The Pittsburgh Foundation

Corporate Philanthropy in Focus: Schell Games

From left to right, Jake Witherell, chief operating officer; Lauren Reed, senior director of human resources; and Nathan Dean, senior benefits administrator. The group shares why Schell Games' corporate philanthropy is a vital cog in its support of our community. (Photo by Joshua Franzos.)


As told to Christian Pelusi
Christian Pelusi is a senior communications officer at The Pittsburgh Foundation.

The Pittsburgh Foundation takes an active role in engaging businesses to help them realize their philanthropic missions through collaboration and facilitation. This interview is the first of a series to show how corporate philanthropy can help companies leverage the talents and passions of their staff to aid the communities where they work and serve, while also attracting and retaining top talent.

First is Downtown Pittsburgh’s Station Square-based Schell Games, the largest full-service education and entertainment game development company in the United States.

Q: When did corporate philanthropy first become a goal for Schell Games and why?

Jake Witherell, chief operating officer: Corporate philanthropy has always been consistent with Schell Games' mission of making the world a better place. Our mission statement is to make experiences we're proud of with people we like to make the world a better place, and this extends beyond the products we create to our corporate philanthropy efforts. Certainly, when we were a much smaller company, this happened in smaller ways, such as supporting employees who were passionate about specific causes. As we grew, so did our philanthropy efforts. We started working with The Pittsburgh Foundation because of our fantastic relationship with [Senior Development Officer] Amy Razem. We worked with Amy at the Children's Hospital Foundation for many years before she transitioned to The Pittsburgh Foundation.

Q: How did Schell Games evolve its corporate philanthropy efforts?

Lauren Reed, senior director of human resources: We used to engage in one-offs that weren't necessarily visible to anyone except those employees who brought the opportunity to our attention. Connecting again with Amy allowed us to evaluate a more formalized structure of philanthropy and establish it as a benefit to our employees. 

We've put substantial amounts of money in the trust of The Pittsburgh Foundation, and they've been a great partner. Overall, their organizational values align with ours. The Foundation does a lot of the heavy lifting to maximize our philanthropy efforts to support areas of the community that need the most assistance.

Nathan Dean, senior benefits administrator: Bringing The Pittsburgh Foundation on board as a partner enabled us to take the next step with our philanthropic efforts authentically. The Foundation identifies organizations in need, vets them and makes sure the organizations we're contributing to are Pittsburgh-centric. The partnership eliminated the initial barrier of not knowing how to find organizations, ensuring that those organizations stayed true to their mission of really helping their communities and determining the best way Schell Games could help them. 

Q: Last year, the Foundation facilitated a three-session giving circle to identify values and issues to target. What were your impressions of the exercises and how did your employees take to the process?

Nathan: The exercise is beneficial because it gives people tools to evaluate what's important to them and helps build consensus among the larger group. When you have a group of eight to 10 employees, each person typically has their priorities and things they're passionate about. Providing the group with resources and tools to facilitate healthy discussion usually leads to some give and take as people weigh what's important to them as an individual verses what people in the Pittsburgh community need at the moment. Employees may also learn about some organizations they didn't know existed or how one organization checks several boxes in terms of focus. It's a learning opportunity for employees to put personal preferences aside to build a consensus with their peers and ultimately work together to select some great organizations to support that calendar year. 

Q: The result: Your 2021 giving group cohort focused on basic needs and granted out five grants of $5,000 each to the following nonprofits:

How did the giving circle experience lead you to make those grants?

Nathan: The education we got from the giving circle helped to fine-tune our approach to the organizations we supported. When we first started working with The Pittsburgh Foundation, we learned about the different levels of philanthropy, from immediate, basic needs to education and development to advocacy and petitioning the government to change rules or laws. It's like giving somebody a fish, teaching them how to fish, or asking to build schools to teach people how to fish. Most of the time, we're more focused on teaching people how to fish, but in 2021, we concentrated on giving people fish (basic needs) due to the lingering impact of the pandemic. 

There is still a significant need in Pittsburgh, and the area still hasn't fully recovered from the pandemic to the extent that other cities in the U.S. have. Because of this, we shifted our focus to more immediate needs to help people in our communities. This year, we have a new group of people on our decision team (Schell Games Giving Group), so we'll see what resonates the most with people. As the employer representative on the call, we listen and yield to what employees as a whole decide to do. Our goal is always to have this portion of our corporate philanthropic efforts be an employee-led experience. 

Lauren: One of the benefits of working with The Pittsburgh Foundation is exposing our team to new organizations. Even if the cohort (known internally as Schell Games Giving Group) didn't select an employee's organization of choice for corporate giving, now the employee has a deeper understanding of the organization and can give personally or volunteer their time. We added a paid volunteer day for 2022 to encourage employees to support organizations independently.

Q: How does it feel when you see Schell Games employees engaged with meeting around this mission and working with The Pittsburgh Foundation?

Nathan: It's fulfilling to see employees passionate about giving back and supporting the city through different causes — many of which are deeply personal. It's rewarding because people who have participated in Schell Games Giving Group (SG3) almost always turn into advocates for this program and help with recruiting the following year. 

Lauren: We're also pretty excited to see how much we're learning about corporate philanthropy in working with The Pittsburgh Foundation. Usually, people want to support a highly visible project or activity that an organization offers. If you restrict giving in this way, it makes it much harder for the organization to use the funds they receive. We let organizations determine the best way to put the money we donate to good use. We give without strings attached. 

Q: What is Schell Games' plan for corporate philanthropy in 2022?

Lauren: More SG3 of course! We're constantly revising our giving strategy and leaving room for addressing needs as they come up, and I think that will always be the case. We also want to be proactive in our efforts on the national and global scale, like the donation we made to Ukraine.

Nathan: Yeah. As of Jan. 1, we definitely didn’t have a Ukraine budget.

Lauren: Exactly! As the country and the world grapples with significant events that impact so many, we want to help. Our focus will primarily be on the impact we can make on the Pittsburgh region, but we're still flexible enough with corporate philanthropic efforts that we can address other needs as they come up. 

Nathan: Our games are international, so we’re a part of the international community. Making the world a better place starts with the world, so we’re doing what we can to help out. 

Learn more about Schell and other corporate philanthropy partners of our Foundation and discover our Center for Philanthropy and the ways we work together to bring philanthropic goals to fruition.

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