FOUNDATION: Leveraging a City’s Past

Leadership of a major Pittsburgh foundation turned to my consulting firm to help celebrate its fortieth anniversary. They viewed the occasion primarily as a one-time dinner event to thank contributors. We knew there had to be a better way to leverage the anniversary for a longer-lasting impact.

* A 40th anniversary is not especially noteworthy, compared with, for example, a 25th anniversary, and was not likely to attract much attention.
* The conservative foundation could respond negatively to a high-profile program.
* The budget was limited.

My highly creative partner and I realized that the foundation’s 40-year lifespan coincided with what had become known as The Pittsburgh Renaissance – a major era in the transformation of Pittsburgh from a smoky city to a thriving corporate and cultural center. Why not turn the anniversary into a year-long celebration of the city and the foundation’s role as a leading change-agent?

Our plan pivoted around the number 40 and the foundation’s eight primary funding areas: aging, health, education, etc.

  • We organized eight study groups of community leaders to focus on the foundation’s eight areas. Group leaders included prominent experts such as Fred (Mr.) Rogers on children’s issues.
  • Over several months, each group worked to identify five events that helped redefine Pittsburgh over 40 years. Eight committees multiplied by five issues produced “The 40 Events that Shaped Pittsburgh’s Renaissance” – a theme that we converted into a book, a publicity campaign, and other communication.

The results were significant.

  • Publicity included front-page articles twice in Pittsburgh newspapers, as well as radio and television news and talk show coverage.
  • A permanent exhibit on the city’s Renaissance was created and funded by the foundation at a major downtown location.
  • The 40-events program subsequently morphed into “The 50 Initiatives for the Future.” The eight original groups developed an agenda for the city’s future, each one selecting six pressing issues, with the foundation adding two of its own to form the 50 initiatives.
  • Most important, the process of dozens of Pittsburgh leaders concentrated on extolling the city’s history and future – all under the auspices of the foundation – gave the organization wider visibility in the community, a heightened reputation among benefactors and opinion leaders, and a focused plan for years to come.
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