After the sudden death of John Heinz — a U.S. Senator and heir to the Heinz family’s food conglomerate fortune — his wife, Teresa Heinz, asked the senator’s press secretary to join the staff at the Heinz Family Philanthropies. 

“I had no clue what philanthropy was, so I said no,” recalls Grant Oliphant, who was 30 years old when he turned down the offer in 1991. He had worked for the senator since 1988.

Three decades later, he’s preparing to move to San Diego in March to run The Conrad Prebys Foundation after leading two of Pittsburgh’s largest and most influential philanthropies – The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation

After declining Teresa Heinz’s first invitation, Oliphant circled back to the Heinz family in 1993, learned the business of using philanthropic resources to address community needs, and has stayed in the sector ever since – except for a one-year decampment to an advertising agency.

The most important lesson about philanthropy he says he learned along the way: “Money gets you in the door. But relationships, partnerships and ideas put you at the table.”

Hazelwood Green is one of the signature achievements of Pittsburgh’s foundations. Photo by Joshua Franzos.

He’s been president of The Heinz Endowments, the city’s second-largest foundation with assets topping $2 billion, since 2014. The Endowments is conducting a nationwide search for his replacement.

Signature investments he’s overseen there include Hazelwood Green, a partnership with other local foundations to remake a sprawling former steelmaking site along the Monongahela River into a center for tech and advanced manufacturing businesses with prominent green spaces.

Other initiatives Oliphant helped advance at the Endowments support veterans, the arts, racial equity, criminal justice reform, and a “democracy initiative” that focuses on voter education, voting rights and census counts. 

Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the region in March 2020, the Endowments has allocated more than $20 million for relief efforts, including emergency funds for food, health care and housing.

Oliphant credits his team with assembling those grants while working virtually and under pressure. “In many ways, it was our finest hour and my proudest moment — inspiring, invigorating and exhausting.”

The inaugural Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Symposium took place in 2019 at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of The Pittsburgh Foundation.

Prior to running The Endowments, Oliphant was president and chief executive of The Pittsburgh Foundation for seven years. 

Among the projects the community foundation invested in during his tenure: stabilizing the finances of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center; support to keep public radio news on the air at WESA-FM; a tech platform, pittsburghgives.org, that allows donors to support regional nonprofits through online giving; and efforts with the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania to battle government budget cuts for nonprofits. 

Despite the achievements, Oliphant is frustrated that some major challenges the foundations tackled — like the environment, racism and economic equity — are far from resolved. 

He takes comfort in the analogy that philanthropic work “is like building cathedrals,” he says. “I don’t regret any of the [cathedral] stones we put in place or attempted to put in place. My regret is … our work isn’t further along.”

Oliphant’s efforts have not been universally praised. He generated blowback when he spoke up about the dangers of fracking and continued reliance on fossil fuels and petrochemicals.

“It did bother me,” he says of criticisms lodged against him for the Endowments’ stance on the need to transition to renewable energy sources. “This is a town where people are very friendly and polite and when that’s ripped away because you’ve dared to question the conventional area of wisdom, it’s tough.”

Grant Oliphant interviews author Damon Young for the We Can Be podcast. Photo courtesy of The Heinz Endowments.

Oliphant, 61 and an Australian native, was raised in Denver after his father — Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant — took a job at The Denver Post. He earned a history degree from Swarthmore College and held several jobs including paralegal and writer-editor for a political magazine before joining Sen. Heinz’s staff. 

While both John and Teresa Heinz, who is now chair emeritus of the Endowments, served as strong role models, Max King, a past president of the Endowments, “was without question my most important active mentor,” says Oliphant. 

He worked under King’s tutelage for seven years but when the Heinz family didn’t pick Oliphant as its next leader upon King’s retirement, he moved across town to The Pittsburgh Foundation in 2008. 

The next time the Endowments hired a president, they tapped Oliphant.

“I was deeply disappointed,” he said in 2014 — after he accepted the job — about being passed over years earlier. “But life really does have a way of working out.”

When The Conrad Prebys Foundation called, Oliphant saw a chance to take the reins of a philanthropy “in startup mode.”

The organization just finished its first year of grantmaking so it’s “an opportunity to build something brand new from the ground up. At both the Endowments and Pittsburgh Foundation, it was an opportunity to build on a strong legacy.”

He was also drawn to the West Coast because he’ll be closer geographically to his parents, both in their 80s.

“At this stage in my life, access to my parents is really important. We get so few opportunities to focus on the things that matter when they matter.”