Funder’s Forum: The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation

The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation has served West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania since it was established in 1944 by Michael and Sarah Benedum. Grants are made to support specific initiatives in the areas of education, economic development, health and human services, and community development. Foundation Center asked James V. Denova, its vice president:

Q: What are some of the ways in which grantmaking by the Benedum Foundation honors the legacy of Michael L. Benedum while continuing to meet the needs of the communities you serve, and how have the foundation's investments in education evolved?

“Michael Benedum had great foresight in framing his philosophy of philanthropy without being prescriptive about how the funds should be used. He intended for most of this philanthropy to aid his home state of West Virginia, with a lesser portion committed to his adopted home of Pittsburgh. This approach reflects his understanding that there existed an abundance of foundations serving Pittsburgh's urban core, however he didn't dictate a formula. He also set up a trustee structure that invited leading citizens and experts in various fields of service and representatives of the various regions of our two-state footprint. This has created a forum for discourse that continually assesses and revises our grants program in response to changing needs while remaining true to donor intent.

“Today, the Benedum Foundation has a presence in rural southwestern Pennsylvania as a way of bringing philanthropic equity to those communities that fall outside of urban Pittsburgh but have interaction with neighboring communities in West Virginia. Natural work-live patterns do not follow geopolitical boundaries, and the foundation strives to look at the larger interstate region as one. We also set a priority on cross-border collaborations among school systems because public schools cannot cross jurisdictions with public funds.

“In the past 15 years, the foundation has taken an increasing interest in the public education system. For a foundation of modest size, it was determined that the greatest benefit to the students of West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania would be to support innovation in schools. We look for ways in which we can invest "risk capital" in new program development, especially where taxpayer dollars cannot be invested. Working with the public education system also relieves us of funding core operating costs, which are covered by public funds. We therefore work closely with state departments of education and regional education service agencies to bring in outside experts, as well as pilot and evaluate new instructional practices — always with the understanding that successful models will then be adopted by the public education system. In West Virginia, we have funded national organizations to help develop new standards for teacher preparation and new ways of coordinating the professional development of in-service teachers and to help redesign principal preparation programs. All of these efforts have been undertaken in partnership with the West Virginia Board of Education.

“We also strive to create peer learning networks among K-12 schools and institutions of higher education. In this effort we work very closely with the Grable Foundation in Pittsburgh, with which we share the same philosophy of learning innovation. Grable has a more Pittsburgh-centered service area than does the Benedum Foundation, but we have created a Remake Learning Council that convenes educational leaders from both states to address research, policy, and practice issues in public education. Benedum and Grable also co-fund several of the same projects in a way that allows a seamless regional scope inclusive of our mutual programmatic interests but respectful of our differing geographic priorities.

“Because we set a priority on rural communities, we look for the natural assets of small towns that could be nontraditional or historically overlooked economic drivers. A case in point is a project that targets several distressed post-industrial towns that have access to recreational trails and waterways. We fund community planning and business development agencies to help redefine these communities as recreational tourist destinations, and we help businesses accommodate a new customer base. My favorite example is a near-bankrupt hardware store that is now a thriving bike rental and repair shop.”

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