Richard King Mellon Foundation boosts funding for COVID-19 aid to $25 million

Among recipients: colleges adapting for fall; Wilkinsburg small business incubator; and public art for riverfront trails

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

JUL 2, 2020

The Richard King Mellon Foundation is adding $10 million to its commitment to help the Pittsburgh region deal with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new funding — which includes money for economic and health initiatives and support for the arts — follows a $15 million commitment that the city’s largest philanthropy made in April for COVID-19 relief.

The April pledge came “with the real clear understanding this crisis wasn’t going to subside in the short term,” said Sam Reiman, foundation director.

As the unemployment rate skyrocketed and disproportionate effects of the pandemic on the Black community and other groups became more pronounced, “We realized this is something you couldn’t just finish with one level of investment,” he said.

The foundation, created from the fortunes of Pittsburgh’s Mellon banking family, had an endowment of $2.7 billion in 2019.

Its new package for COVID-19 aid includes $2.5 million to help colleges and universities in Western Pennsylvania cover additional expenses they will incur to reopen for the fall semester such as virus testing.

The money, to be distributed to about a dozen schools through grants that will average $200,000 to $250,000, could also help students fill financial gaps and be used for faculty needs such as transitioning to remote learning, said Mr. Reiman.

Providing funds to higher education institutions was a priority for the foundation, he said, because especially in smaller, rural communities, colleges “play an outsized role in the local economy.”

Also included in the new round is $3.3 million to continue an economic impact and recovery initiative the foundation launched as part of its April commitment to COVID-19 relief.

It recently awarded 37 grants totaling more than $5 million from its first round of funds.

The board approved another 24 grants because “there were so many worthy ideas” among the submissions it received from the community, said Mr. Reiman.

Among the new allocations is $175,000 to Locally Grown, a nonprofit trying to jump-start small businesses in Wilkinsburg through an incubator program based at the former Johnston Elementary School.

Others include $175,000 to Community Human Services Corp., a Strip District nonprofit, to expand telehealth access for behavioral health services for vulnerable people such as the homeless; $100,000 to the Westmoreland County Community College Education Foundation for job training and job placement programs; $150,000 to the Center that Cares in the Hill District for digital literacy programs; and $100,000 to the Mediation Council of Western Pennsylvania to reduce an expected surge in evictions linked to job losses among renters.

Some of the economic recovery grants will boost arts and recreation organizations that have seen revenues practically dry up since shelter-in-place orders were issued in March.

A grant of $100,000 to the Pittsburgh Symphony, for instance, will fund a new marketing initiative to attract people back to Downtown, said Mr. Reiman.

“If you’re in the business of generating revenues through large gatherings, there’s been virtually no improvement in your business since the economy shut down,” he said.

Riverlife, a nonprofit that promotes reuse of the city’s riverfronts, received $200,000 for a program to install public art along riverfront trails.

Some of the $10 million will go to health-related initiatives.

In its earlier round, the foundation supported vaccine research at the University of Pittsburgh and local production of protective face shields.

The new funding includes $250,000 in North Side biotech firm CytoAgents to fund clinical trials of a drug that could reduce the severity of human response to the coronavirus.

Some of the new funding has yet to be committed to specific initiatives, said Mr. Reiman, because, “We don’t really know when this will end.”

Another surge of cases could result in shortages of personal protective equipment and more funds may be needed for vaccine development.

“We’re really trying to keep our powder dry,” he said.