The Pittsburgh Foundation

A foundation leader who knew the power of reputational capital

By Alfred W. Burr Wishart

Anyone who has read the obituary notice for William J. Copeland will understand how difficult it is to summarize his seemingly endless contributions to our community throughout an amazing life.  How could this Pittsburgher, who would have been certain to win any “Man of the Year” title, manage all the leadership roles he took on – banking and other areas of business, community service such as his work with the Boy Scouts, health care, education, philanthropy, culture and the arts? Yet, somehow he did all of these.

Since Bill chaired The Pittsburgh Foundation Board during much of my tenure as president, I had the opportunity to observe firsthand the ways in which he achieved so much.

My father once told me that “there is no leadership without followership,” and I know that applied to Bill. He led with amazing skill and the rest of us followed.  He trusted implicitly in those who joined him in the grand odyssey of leading through philanthropy and service.  Most importantly, we trusted him.  He showed us the way and we were most often successful. Bill told me once that "leadership is like a piece of rope. What you do with it makes all the difference. You can joyfully skip with the rope or you can hang yourself with it.  It’s your call."

During his many years as board chair, he inspired fellow board members and staff to make a dynamic commitment to the work of the Foundation, and it resulted in an extraordinary period of growth in funds, as well as more strategic grantmaking and donor service. Bill believed that effective philanthropy is more than giving away money. It is also about maximizing “reputational capital” to further improve the quality of life in the community.

Remembering one of the economic recessions that occurred during his tenure, Bill said: “We weren’t the foundation with the most money back then, but we had enough, and a lot of good will so that when we rang the bell, people sat down to discuss things.

In reflecting on his life and achievements I’m reminded of these words of wisdom: “Though a good life has but a few days, yet a good name endures forever. Those who were leaders of the people by their judgement, giving counsel by their understanding and foresight, wise and eloquent in their teachings and through knowledge and might, fit helpers of the people. All of these were honored in their generation and were the glory of their times.  Their bodies are buried in peace but their names live on forever. The people will tell of their wisdom and the community will show forth praise.  For the memorial of virtue is immortal because it is known with God and with man.” 

It can surely be said of one individual, that during these dynamic and turbulent years, William J. Copeland was Pittsburgh’s Renaissance Man.

Burr Wishart was the chief executive of The Pittsburgh Foundation from 1970 to 2001. For the second half of his term, he served under Board Chair William J. Copeland, who died Feb. 16.

To learn more about Bill Copeland's legacy of philanthropy and community service, please read this tribute by Maxwell King, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation.