Pittsburgh skyline
Pittsburgh skyline. Photo by TH Carlisle.

The normally quiet, private Richard King Mellon Foundation announced their sweeping new 2021-2030 strategic plan via a public Zoom meeting Wednesday morning. The largest foundation in western Pennsylvania plans to spend more than $1.2 billion in the next decade, in an attempt to bolster prosperity and opportunity in western Pennsylvania, and help environmental conservation efforts across the U.S.

The Zoom call was made from the factory floor of Day Owl in Homewood — a for-profit company that makes backpacks from recycled plastic bottles — that has received $2 million in social-impact investing and employs a number of neighborhood residents. After Covid hit, Day Owl retooled their production lines immediately to manufacture more than 250,000 face shields for frontline workers. It’s part of the $30 million the foundation has invested in economically struggling Homewood over the past five years.

Day Owl face shield.

The strategic plan features six core programs. Economic development and conservation rank among their most long-standing commitments. Two new program areas include economic mobility and health and well-being. Then, cutting across all of the other four programs, are social-impact investments — companies that want to do good, but need capital, like Day Owl — and organizational effectiveness.

“This plan is the lens through which we will review our grantmaking for the next decade,” says Sam Reiman, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation. “Starting now, we are communicating this plan to ask for your help. We need your ideas for these programs to achieve their potential. We are eager to fund the best of them.”

Those interested in applying for funding can do it through the foundation’s website.

Covid, of course, changed everything, as did the racial reckoning of this past summer.

“We switched gears last year and redirected more than $33 million to offset the impacts of Covid,” says Reiman. “We learned from our grantees about what will be necessary to surge out of the pandemic in the years ahead.  And  we learned even more when we  talked  anew  with Black leaders  last summer about  the pervasive roadblocks that too many of our  neighbors  face just because of the color of their skin.”

Founded in 1947, the Richard King Mellon Foundation’s endowment was projected to be $3.1 billion at the end of 2020. It’s the largest foundation in southwestern PA and one of the 50 largest in the world.

Without much fanfare, the Pittsburgh-based foundation has purchased more than four million acres of “environmentally precious land,” an area larger than the state of Connecticut.

“We know of no other private organization in the history of the United States that has preserved more acreage of environmentally precious land, working with our partners, often quietly, behind the scenes,” says Reiman.

It was founded by bankers, notes Reiman, and operates with a lean, experienced staff.

“This prudent, perpetual approach enabled the foundation to give away $130 million in 2020 — $42 million more than we gave away at the beginning of the last decade — while still growing our endowment over that period by 58%,” Reiman says. “That endowment growth paved the way for our new strategic plan, enabling us to invest in Pittsburgh’s future at record levels at a pivotal time.”

The Richard King Mellon Foundation is ready to play a part in the region’s continuing evolution.

“Our founder drove Pittsburgh’s first renaissance,” says Reiman. “We seek to spark a new and ongoing renaissance with every grant we award. We support people and groups that think big and think bold … bold thinking works best when it’s rooted in science and data. We have funded science and technology since our earliest days, including Richard King Mellon’s seed investment to help found Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science. We believe Pittsburgh’s long-term prosperity requires that we grow even further as a technology hub.”

Also announced, the foundation gave nearly $1 million to the Magee-Womens Research Institute, in three grants aimed at supporting socially-disadvantaged mothers, expanding technologies to help clinicians intervene in higher-risk situations for infant mortality and reimagining post-Covid fundraising strategies.

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.