Max King photo by Rob Larson

It wasn’t so long ago that Maxwell King was living on his Vermont farm, 40 acres north of Stowe, writing the first-ever full-length biography of Fred Rogers. Blissfully retired from the rough-and-tumble world of institutional politics—including gilt-edged stops at The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Heinz Endowments and the National Council on Foundations—he’d sit down to work every morning. Only to spend the first hour reading Pittsburgh news websites. “I badly underestimated how much cities mean to me,” he recalls. “And I miscalculated how much I missed Pittsburgh.”

Serendipitously, Dr. Edith Shapira, chair of The Pittsburgh Foundation’s board, approached him when he was in town about the open position of President of the foundation.

The deal struck, he returned to captain a billion-dollar ship. Founded in 1945, The Pittsburgh Foundation has realized a remarkable asset growth of 33 percent since 2007. Raising roughly $60 million annually, the Foundation has more than 1,900 individual donor funds—endowment funds established by individuals, businesses and organizations.

Six months in to a five-year term, the man whom Dr. Shapira described as “a smart, thoughtful and charismatic leader who knows and loves Pittsburgh” sat down with NEXTpittsburgh for a state-of-the-city chat. Open, friendly, easily approachable, King gazed out of his modest Five PPG Place office at a blissfully sunny day and began with the narrative, as it was presented to him.

NEXT: Legend has it that when you first came to Pittsburgh in 1999, you had to convince people what was good about the place. Now they’re telling you.

King: I talked about the community, how the place was full of incredible, exciting possibility. But so many people I’d talk to were really doubtful. They’d say, ‘do you really think so? Do you think Pittsburgh is OK?’ They weren’t defensive, but they were doubtful, they were tentative. I was coming from Philadelphia—and New York before that. Pittsburgh seemed really cool to me—wonderfully exciting.

Coming back this time, 2014, one of my assignments was to get out in the community and have a lot of meetings. This time there was no doubt. Everybody talked about Pittsburgh as if it were a given, that this is the most exciting, hottest town in the world. None of the people I talked to expressed the kind of tentativeness or doubt that had been here 15 years earlier.

In just the six years I was gone the momentum has ratcheted up. There is a new narrative about this exciting 21st-century city that’s a model for what cities can do—all of which is true and believable. But the community perspective has changed so quickly from wounded by the loss of heavy industry to ebulliently confident.

NEXT: How do you account for the change?

King: The change is real. Pittsburgh’s narrative is that it’s the Renaissance city, it keeps reinventing itself. If you look at Pittsburgh’s history, from the French and Indian Wars through different eras, it’s a totally different history. It’s done a really good job of it.

What is it about Pittsburgh that enables it to reinvent itself so successfully? After World War II it went through a reinvention. It cleaned up its air and water; it built Point State Park.

One of the big factors is the foundations. The big old money that was made here went into foundations and stayed here, committed to Pittsburgh.

There’s also something in the character of the place that also enables reinvention. David McCullough explains it by saying that Pittsburgh gets it from Scots-Irish-Presbyterian culture. Hard working. Straightforward. Honest. Direct. Unpretentious. Caring. Focused on community.

NEXT: What’s Pittsburgh doing well these days?

King: We’re using the capacity of the nonprofits—the universities and hospitals—very effectively for cultural and economic development. To attract people and businesses.

We also use the natural beauty of Pittsburgh really well. What we’ve done with the riverfronts and the trails. You come down here on a weekend, and the river is full of boats, kayaks, rowing shells; and the trails are full of bikers and hikers.

We’ve learned good lessons about architecture, too. Pittsburgh has one of the greatest collections of turn-of-the-20th-century architecture in America. For a while we were tearing a lot of those buildings down. We’ve learned that lesson now: we cherish our architectural heritage. We’re saving those buildings and reusing them.

Max King photo by Rob Larson.
Max King photo by Rob Larson.

NEXT: Where could Pittsburgh stand improvement?

King: I don’t see many places that are highly successful in the 21st Century that aren’t exemplars of diversity and inclusion. Pittsburgh has a way to go before it can fit into that category: we’re not as diverse as we could be, and we don’t do as well by our diverse populations.

There’s also huge poverty here: we’re very close to leaving 30 to 40 percent of our population behind. In our excitement about the new Pittsburgh—which I share—we need to make sure that this opportunity is available broadly.

NEXT: What’s The Pittsburgh Foundation doing to help?

King: We have an initiative called 100% Pittsburgh. Meaning that we want 100% of the people in Pittsburgh get to participate in the new Pittsburgh. Early childhood education, veterans, living wage—we’re increasing our focus in those directions.

All around town people agree that it’s a very important issue. And if we drop the ball on it, we won’t be Pittsburgh. We might be the new Pittsburgh, but we won’t be the old Pittsburgh, which cares about people. So I’m very optimistic about getting a lot of partners to work on that agenda.

NEXT: What else is new at The Pittsburgh Foundation?

King: The Center for Philanthropy is a collaboration between the development and the program departments. Traditionally, those have been separate arenas. We’re melding them into one unit on behalf of donors, so that donors become part of grantmaking. We’re not just looking at donors as people who write checks. Instead, we’re looking at them as community assets. It’s a more holistic approach, and the reception we’re getting is outstandingly positive. Donors are happy to have access to our expertise and thinking, and be a part of it.

Max King photo by Rob Larson
Max King photo by Rob Larson

NEXT: It’s obvious that you like being part of the process, too.

King: Having worked 10 years at The Heinz Endowments, I know the town, the work, the people. I also had enough success at The Heinz Endowments so that people have a measure of confidence that I’ll do the same here.

I knew I’d have to listen carefully to other people—the staff, the board, the political and business community. I couldn’t just blow into town and substitute my judgment for theirs—that wouldn’t work in a job like this. It’s a community foundation. It’s not my foundation.

The Pittsburgh Foundation focuses more on the community and those populations that need help to be able to participate. Those populations that have less resources, less advantage, less education, less opportunity. However long I’ll work, that’s what I’d like to focus on.

Abby Mendelson is a veteran Pittsburgh writer and reporter. A novelist and short-story writer, he is also the author of numerous Pittsburgh-related books, including Arena: Remembering the Igloo, Pittsburgh: A Place in Time, Pittsburgh Prays: Thirty-Six Houses of Worship, Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred, and The Pittsburgh Steelers Official History. As a journalist, he has written on countless subjects in a wide variety of publications, local and national, print as well as electronic.