Grant Oliphant, President of Heinz Endowments, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Grant Oliphant, President of Heinz Endowments, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

Grant Oliphant

Grant Oliphant

Denver: My next guest is one of the more thoughtful voices in the philanthropic sector, speaking out on issues of public importance and concern where so many others have failed to do so. And he puts those words into practice in his laboratory… which just so happens to be the Greater Pittsburgh community. He is Grant Oliphant, the President of the Heinz Endowments. Good evening, Grant, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Grant: Denver, thank you so much for having me.

Denver: The Heinz Endowments, as the name suggests, is more than just one. Tell us about that and your current mission and focus.

Grant: It’s actually one foundation today, but it started out as two, started by separate members of the Heinz family. The money, as the name suggests, came from the ketchup fortune. That empire began in Pittsburgh a hundred years ago and produced $1.5 billion today in philanthropic resources that the family has put to use primarily for the benefit of Pittsburgh. It’s a global family though, so they really would like it to be used in a way that benefits people in other parts of the country and other parts of the world.

Denver: And speaking of that family, there’s now a new generation of leadership.

Grant: We are navigating a generational transition. Many family foundations struggle with that; ours has been, I think, pleasantly exemplary. This is a family that has had a consistent set of values down through the generations. Henry J. Heinz who founded the company was one of the people who fought for the Pure Food Act and wanted to do the right thing by employees, and wanted to do the right thing by consumers.

Denver: Ahead of his time.

Grant: Way ahead of his time. Actually, it’s becoming timely again because of what we’re facing now. But the family has carried those values down through the generations, so it’s remarkably smooth.

When we look at the future of economic growth, what we’re seeing is that actually many of the opportunities for future economic activity lie in the environmental realm.

Denver: Well, when you assumed the helm at Heinz a few years ago, you refocused your efforts around social justice – and by that, I mean embracing fairness and equity. And you do this through three different portals: sustainability, creativity, and learning. So let’s look at each of those, starting with sustainability, Grant.  And that’s more than just the environment, correct?

Grant: It is. It actually represents for us the merger of the environment and economic development. In Europe, when they use the term sustainability, they look at the environment, certainly, but they also look at what’s a sustainable economy – so how do we keep people employed in good jobs that allow them to maintain themselves in a life that is dignified and sane? And we want to have Pittsburgh and our country have that type of economy as well, but that’s deeply connected also to how we react to and interact with the natural world.

So, we see the two spheres of the environment and the economy as directly linked. When we look at the future of economic growth, what we’re seeing is that actually many of the opportunities for future economic activity lie in the environmental realm.

Denver: You also want to create an environment, speaking of environment in Pittsburgh, where everybody– especially youth and children– have access to a creative life. What are some of the things you’re doing here?

Grant: There are two areas implicit in that question, and I’ll start with what we call learning, which is to focus on primarily early ages in life from birth, let’s say, through college age. But we actually think more and more people throughout the generations are becoming lifelong learners and need to be. And so, in the traditional way of looking at how people learn, the crazy way we do it in this country is we have a non-system for kids who are under the age of 5.  Then they formally enter this thing called “school” which goes from K-12, if they last through that. And then there’s a thing that happens for some of them… but not all of them… out of the school day during those years where they go to after-school programs or after-school activities… or stuff before school. And then some of them have an experience after that that’s educational, and some of them don’t. And it’s a crazy patchwork quilt of how people learn.

So what we’re trying to do in our work is knit that together into a continuum that tries not to view kids or older youth as disconnected parts, but rather whole people who have to learn in various spheres and various ways.

By the way, if that sounds like mumbo-jumbo, just think about technology for a moment and the way in which we now experience learning throughout the whole day through these little devices we carry in our pockets, called phones. Those smartphones have changed how people learn in a fundamental way.  And if you talk to kids today and can understand them, it’s kind of scary. But what you discover is that they’re learning in concert with each other, and they’re learning all the time through access to this device. Now, they need a lot of wisdom around that; they need a lot of structure around that, but that’s just one example of a way in which learning has changed that didn’t exist for you and me.

Public schools are really important to the future of the democracy. If you think about where we get our first experience in life, in knowing people who are different than us and come from different demographic backgrounds, probably the single, most important place where that happens is in public school.

Denver: And I think also we have to sort of close the gap between that kind of learning and what they’re getting in school right now. Because at home, they have rich medium; they have instantaneous communications. And in too many of our schools, it’s almost like going back to a bygone era – it’s slow, it’s tedious, and they become disengaged.

Grant: Completely. I sort of feel schizophrenic about our schools, by the way, because I think what really needs to be said in this age when we have so little faith in institutions is that we still have some really great public schools in this country.  And public schools are really important to the future of the democracy. If you think about where we get our first experience in life, in knowing people who are different than us and come from different demographic backgrounds, probably the single, most important place where that happens is in public school. And I recognize that there are problems with public education, but we really need to acknowledge there are some really good public schools.

That said, education in general needs to catch up with the way the world is changing. And it’s not. It’s a very old system. It’s a very bureaucratic system, and the world is changing way faster than it is.

Denver: And I think it’s a difficult system to introduce change and intervention because “My kid is only going to be in fifth grade once, and I don’t want that once… when he’s in fifth grade… to be time where you test something differently.” But I do see this introduction of adaptive software– where parents and  the schools are going to be able to track how each child is performing, and where they’re getting stuck– not in a general area, but on a very specific problem. And that kind of feedback, I think, is going to change things as they begin to master one part of a course and then another.

Grant: Well, there’s no question that what you just described is a typical parent, and the data suggests that the single, most significant source of resistance to change in a school is parents. And what we cling to is (1) what we experienced; and (2) How do we make sure that our kid is successful in that school so that they can get into the right college or the right post-secondary experience? And doing that is natural, but it also can get in the way of our kids beginning to get exposure to new things that will help them in a world that’s going to look really different from the world that you and I grew up in.

… We look at what’s happening in Pittsburgh, and we compare that to what the issues are happening nationally and globally, and how we can connect the two – the important issues that we would focus on… and the important issues that the world is wrestling with.

Denver: You are so right. Well, although Heinz Endowments… you’re a regional foundation, as you said, and primarily focused on Southwestern Pennsylvania, you really have a global perspective in the work that you do. How do you go about doing that?

Grant: Well, the first person who articulated that was actually a guy who at the time was my boss. I had the privilege earlier in my life to work as press secretary to US Senator John Heinz, who was, to my mind, part of a great and different era in American politics when people were certainly vigorous in their opinions, but they were pragmatic in trying to solve problems.  And members of Congress on the left and the right didn’t always get along, but they figured out how to solve problems on behalf of the country. Boy, do we miss that!

And John was a giant of that. He was a typical Western Pennsylvania Republican. He cared about social issues. He cared about the environment. And he fought for progress, but he was a fiscal conservative and wanted the country to be wise about its resources.

IMG_1726Denver: A man of tremendous stature.

Grant: And one of the things he did when he was in charge of the foundation was say, “Look. We’re focused as a foundation by charter on Western Pennsylvania, but what Western Pennsylvania is experiencing is not a whole lot different from what the rest of world is either going to experience or is experiencing right now.” And he looked at that through a lot of filters, and some of them have come through over the course of 30 years, and some were immediately obvious at the time. But what he said was, “Let’s use this place as a lab.” So, the way we do that is quite literally, we look at what’s happening in Pittsburgh and we compare that to what are the issues are happening nationally and globally, and how we can connect the two – the important issues that we would focus on, and the important issues that the world is wrestling with. It turns out that pretty much everything we work on has an analog somewhere else in the world.

Denver: Yes. So you not only provide great ideas of what’s working for the rest of the world, you go out and find out what’s working in the rest of the world and then bring it to Pittsburgh.

Grant: Thank you for saying that better than I did! I think that’s exactly what we want to do. We want to make sure that we’re not parochial. So, my team is out travelling all the time to find out the best thinking that they can bring back home. But by the same token, we’re looking at everything we do as an opportunity to share learning with the rest of the country and the rest of the world.

Denver: Very smart. Well, I know one of the hardest thing that a foundation leader has to do is to let go of something that is not working, or even worse, something that’s working, but it’s not sustainable or scalable. And you encountered that with an Early Childhood initiative. Tell us about that, how you reached that decision, and then some of the things you did as you pivoted away from it.

Grant: I love this story. But for a period of time in my career, I became the sort of “doctor of failure” because…I talked about how rare this is in our field.  And it is kind of rare;  still it’s become, I think, a lot more common today.

Denver: And it’s important, and it’s refreshing.

Grant: But it’s hugely important because we have to share what works and what doesn’t. The early childhood initiative in Pittsburgh was an early attempt in this country to have every child under the age of 5 who needed access to high-quality early education, have the opportunity to benefit from that… even if they couldn’t afford it and even if their families couldn’t find the means to do it.

So we attempted to have that happen in the county in which Pittsburgh is located. The notion was we would prove the concept there; we would prove how effective it was; we would get the state to take it over, and it would become a national model. We fell a little short, but not actually because of the nature of the program itself.

So one important lesson was early intervention– with high-quality education in children’s lives– changes their lives. And how does it do that? It changes their brains. So we were actually able to prove through the research that we did through the course of this program that kids who went through this program were positioned for greater success in school and continued to hold on to that success years into their elementary school education.

Denver: That’s a big finding.

Grant: Huge finding! On the other hand, we failed dismally in scaling it up. The program simply cost too much. The government was not willing to take it over. What we completely miscalculated, in part, was the willingness of government to take on a costly new program. That’s only become worse in the years since. So we miscalculated there.

We also miscalculated, I think, in terms of what parents would actually decide they want. If I give you the opportunity to take your child from daycare with your neighbor down the street– who’s never been trained as a daycare operator, and the choice is to train her up to become a higher quality daycare provider.  Or, you can go into a new building, a new facility that’s dedicated as a childcare center that has a play area, what are you going to pick? You’re always going to pick the costlier option. And since we were trying to be generous in the options we gave people, what we didn’t realize is how many people–and it’s kind of an obvious thing–but how many people would decide to go for that higher end option.

There’s also the dynamic that happened at that time of welfare reforms. A lot of the parents who we thought would opt for a part-time childcare were suddenly in a position where they needed full-time childcare, and that increased the cost of the program, too. But these are all things—what you learn is—and what’s that saying that “God laughs while we plan?” It’s an important lesson in humility in this business because one of the things that comes with a lot of resources in the philanthropic field is people tend to be really kind to you and tell you your ideas are really good all the time.

Denver: I would imagine it’s tough being in your position to actually get honest information from people.

Grant: I’m fortunate that I surround myself with people who tell me the truth way too often. But this was an important lesson for us as a foundation that we had to listen to people more, do more research, and maybe be more humble as we went into a program.

The single greatest thing that’s changed in my opinion is that today, there is a huge sense of agency in that town whereas then, people were waiting for someone else to come along and save the town.

Denver: It’s a great lesson for us to hear as well, and I thank you for sharing it. And, you know, there are those externalities that we just don’t take into account, and those assumptions that we make that just prove to be wrong. But once you learn them, you apply them to other things, other projects, and other programs you’re going to undertake.

You moved to Pittsburgh, I guess it was about 25 years ago, and are certainly one of the key people in making that city work. And I know it’s unfinished business. You’re trying to make it better all the time. Many people in New York, and for that matter other parts of the country, really only have a kind of vague notion about Pittsburgh, and some of that might actually be vestiges from a bygone era. Tell our listeners about the Pittsburgh of today.

Grant: So let me begin by saying I love New York City and I love coming here. I think it’s one of the places that we come to learn. It’s a center of ideas that we tap into frequently. But if I think about what America looks like, it looks a lot more like Pittsburgh than New York. And I think Pittsburgh is an amazing town. Actually, when I moved there in 1991, shortly after John Heinz was killed in plane crash, I hated the place.  I mean, I genuinely hated the place.

Denver: Why?

Grant: Three reasons. I was coming from Washington, D.C., and it felt really behind the times in terms of race, which it was. It felt really behind the times in terms of gender, which it was. And there was a third thing that I couldn’t define, but I realized later it was the state—we were in the stages of grief.  And it was a type of depression that had everybody speaking about Pittsburgh in the past tense.  And the thinking about how the city would be saved was that some great big organization would come along and save it. So, it would either be that somebody would bring steel back, which, by the way, is a fantasy.  Or somebody would bring back a large company that had lost interest in Pittsburgh but would come back home. My favorite was that Microsoft and Bill Gates would suddenly wake up one morning and decide to move from Seattle to Pittsburgh. Of course! Why not?

Denver: Of course! By the time I turn my radio on, first thing in the morning. So that was really sort of the height of the Rust Belt.

Grant: It really was, and the attitude was just down. The single greatest thing that’s changed in my opinion is that today, there is a huge sense of agency in that town.  Whereas then, people were waiting for someone else to come along and save the town. All of a sudden, we’re in a town where everybody is part of the change process and diving in and doing their own things to contribute to the future they want to help build.

Denver: Well, let’s stick with that a little bit. Pittsburgh is great American city, and it’s actually helped build many of the other American cities.  It helped build America. But what you’re in the middle of right now, I think,it  is so informative to both philanthropy and other urban areas around the country– very much the same way that Rip Rapson and Kresge was in terms of what they went through in Detroit.  Which brings me to this P4 initiative in Pittsburgh that Heinz Endowments is a driving force behind. What is that?  And what is it achieving? And what does the P4 stand for?

Grant: It stands for “People, Planet, Place and Performance.” The Performance piece simply speaks to having systems that perform the way that they should, including government and infrastructure, and holding yourself accountable to standards of performance in a way that previous generations of government either haven’t had to or simply haven’t done.

Denver: And that’s tough to do, but you have good government leadership there right now.

Grant: Yes. We actually do. We’re really blessed to have a progressive mayor who is in close partnership with the progressive county executive… who are open to a new view of how the city ought to develop And P4 is that new view. It’s a vision of the future of the city as hinging its prospects on development that is environmentally good, so planet—

Denver: You’re a green city, too.

Grant: We actually are one of the leading green cities in the country. And that preserves aspects of place that are unique to the character of the place and that invests heavily in people and helping people succeed. And then, of course, measuring it through this performance aspect. You know, I believe in something that Bruce Katz from Brookings has talked about a lot, which is that if you look around the world, the future of where we’re going to see prosperity and innovation happen actually hinges around cities. I do recognize that we’re going through a period in this country where we have to rethink the urban-rural divide, and we have to become more sensitive to what’s happening outside of cities in a way that maybe we haven’t acknowledged in the past. That said, the economic momentum of the world is towards urbanization. It’s happening everywhere. And you’re seeing people come back into the cities and come back into downtowns.  And there are huge opportunities associated with that, but there are also huge challenges. So every single city like ours is a kind of laboratory for getting that right.

In Pittsburgh, we happen to have a few assets that we think give us kind of a privilege of special place, particularly around our research universities, which are stellar. Carnegie Mellon University, as an example, is a place that every innovation company in the world right now wants to be co-located with. And we’re seeing a lot of that desire to come back into cities, to be near universities, in real neighborhoods where people who are innovators can go grab a cup of coffee, meet with other people like them, talk about how they’re going to change the world, have access to the best research institutions in the world, and invent really amazing new things.

So, that’s the future, and we think that we have to figure out how to bring our entire cities along on that future. And it’s only going to happen in cities. So, we have to be looking at how that can be leveraged for the future of the rest of the country.

Denver: My experience of going to Pittsburgh a lot in the 1980s was that the town was pretty much open from 9:00 to 5:00, actually 7:00 to 5:00. I couldn’t believe the number of people standing at bus stops at 7:00 in the morning. But the more recent times I’ve gone there, that thing is going around the clock now, isn’t it, downtown?

Grant: It’s amazing. I think what’s most amazing to me—well, that transition is amazing. When I first moved there, the single largest concentration of downtown residents—so residents in the downtown urban core—were in the county jail. So, we didn’t have a whole lot of downtown residents. It was a city that only had—actually, philanthropy was why it had a functioning downtown.  Why Pittsburgh didn’t go down the road of so many other Rust Belt cities was that a huge investment– hundreds of millions of dollars over 30 years– had been invested in the cultural district in downtown, which attracted people to the downtown area.  And also it was an outdoor type of district, so people weren’t hidden inside away from shops and away from restaurants. But even with that, the city rolled up its sidewalks after 5:00, and it was kind of depressing.

Today, thriving neighborhoods all over the city. The downtown is not quite 24/7, but it’s getting there. And on some nights, it is. And the vibrancy just all around the city is really exciting. I’ve gone from being the youngest person in almost every venue that I walked into to now being the oldest in every venue. And it’s not just that I’ve aged, by the way. It’s part of the reason, but it’s also that we’ve become a much younger city.  And that’s really exciting.

But what’s also cool is that the city has managed so far to retain its character. This is a working-class city. It is a city that works hard and plays hard, but folks in that town still believe in saying “hi” to each other and being friendly and helping each other out. When you sort of think about what America stands for outside of politics, that’s what goes on in Pittsburgh.

Denver: Right. And that’s your third “p,” which is place, and it’s got its quirkiness and you want to keep that quirkiness, don’t you?

Grant: Yes. We absolutely do. It’s important.

Denver: Part of your quirkiness I want to ask you about is something that both could frustrate and then confuse your star running back in town, Le’Veon Bell, and this has to do with the Pittsburgh Left. Tell our listeners, what is the Pittsburgh Left?

Grant: I’ve come up with a whole new defense for this, by the way, which I’ll share with you. But the Pittsburgh Left is when two cars are facing each other at a red light in an intersection, the law says that when that light turns green, the people going straight have the right of way over the person turning left. In Pittsburgh, it’s a matter of courtesy that the first person in line with their left turn indicator on gets to go first, before the car going straight. And I think I’m making this up, but I think it’s a product of courtesy, and it’s becoming a little less common because a lot of new people are coming to Pittsburgh and haven’t heard of this tradition… although they learn. And it was Le’Veon Bell who mentioned: “ You kind of learn it, or you’re in trouble.”

I actually think it’s brilliant, though. Here’s my new explanation. If you think about the way people drive today, what’s everybody doing that they shouldn’t be doing when they’re sitting—

Denver: Texting.

Grant: Right! Everybody is sitting, texting at a red light. So if you’re smart and quick, and you’re not texting at the red light, you have plenty of time to make that Pittsburgh Left before the other car realizes that the light is green.

Philanthropy has a huge role to play, I think, in addressing … the core issue of what is the culture and civility that we want this country to embrace and represent. I think it’s really important that we be a force for unity, but I think it’s important that we be a force for unity around a genuine type of unity that is respectful of difference and the type of difference that we’re seeing emerge in the country.

And I think philanthropy and the entire nonprofit sector actually has a stake. We call ourselves the civic sector, the social sector.  What we represent is that glue or cohesion for American society. And if we’re not willing to speak up in defense of decency, civility, and social justice, then we can’t expect anybody else to. And this is our hour, I think, to do that.

 

Denver: That’s right. Well, actually, I find it kind of sweet. And you talked about what a friendly and courteous city it was, I always thought it kind of exemplifies that by letting somebody…because sometimes you can just wait until that light changes again, you know, when those cars just keep coming particularly around rush hour. Talking about something a little bit more serious, you have been quite clear and direct, Grant, about the urgent situation that’s facing this country right now and the fault lines that exist around race, the haves and the have-nots, all forms of discrimination, looseness with the facts. And I know that you’ve wished that foundations would not stand silent but find their voice and be, I think as you called it, the affirming flame. Do you feel that the philanthropy sector is stepping up to meet this challenge?

Grant: I think many are. I think I am beginning to see more colleagues really wrestle with the tough issues of the time. I think we have a long way to go. I believe these are epic times that we are living in. I felt that about Pittsburgh when I took the job at the Heinz Endowments and was invited into this role purely because of the position that I felt Pittsburgh was in. And I thought that the city had about five to 10 year window to remake its future. And beyond that, we couldn’t see what it would look like.

And as for the field [unintelligible] about the country, this has happened over a long period of time, but we’re in a place where public faith in institutions is as low as it’s ever been. We’ve begun not to trust each other, not just politicians. People are beginning to select the reality that they want to believe in rather than the reality that happens to exist. People are disbelieving science and data, and ignoring it in many cases. I grew up as an editorial cartoonist’s son. I believe in journalism and I believe that we still have some really good journalism, and I think we ignore it to our peril. It’s the death of democracy when we do.

Philanthropy has a huge role to play, I think, in addressing those issues, but even more so, the core issue of what is the culture and civility that we want this country to embrace and represent. I think it’s really important that we be a force for unity, but I think it’s important that we be a force for unity around a genuine type of unity that is respectful of difference and the type of difference that we’re seeing emerge in the country. We are an increasingly diverse country. We are going to continue to be. We have people with lots of different viewpoints in this country and we have to make allowance for that.

But one thing we can’t, I don’t think sustain as a country is just accepting that it’s okay to make up your own facts, to live in an alternate fact universe, to lie about other people, to lie about what the reality is, and to just launch ad hominem attacks – personal attacks – against people because you happen to disagree with them. Those things have always been wrong and they’re wrong now.

And I think philanthropy and the entire nonprofit sector actually has a stake. We call ourselves the civic sector, the social sector, what we represent is that glue or cohesion for American society. And if we’re not willing to speak up in defense of decency, civility, and social justice, then we can’t expect anybody else to. And this is our hour, I think, to do that.

Denver: Why are we so reticent to do this in the sector? Not just foundations. I also would add other nonprofit organizations other than those who have a political mission. But boy, we do seek to avoid all kinds of controversy, don’t we?

Grant: We absolutely do, and the obvious reason is that it’s hard and it’s scary and you get blowback. For nonprofits, let’s be clear. Most nonprofits dangle on a very slender thread of beneficence from donors, so they’re always worried about who they might be offending, and it’s real. And I don’t dismiss at all. But I’ll give you a couple of examples that I’ve just encountered recently. In fact, I’m trying to write a blog about this this week.

But we had an arts organization get in touch with us recently about an exhibit that they were seeking funding for, that they were planning on doing to look at the passions unleashed by the 2016 election. And it wasn’t a partisan piece, but it was looking at this controversial issue of the 2016 election. And the executive director got a lot of blowback from certain members of her board because “what would her funders think?” She shared my previous blog about the role of the arts and I think they ought to be playing right now and speaking out with members of her board, and the response she got from some members of the her board was, “Well, that’s divisive,” even though I think the role of the arts is to help the process of healing through the process of honesty. Just talking about the issue right now seems to be regarded in our culture as divisive.

Another example was that we had a large cultural institution post signs at its door because they had embraced diversity and inclusion as part of their strategic plan. So they posted signs at their door welcoming all comers, and they named people of various backgrounds and ethnicities and religions and immigrants. The executive director of this institution faced a mini little explosion inside from volunteers in the organization who were offended by what they described as “a political statement” because it mentioned people who they didn’t think should be welcomed. And they’re thinking they were not trying to exclude anyone, they just didn’t want the nonprofit to say out loud what its values were. That’s a really broken concept of what the role of cultural institution should be. But I think this is endemic in the culture right now. It’s not just in nonprofits.

But where we have to draw the line is at taking a stand for inclusion and for who gets to belong in our country. This is actually the fundamental fight of our times, is the question of belonging, who belongs in this society

Denver: You’re absolutely right. Everybody was sending out rules for thanksgiving this year.

Grant: Right. I mean, remember that? If you want to have a friendly thanksgiving, you can talk about this but not about that. And here’s where I think the breakdown comes for nonprofits. I absolutely get the concern about donors and about board members, and you have to be smart about it. So executive directors, I completely get the reticence in some cases. But where we have to draw the line is at taking a stand for inclusion and for who gets to belong in our country. This is actually the fundamental fight of our times, is the question of belonging, who belongs in this society. And if our sector, which is the sector of the human services, the sector the arts, the storytelling of our cultural narrative, if our sector can’t speak up for inclusion and belonging, then what the hell are we doing? We should be out of business. And I think that’s the piece that a lot of us miss in the race to pragmatism.

Denver: Yes. Don’t worry about the IRS or your tax-exempt status. You can go there.

Grant: Absolutely!  I mean, to speak out about issues like the ones I was just describing doesn’t even come close to what you’re not allowed to do as nonprofit.

Denver: You know, I’m always interested, Grant, in the corporate culture of an organization and what leaders do to try to attract and keep talented people, and then really engage them and motivate them to become productive workers. Tell us about the work culture at Heinz Endowments and some of the thing that you do to keep it nimble and to keep it responsive.

Grant: Thank you for that question. My master’s degree is actually in organization development, so I’ve approached the endowments as a kind of lab. And my team would probably say, “Thanks a lot!” But listen, I think here’s what was important I think to me and to the board when I came in. They wanted exactly what you just described, which is that we be a nimble organization and what in the field is called a learning organization. What that simply means is you learn from your mistakes, you get better, and you move on.

It’s hard in the foundation because in foundations, you don’t have feedback loops naturally built in. There isn’t a marketplace that’s telling you you’re doing well or you’re doing not. So, we’ve worked very hard to integrate approaches that tell us how we’re doing in real time. We survey grantees about how they think we’re doing. We do a lot of sessions with grantees and smaller groups about the issues that they’re dealing with to try to understand their perspective rather than just hearing about it in a grant application.

Denver: Yes, and you create a safe environment so they can really be candid.

Grant: And we do. We work very hard at that. We’ve spent a lot of time looking at our own structure. When I walked in the door, we had great programs, but it was almost like we had five areas and they were really like five separate foundations. So what we’ve done is make everything collaborative. And this really is we’ve taken a page out of some of the best business thinking and I think the behavior of the Millennials. So now, almost everything that moves forward in these three areas – sustainability, creativity, and learning – has to happen at some level through a collaborative discussion. Everybody is aware of what everybody else is doing and looking for connections to their own work. And the reason that’s important for us I think is that the most interesting work we’re doing tends to be at the intersection of those areas.

Denver: That is interesting. You had so many proposals, problems, projects and programs that come across your desk. Has anything in the last year or so really captured your imagination and you find yourself just incredibly interested and fascinated by?

Grant: Oh, I’m on fire about so much. Obviously, the big thing on my mind lately has been what the implications of a new administration in Washington are for the work that we do. But that’s sort of a negative frame. The positive frame is the enormous opportunities that I think American cities like Pittsburgh have to innovate and reinvent themselves.

So one that has me on fire right now is looking at our whole infrastructure system, particularly the sewer and water infrastructure, which your listeners will go, “What?!” But we’re operating under an EPA consent decree which will mandate a redo of the sewer and water system in Pittsburgh, which is one of the truly antiquated systems in the country. It will become probably the single largest development project in the history of the region. And we have an opportunity to do a good chunk of it through green infrastructure, that instead of just creating a cost for repairs, we’ll leave behind green assets, natural systems to manage water flow, more parks, more green spaces, things that people can actually see and enjoy that enhance their quality of life and that use nature to solve the problems that otherwise we’d have to use pipes to solve.

That becomes important on a whole host of fronts because we have water problems that are hugely significant. I hate to admit it but we have, when it rains, we get backwash from the waste sewer system into the rivers, so that’s one form of nastiness. We also have a problem around lead in our water system that is, by all accounts, as bad as Flint’s. By the way, Flint is not unique in this country and neither is Pittsburgh in facing this. Most of our older—and particularly north eastern cities have the same problem. We’ve been studying ours a lot more so we know we’re basically in the same boat. But we have an opportunity through revisiting the way we do our infrastructure to fix that. So I’m really excited about that.

I’m excited about the opportunity that we have to create a whole different approach to development in the city. This p4 concept is I think we can only take partial credit for it, but I think it’s brilliant and I think it’s the future of American cities. We’ve got a mayor who’s on board around it and he’s actually figuring out ways to make every aspect of development in that city tied to a p4 framework. So that’s exciting and it could become a global model.

We really do believe as a foundation that we have to approach our work with all the humility and thinking about what we actually can change through our resources. We have an obligation and a responsibility to use our voice to bring attention to those important issues, and we really try and do that while acknowledging the limitations of our field to be the only change agent.

Denver: Well, enormous energy around it. I know that last year’s conference was double the size of the year before and it just keeps on growing and more people involved. Well, Grant Oliphant, the President of Heinz Endowments, I want to thank you so much for being on the show this evening. For those interested in learning more about your work, what is your website and what will people find there?

Grant: www.heinz.org is the website. What you’ll find is a site under construction. It looks fine but it still has some of the old information on it. A new one will be coming out I think in about a month, but it can be checked out now and you’ll find out what we’re up to.

You can also find my blog on the site, which will give you an insight into how we’re thinking about some of the big issues of the day. We really do believe as a foundation that we have to approach our work with all the humility and thinking about what we actually can change through our resources. We have an obligation and a responsibility to use our voice to bring attention to those important issues, and we really try and do that while acknowledging the limitations of our field to be the only change agent. And I hope folks who visit the site will capture the attention in it.

Denver: Well, well said and I want to thank you for using your voice tonight. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show, Grant.

Grant: I loved it. Thank you!

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Grant Oliphant and Denver Frederick


The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter and at facebook.com/business of giving.  

 

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