They have earned a nickname for themselves at Pittsburgh’s McCune Foundation: McNonymous.
“I don’t know of another foundation in our area that gives anonymously on the same scale,” says chairman James M. Edwards. In 2006, the group awarded 213 grants worth nearly $27 million—and didn’t issue a single press release.
“It’s basically a family tradition,” says Edwards. “We’d rather give and not be known for it than give and be known for it.” The McCune Foundation is so serious about keeping a low profile that it publishes a detailed list of what grant recipients can’t do: “Never put the foundation’s name in the public press . . . .Do not list the foundation’s name in audits or on donor plaques, buildings, walls, and programs . . . .Do not name scholarship funds for the foundation and do not reveal the source of funds to the scholarship recipients.” And so on.
“We’re not the story,” says Hank Beukema, McCune’s executive director.
Yet the McCune Foundation does have a story to tell—one with a starting point and, very possibly, an ending point in the not-too-distant future. The foundation was created in 1979, upon the death of Charles L. McCune. He was the president of Union National Bank, a forerunner to National City, from 1945 to 1972, and later served as chairman of the board. He was known for his business acumen and frank language. In a privately printed autobiography, Three Lives and All of Them Are Mine, he described his involvement with the board of a religious magazine: “I soon found out that this is a first-class pain in the neck. The board consisted of several preachers and at the meeting it seemed to be their prerogative to take the floor and argue minor points hour after hour.” He expressed considerable relief when another group took over the publication.
McCune didn’t seem to derive a lot of pleasure from philanthropy—not because he was a tight-fisted scrooge, but because he believed his natural talents lay in the direction of creating wealth rather than giving it away. He simply preferred making loans to making donations. “I am sorry to say that I seem unable to get interested in what I should call ‘Charity Work,’” he wrote in his memoirs. “I admire those that can do that, but I seem to want something where the profit and loss is, at least once in a while, a profit instead of a downhill money-raising campaign.”
McCune nevertheless appreciated the importance of grantmaking and ensured that a large chunk of his fortune would be dedicated to philanthropic purposes. In his will, he established the McCune Foundation in memory of his parents, Janet Lockhart McCune and John Robison McCune. Today, its endowment is worth about $550 million.
McCune didn’t leave a long set of explicit instructions about the foundation’s goals, but that doesn’t mean the current board does whatever it pleases. “They take donor intent very seriously,” says Joanne Beyer, the former vice president of the Pittsburgh-based Scaife Family Foundation. “They’ve done a really good job of staying true to their founder.”
To that end, the board has investigated the giving patterns of Charles McCune and tried to replicate them. “We’ve done a lot of research,” says Edwards. Edwards likes to speak of McCune’s personal philanthropic “style,” which the foundation works hard to preserve. As a result, the foundation collaborates with a number of what it calls “preferred organizations”—about 100 groups that McCune personally gave to during his own life. “You might say that we let them come to the front of the line,” says Edwards. “We listen to them before the others.” The family’s philanthropic ties to some groups actually pre-date McCune’s life, stretching well back into the 19th century. Even so, Edwards insists that the foundation doesn’t lower its standards for preferred organizations. New applicants with outstanding proposals are much more likely to receive support than old favorites that merely put in lazy requests for an annual subsidy.
According to Edwards, the foundation addresses what it calls “economic dislocation” in much of its grantmaking. “Since the Second World War, Pittsburgh has lost population, its tax base, its manufacturing base—we attempt to address that through meat-and-potatoes philanthropy. Our main areas are education, health care, and social services, what Charles Dickens called ‘ignorance, sickness, and want.’”
Recent gifts have included $750,000 to Allegheny College for a theater and communication arts center, $100,000 to the Presbyterian Healthcare Foundation for the expansion of a special-care nursery for newborns, and $250,000 to the Greene County Habitat for Humanity for the construction and operation of a warehouse. The foundation also has given $500,000 to a new museum and visitor center at Gettysburg as well as $300,000 to the National Park Foundation for the development of a memorial dedicated to the passengers of Flight 93, whose plane crashed in Somerset County on September 11, 2001. The local Carnegie libraries have also received donations to help computerize their holdings.
The grants come in all sizes. In 2006, the largest was for $2.25 million to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. The smallest was for $10,000 to the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research.
Though the foundation has a reputation for avoiding the spotlight, brief descriptions of these gifts have been publicly available in the foundation’s annual report practically since the beginning. Nowadays, though, the reports are even more widely available through the foundation’s website. “We live in an era of transparency,” says Edwards. The foundation’s tax forms and financial audits are also online. Even so, grant recipients may acknowledge support from the McCune Foundation only in their annual reports and in private discussions with other foundations—the idea being that support from McCune can function as a sort of seal of approval for other donors.
The foundation’s grants are concentrated in Pennsylvania but not restricted to it—they’re also disbursed in other states where family members live, including Connecticut, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Texas. Its financial muscle is beefed up by its ties to two smaller family foundations, the John R. McCune Charitable Trust (with an endowment of about $130 million) and the Marshall L. and Perrine D. McCune Charitable Foundation ($140 million), which is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They share board members, areas of interest, and—in the case of the McCune Foundation and the John R. McCune Charitable Trust—physical office space.
The McCune Foundation also collaborates with Pittsburgh’s broader philanthropic community. In 2002, it joined with the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, and the Richard King Mellon Foundation to purchase an abandoned riverfront property in Hazelwood, Pennsylvania, for $10 million. To make it possible, the foundations formed and funded Almono, a partnership named after the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers, which merge at Pittsburgh. The 178-acre site was once owned by LTV Corporation, a steel company, but today is awaiting development. “We thought it would be best not to let the property fall into the city’s hands,” says Edwards. Almono’s relationship with the city has been rocky—a former mayor once threatened to seize the property through the power of eminent domain—and development plans have dragged on. The hope is that the site will eventually be developed into a mixture of housing, commercial, and park space.
Controversy surrounding the project has led to McCune’s frequent appearance in the pages of Pittsburgh newspapers. More often, however, the foundation works to keep its grants hidden. The John R. McCune Charitable Trust, for instance, operates with similar rules of anonymity. A couple of years ago, when it helped a school build an outdoor athletic track, the school offered to name the track after McCune. “We told them to name it after somebody who had meant a lot to the school, but not in a financial way—the kind of person the school would want to honor if money weren’t an issue,” says Edwards. The school decided to name its track after a beloved coach.
The McCune Foundation board is made up entirely of family members. They meet quarterly and receive no compensation for their work. To ensure that younger family members gain an understanding of, and appreciation for, philanthropy, the foundation offers internships—thereby developing the pool from which future board members will be drawn.
What that future will look like is an open question. “We’re not a perpetual foundation,” says Edwards. In his will, Charles McCune gave his foundation a 50-year deadline—meaning that it must spend down by 2029, at the latest. The will allows the foundation to close shop as early as this year. “We’re in a zone of discretion right now,” says Edwards. He says the McCune Foundation won’t shut down in 2008, but it may dissolve itself sooner rather than later. Instead of giving away its endowment to traditional grant recipients, however, it may choose to create a new foundation that could carry on the family’s charitable legacy.
“We’d do a lot of things the same way. We’d stay anonymous, grow the assets, and avoid fads—because the best charity is often just the same old things,” says Edwards. “Society looks for steadiness from foundations—that’s why we’re called foundations.”
Contributing editor John J. Miller writes for National Review and is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.