Philanthropy as Opportunity

The evolution of the Henry L. Hillman Foundation

In 2017, with gifts and guidance from Henry L. Hillman’s estate plan, his eponymous foundation nearly quintupled its size and refined its grantmaking strategies. These historic changes, many years in the planning, reflect his personal and unusually forward-looking approach to philanthropy — and how it can leverage substantial benefits for Pittsburgh, his lifelong home. To Henry, philanthropy meant opportunity to make Pittsburgh better.

The Henry L. Hillman Foundation was created in 1964. Its purpose was to strengthen institutions in southwestern Pennsylvania, ideally through projects with the potential to “do something extra” for the funded organization and especially for Pittsburgh, the region’s economic core. In the years that followed, Henry’s commitment to and involvement in philanthropy grew dramatically. He brought to this new challenge the same imaginative, venturesome approach he had used in business to identify and invest in new, sometimes risky ideas that helped create the modern innovation economy.

Over the decades, the Foundation’s multimillion-dollar gifts to Pittsburgh’s great research universities, hospitals, and cultural institutions helped to accelerate the city’s acclaimed resurgence, catalyze world-class medical care, attract promising and nationally known research scientists, and create a more robust infrastructure to support business creation.

Henry’s ambitious goals for his philanthropy crystallized in 2012 when he gifted additional money for a pilot “Opportunity Fund” within the Foundation.

He wanted this fund to support timely initiatives directed at current community needs and emerging opportunities. He aimed to drive social change by looking for “great ideas” — projects that bring together many community components and incorporate the best concepts and practices of both the private and the public sectors. He wanted it not only to fund initiatives but also to venture into hands-on investment “partnerships” with nonprofits — working alongside community leaders and investing in people as much as in organizations. Realizing that not all ideas would succeed, he wanted the fund to have the freedom to take risks. His vision was to integrate and leverage Pittsburgh’s considerable strengths in order to create a competitive advantage for the region.

The Opportunity Fund reflected Henry’s conviction that Pittsburgh is the ideal urban laboratory — large enough to face the same issues as bigger cities and regions, but small enough to facilitate positive change and therefore serve as a model for others.

Henry L. Hillman

"I think once you get started in philanthropy, you see all the opportunities to spend money well by giving it away," Henry said. "We work very hard on that here in Pittsburgh, we have the opportunity to drive social change with models that can benefit cities everywhere.”

While technically predating the Opportunity Fund by several years, an initiative at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) modeled Henry’s hoped-for new approach – funding higher risk projects with quality leadership over a number of years, in turn yielding higher returns for the community and triggering bigger thinking on the part of Pittsburgh and its institutions.

In 2009, a unique opportunity arose – with Henry’s prodding – to improve regional traffic flow and transportation mobility through the application of advanced information systems technology. Henry believed that “intelligent transportation” had the potential to improve hundreds of thousands of lives in southwestern Pennsylvania. It could make Pittsburgh a leading center for research, development, and deployment of smart city technologies.

Early contributions from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation seeded the development of the Traffic21 initiative at CMU, starting with small grants to researchers working on projects like adaptive traffic signals, real-time travel information, smart parking, adaptive controls inside vehicles, predictive technology for electric vehicles, and more.

Traffic21 had multiple early successes including the launch of the first fully autonomous traffic-signal control technology in June 2012, at a busy intersection in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, paid for with funding from The Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, and the Henry L. Hillman Foundation. It uses artificial intelligence and machine vision to automatically adjust and coordinate signal timing to accommodate varying traffic volumes. Like game theory, all the decision-making authority is invested in one signal, so if there is a change in the system, every individual signal can adapt and adjust. By September 2012, the pilot signals had already reduced vehicle wait time at the intersection by an average of 40 percent, cut travel time through the area by 26 percent, and improved air quality by decreasing vehicle emissions by an average of 21 percent.

The Henry L. Hillman Foundation put around a million dollars over three years into Traffic21 (with later follow on funding as well). By 2012, CMU had used this investment to garner an additional $25 million in additional funds and to secure one of five U.S. Department of Transportation University Transportation Centers.

From 2012 through 2017, the Opportunity Fund contributed nearly $48 million to capture and greatly accelerate early-stage momentum on important community initiatives ranging from the Mid-Atlantic Mothers Milk Bank to 412 Food Rescue to the Craft Business Accelerator, among many other projects.

Using the Opportunity Fund pilot to attempt new approaches and to validate his goals, Henry continued to plan for the future of the 18 foundations that comprise Hillman Family Foundations. In preparation for a distribution through his estate to his foundation and to the 13 foundations belonging to his children and grandchildren, he responsibly thought about how the Henry L. Hillman Foundation in particular would change and how he would like its gifts to be directed. He guided the development of strategic guidelines for the Foundation and the adoption of six near-term focus areas:

Food Economy

Leveraging Technology and New Business Models

Innovation Ecosystem 2.0

Maintaining and Renewing Pittsburgh’s Neighborhoods

Inclusive and Participatory Democracy

Maternal and Child Health

To use just one of these six focus areas as an example, grants in 2013 to the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, and Community Kitchen Pittsburgh jumpstarted the Henry L. Hillman Foundation’s food economy portfolio, that by 2017 totaled in excess of $9.5 million in contributions across 25 grants. These investments focused on reducing food waste, improving access to fresh and healthy food, and ensuring production, processing, distribution and consumption of local foods that benefit the region’s economy.

Over time, the specific priorities will shift and evolve in response to emerging needs and opportunities for the Pittsburgh region – always strongly informed by Henry’s ambitions for his philanthropy.

Pittsburgh cityscape with the Ohio river in the evening

With Henry’s passing in 2017 and his final estate gift and instructions, the Opportunity Fund pilot concluded – and its principles and priorities will now guide the entire Henry L. Hillman Foundation. As an early example, the lessons learned from Opportunity Fund grantmaking shaped the structure and content of the recent 10-year, $30 million renewal of the Hillman Fellows for Innovative Cancer Research program at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

Going forward, the Henry L. Hillman Foundation will maintain and increase its productive focus on this region — working to fulfill Henry’s conviction that Pittsburgh can and will be one of the world’s most innovative and forward-looking cities of the next hundred years.

Click for additional information on Henry Hillman or the history of the Hillman Family Foundations.

Written by Mary Brignano