Philanthropy and the Shaping of Life in Pittsburgh

June 1, 2021

In nearly every neighborhood in Pittsburgh, evidence of philanthropy abounds. A short walk through historic Oakland reveals a library, museum, concert, and lecture hall, donated by Andrew Carnegie. These institutions are built on land once owned by Mary Schenley, whose gift formed one of the first public parks in the city. On either side of that park stand the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, true testimonials of philanthropists' belief in the value of self- improvement and applied knowledge. But philanthropy in Pittsburgh is more than the charitable institutions and legacies of industrial families; it's also the work of everyday Pittsburghers, every day throughout the history of the region. This May, the University of Pittsburgh Press is pleased to publish A Gift of Belief: Philanthropy and the Forging of Pittsburgh, edited by Kathleen Buechel.

A Gift of Belief is a new history of local philanthropy that offers insights on its interplay with regional partners, aspirations, and progress. Philanthropy has long been associated with images of industrial titans and wealthy families. In Pittsburgh, the shadows of Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, and others loom especially large, while the stories of everyday citizens who uplifted their neighbors with different but equally consequential means remain untold. For the first time, these two portraits of Pittsburgh philanthropy converge in a rich historic tapestry. The essays in this collection reveal how Pittsburghers from every strata, creed, and circumstance organized their private resources for the public good. The industrialists and their foundations are here but they stand alongside women, African Americans, religious congregations, service clubs and others equally involved in institution building, civic reform and community empowerment.

"Each of us wants to believe that good things will happen," writes Gregg Behr of the Grable Foundation. "A Gift of Belief reminds us that they do, sometimes by grand design but more typically by generous and often unremembered efforts among neighbors, donors, and caring citizens. The authors’ reflections amount to a story about how goodness happened in a place that rather unexpectedly [to the rest of the world] became a hub of modern American philanthropy."

Beginning with sectarian philanthropy in the nineteenth century, moving to scientific philanthropy in the early twentieth century and Pittsburgh Renaissance-era institution-building, and concluding with modern entrepreneurship, twelve authors trace how Pittsburgh aligned with, led, or lagged behind the national philanthropic story and explore how ideals of charity and philanthropy entwined to produce distinctive forms of engagement that has defined Pittsburgh’s civic life.

Kathleen W. Buechel teaches, speaks, and writes extensively about philanthropy. She brings nearly three decades of philanthropic, civic, and corporate sector leadership to her work. Currently she serves as executive director of the Benter Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based philanthropic organization that helps individuals and communities thrive. She is also senior lecturer in international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh where she directs the Philanthropy Forum at GSPIA and the Pittsburgh Philanthropy Project. In her consulting work, she helps donors heighten the impact of their giving and assists in engaging the next generation.