegie’s libraries, Phipps’ conservatory, Buhl’s planetarium or Frick’s public park actually opened up another world for many. Here, too, they contributed to a unique, closer impression of the genesis of philanthropy.
In fact, ultra-rich capitalists in Pittsburgh did not invent philanthropy. Rather, they joined an existing tradition of innumerable individuals, churches, and entire communities who brought in their often much more precious personal resources. These various, less visible, donors preceded the Titans and continued after them. Women, African-Americans, immigrants and religious groups from all parts of the city and social classes forged critical forms of philanthropy here.
The two images of commercial titans making big citizen bets and organized neighbors helping neighbors in need seldom meet in one portrait. Yet their mix represents Pittsburgh’s true philanthropic history. In A Gift of Belief: Philanthropy and the Forging of Pittsburgh, a new book I edited, 12 authors weave together these often separate narratives. Their analysis reveals philanthropy to be a more widespread and defining part of Pittsburgh civic culture from the mid-19th century to the present day.
Who and what did these authors find? They found philanthropists who adapted their means to the needs and circumstances of their time. These donors also set up important institutions such as schools, orphanages and settlement houses. Their generosity met urgent needs when Pittsburgh suffered from frequent epidemics, economic downturns, and the effects of rapid industrialization and urban change. Her contributions were just as momentous as those of her more prominent colleagues. And they have not been reported enough in our region – until now.
Women played a prominent role in Pittsburgh’s early philanthropy. In 1796, women in the First Presbyterian Church founded Relief Society for the Poor during a cholera epidemic. Two women named Jane Holmes, cousins of the same name, supported a variety of charities. The role of women in society has evolved through philanthropy. They donated, owned, and managed community assets. They switched from aid donors to institution builders and later set up and ran local foundations.
Building on the strength of the churches, the ethos of self-help, and the need for mutual help in the face of racism, philanthropy flourished in the African American community of Pittsburgh. Women’s service clubs, communities, and individuals like Daisy Lampkin, Alma Illery, Bernard Jones, and others organized philanthropy in their communities and formed a grassroots safety net. Philanthropy gave both African Americans and women room to maneuver before they could vote.
As the 20th century dawned, philanthropists shifted their methods from sectarian to more secular, scientific approaches. Pittsburgh later came up with some of these philanthropic ideas and defied the urge to long unite charities to other regions. In other moments here, philanthropists were ahead of their time, adapting systems and scientific means to a variety of problems. They funded parks, medical breakthroughs, and the Downtown Cultural District. They later supported the transition from steel to a knowledge-based economy. They worked with the government and tried, within the framework of the law, to change this.
This is a distinctive Pittsburgh story. Despite the differences, these philanthropists shared a willingness to help Pittsburgh and its people. They believed in the power of giving and organized their philanthropy accordingly. They took risks. You haven’t always got it right. The chapters of A Gift of Belief reveal both the philanthropists’ achievements and their shortcomings. Many of the challenges that 19th century philanthropists faced remain here today. A broader and more nuanced look at the region’s philanthropy enables us to learn from the past and build on it. Philanthropy and its promise to Pittsburgh are still in the works