The Big PaybackA nonprofit leader reveals the reward from her half-century of work: opening doors for others.
ON A SPRING DAY IN 1968, Kate Dewey was a freshly minted teacher walking into a middle school in Trenton, New Jersey, with high hopes for her first day.
It didn’t go as planned. Riots had broken out in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and chaos had spread to the schools. “The day I walked in, my advisor walked out,” Dewey says. “He never came back.”
The experience sent her “falling off the cliff” — Dewey’s term for “that space where you just have to rely on your knowledge and basic instincts to figure it out and get the job done.” It’s a space she’s come to embrace throughout her 50-year career.
Now, after five years as president of The Forbes Funds — a supporting organization of The Pittsburgh Foundation that works to strengthen the management capacity and impact of community nonprofits — she’s embracing those instincts once again as she prepares to move out of the formal leadership role.
“It’s a transition,” Dewey says, of a work history that is full of them. In 1968, she left the classroom to become a social worker in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. “Working on abuse and neglect cases helped me understand how little divides us, except the inequity in opportunity and encouragement we’re afforded,” she says. That revelation convinced her to move into work that would be about “creating opportunities, opening doors and encouraging people.”
Dewey found them at every turn when she moved to Washington, D.C., in 1975 and began work at 70001 Ltd., President Ford’s initiative to place high-school dropouts in unsubsidized jobs in the private sector. In one project, she worked with the late political activist and philanthropist Holly Coors and Republican Kansas senator and later Republican Presidential nominee Bob Dole to create workforce opportunities for high-school dropouts. After moving to Pittsburgh in 1981, she led Allegheny County’s newly created Childhood Sexual Abuse Task Force; became the first executive for Grantmakers of Western Pennsylvania; and, in 1990, founded Dewey & Kaye, a consulting firm dedicated to building strong nonprofits and communities.
Each role forced her to leap out of the conventional employment box, and she made her own work plan with gusto. “Life should be about allowing yourself to indulge in what you’re passionate about,” she says. “Sometimes, that means taking opportunities that might not be packaged on a particular career ladder.”
That aptly describes The Forbes Funds’ president’s role Dewey pursued in 2013 and won at a career mark in which many of her peers were retiring. “I saw this role as a great platform to tie together the missed opportunities I’d seen in working with the community for more than 30 years. I’d be able to institute some programs that I thought could really make a difference.”
Throughout her five-year tenure, those programs have left an indelible mark on The Forbes Funds and the hundreds of nonprofits it serves. The Executive-In-Residence program, for example, pairs retired executive directors with agencies to offer coaching and mentoring. Steel City Codefest matches coders with nonprofits to develop apps that enable more effective communication, screening, program service delivery and other critical functions. And the UpPrize social innovation challenge identifies innovative technology solutions to improve nonprofit operations and quality of life for marginalized residents.
“Working on abuse and neglect cases helped me understand how little divides us, except the inequity in opportunity and encouragement we’re afforded.”
KATE DEWEY, Outgoing Forbes Funds President
Dewey is especially fond of UpPrize, and describes this year’s awards ceremony, where applicants won up to $200,000 to fund their projects, as her proudest moment. “Starting a company, or designing a solution, is hard work,” she says. “And these UpPrize submitters didn’t have to do it. But they are so passionate about making their community better that they’re willing to put an enormous amount of time in. To see something that you started a long time ago become real and change lives — that’s really special.”
In a time of profound challenges for the region’s nonprofits, Dewey’s leadership has been critically important to the development of the Pittsburgh region’s nonprofit sector. “Kate has set out an expectation that nonprofits are to be known by everyone as the forward-thinking leaders,” says Samantha Balbier, executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership, the Forbes Funds’ advocacy arm. “That’s the hallmark of her vision. As a leader, her style in achieving it is to be compassionate and entrepreneurial.”
For her long list of accomplishments, Dewey received a Career Achievement Award from the Pittsburgh Business Times on Dec. 7. It’s a fitting testament to her wide-ranging impact, says Maxwell King, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation. “Our community is greatly indebted to Kate. Many, many nonprofits have benefited from her innovation and skill, and their successes are creating better life prospects for people across the region.”
At the end of the year, Dewey will step down as president and move to a part-time role managing the UpPrize program. She’ll also focus on a legacy outside the workplace: infant granddaughter, Dakota. “She is a gift and I don’t want to miss it,” says Dewey.
Original story appeared in Forum Quarterly - Fall 2017