The Pittsburgh Foundation

LaunchedNew strategy sends Foundation’s impacts sailing

Westmoreland County officials and community leaders celebrate the new Bolivar boat launch on Oct. 9, 2019. The project has increased recreational boating on the Conemaugh River and spurred economic growth in the small borough. Photo by Joe St. Clair.

By Jeffery Fraser

Jeffery Fraser is a freelance writer. 

The new boat launch in Kelly Memorial Park in Bolivar is emerging as a popular place for kayakers to access the Conemaugh River, just as the staff and Advisory Board of The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County hoped it would in 2018, when they awarded the tiny borough tucked into the northeast corner of the county a Revitalizing Westmoreland grant to build it.

Drawing more visitors, they reasoned, might help stimulate commerce in Bolivar, which has fewer than 500 residents and struggles with outsized problems, such as substance abuse, with which the Foundation’s staff and donors are all too familiar. There is a substantial record of Foundation support for local efforts to curb
opioid addiction, and Bolivar has benefited from a CFWC Healthy Communities grant to address it.

The Foundation’s work in Bolivar, which coincidentally received simultaneous Revitalizing Westmoreland and Healthy Communities grants, has become an example of what CFWC hopes to accomplish with a new  community investment strategy. Foundation leaders this year embraced a double-team approach to grantmaking, combining the two grant programs to achieve a synergy that will magnify the outcomes for families with low to moderate incomes who are living in struggling communities.

Next year, that approach will become standard practice under a new Comprehensive Community Investment Strategy, which redefines how CFWC invests in people and places, focusing its resources on communities with a disproportionate number of residents who have household incomes less than 200% of the poverty level — finances fragile enough that, for some, an unexpected car repair could tip them into poverty. 

The new strategy is backed by dedicated funding made possible by a $4 million endowment that CFWC received this year from an anonymous donor.

Kayakers paddle toward the Conemaugh River following dedication of a new boat launch in Bolivar, Westmoreland County. Photo by Joe St. Clair.
Kayakers paddle toward the Conemaugh River following dedication of a new boat launch in Bolivar, Westmoreland County. Photo by Joe St. Clair.

“Based on extensive interviews and research, we’re convinced that the dual strategy of developing the places where people live and investing in the people themselves will help these communities tremendously,” says CFWC Executive Director Phil Koch, who is transitioning to become vice president, Policy and Community Impact at The Pittsburgh Foundation.

“Leading up to this, we never really looked at whether we were making capital investments through Revitalize Westmoreland in the same communities where we were supporting the people who live there.” Over the past seven years, CFWC made nearly $2 million in grants from the two programs, including the one for the boat launch, which opened on Oct. 9, 2019.

Census data paint a picture that Foundation officials found concerning. Westmoreland County, despite holding some large and popular suburbs, has lost more than 5% of its population since 2000, one of the steepest declines in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Population loss and disinvestment have worked hand-in-hand to rob municipalities of their tax bases, jobs and Main Street businesses. While the poverty rate has dropped since 2015 to 9.2%, it remains higher than 20 years ago when it was 8.4%. More houses are falling vacant, inviting blight and other problems that make communities less healthy, safe and attractive. In 2000, some 7% of houses were vacant. By 2018, the rate had risen to 12%.

Westmoreland has far fewer government and philanthropic resources available to deal with such issues than its next-door neighbor, Allegheny County, the region’s population and economic center. Westmoreland doesn’t have a health department, for example, and is short on homeless shelter beds compared to other Pennsylvania counties its size.

CFWC has been adapting to fill the gaps. The reach of Revitalizing Westmoreland was expanded from the county’s seven cities to include other places in need, such as Bolivar, where the population is half of what it was when long-gone brickyards gave it the nickname “Brick Town.” The median household income in the borough is $41,250, much lower than the state median of $60,905, and 38% of households don’t have broadband internet service.

Koch and other Foundation staff set a goal to be more embedded in communities. To achieve it, they’ve sought out local leaders and helped build the capacity of nonprofits and others who serve them. Koch started the WestCo Nonprofit Network to offer nonprofits, municipalities and community groups professional development and a way to share experiences and ideas.

The Comprehensive Community Investment Strategy is a major step in that evolution. It is due to unfold in the spring, when, for the first time, Revitalizing Westmoreland investments will be considered through the lens of helping to strengthen places where the Healthy Communities program is helping to strengthen vulnerable families.

Securing a $4 million endowment gives CFWC a dedicated funding stream to carry out the new strategy. And Koch says the significance of the grant goes beyond the dollar amount.

The gift, one of the largest ever received, boosts the resources of the Foundation, which, at age 25, is still developing the philanthropic wealth that defines the depth at which it can invest in the community.

With the new money, Foundation officials and nonprofits can make long-term plans to tackle entrenched issues. “Prior to this gift, we were doing year-to-year planning. We never knew whether funds would extend longer than a year,” says Koch. “We were trying and adjusting, rather than working with strategies that have a longer reach.”

The dedicated funding stream also improves the Foundation’s ability to recruit new philanthropic partners to invest in projects, Koch says. “That’s hard to do when you’re looking at funding year-to-year. They don’t know whether you’ll be a stable partner. Now, we can start to have those conversations.”

More of those conversations, it is hoped, will further widen the range of efforts in Westmoreland County to turn around communities such as Bolivar, where the new public boat launch is part of a recovery that borough officials say has led to fewer vacant houses and more young residents. “It may seem like a small project,” Koch says, “but for a town like Bolivar, it’s a big deal. It improves the quality of life.”

Original story appeared in the 2019-20 Annual Report.