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Stepping Away: After working behind the scenes for 85 years, the Falk Foundation will close its doors in 2014

"I'm not really sure ... who's going to fill the void."

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For nearly 85 years, the Falk Foundation has flown under the radar in Pittsburgh's philanthropic community.

In October, the organization announced it would be shutting down next year — and until that point, some never even knew it existed. But from needle-exchange programs to community-benefits agreements and televised school-board meetings, the Falk Foundation has played a role in bringing plenty to Pittsburgh.

"I would say that the Falk Foundation legacy is that we put good ideas into practice well before their time," says Kerry O'Donnell, president of the foundation for more than a decade.

The Falk Foundation is a social- and racial-justice organization born from the Maurice and Laura Falk Foundation, which was created in 1929. The foundation's work behind the scenes has led to a number of progressive developments that have shaped the local community and increased opportunities for marginalized populations in Pittsburgh and nationally.

Back in 2005, for example, when Pittsburgh was poised to see the construction of a casino and new hockey arena in the North Side and Hill District, respectively, the Falk Foundation thought it would be a good idea for the residents of those neighborhoods to benefit from the development. That idea took the form of community-benefits agreements with the Rivers Casino and Consol Energy Center developments.

"Community-benefits agreements very often benefit communities of color, so we wanted the residents living around those developments to benefit because of the public subsidies going into those projects," O'Donnell says.

CBAs first caught O'Donnell's eye in California. After introducing the idea to the Pittsburgh community, Falk brought together the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, the POISE Foundation and the Women and Girls Foundation to bring it to fruition.

"That's something I've always loved about this job," says O'Donnell. "Being able to go out and find successful models throughout the country and bring them here."

As a result, the CBAs negotiated by local organizations Pittsburgh United and the One Hill Coalition, have created economic development, education and youth services, employment opportunities, work-force development and the Hill District's first grocery store in decades.

CBAs represent just one of the innovative ideas the foundation pioneered in Pittsburgh.

In 1968, the foundation — originally referred to as the Falk Fund — helped establish the Freedom House Ambulance program, which provided medical assistance to residents in the Hill District at a time before the city had emergency medical services. The black-owned ambulance company also provided jobs for African Americans throughout the city. Later, the city's emergency medical services were modeled after the Freedom House program.

Falk also had a hand in creating opportunities for ex-offenders. The foundation gave a grant to the Urban Affairs Coalition in Philadelphia to establish the Formerly Convicted Citizens Project in Pittsburgh. This organization was responsible for getting "Ban the Box" legislation passed in 2012, which prohibits City of Pittsburgh agencies and departments from asking job applicants questions related to a person's criminal background on initial job applications.

"[The foundation] brought a lot of life to this issue," says Dean Williams, who served as executive director of the Formerly Convicted Citizens Project. "It's the first time this kind of awareness has been brought to the issues facing people with criminal records. They gave me the resources to accomplish the mission I accomplished."

More recently, Falk has been involved in issues related to gun violence, including a billboard campaign launched by the Center to Prevent Youth Violence that asks the question, "Is there a gun in the home where my child plays?"

"I looked at the racial disparities in homicide rates and I had to think, 'We are so small, how can we possibly make an impact?'" O'Donnell says. "I started to ask where are these guns coming from and I was shocked that no one was asking those questions."

Just this month, O'Donnell presented the results of a gun-trace study of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police's firearms tracking unit. The study found that in 73 percent of gun-related cases in 2008, the perpetrator was carrying a firearm owned by someone else.

"It became very clear to me that the majority of those guns used in crimes are from lawful owners who don't lock up their guns," O'Donnell says.

Falk also provided CeaseFire Pa and the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network with a grant to launch the "Where did the gun come from?" campaign.

"I really appreciate all the hard work the Falk Foundation has put in on this issue. They will very much be missed," says Rob Conroy, of CeaseFire Pa. "I'm not really sure out here in Western PA who's going to fill the void. I think they raised awareness on the issues. The foundation is tireless when it comes to this."

While many Falk beneficiaries agreed Pittsburgh has a robust foundation community, they said there are few doing work in the niche area Falk supported.

"In recent years they became especially focused on investing in strategies [on] gun control and gun access, and I'm not sure any local funder has done that," says Heather Arnet, executive director of the Women and Girls Foundation, which received a Falk grant in 2004.

"What was so great and unique about Falk is it was very focused on social justice and racial justice," says Melissa Protzek, executive director of the Allegheny County Court Appointed Special Advocate program, which received a $50,000 grant from Falk in 2004. "I hope someone steps up to fill that void."

Despite Falk's impact, the foundation doled out only $24 million in grants over 52 years. Its power was in forming coalitions with other foundations and organizations.

In 2004, when the Women and Girls foundation needed funding to expand its reach, Falk provided it with a $75,000 grant. Since then, the WGF has in turn granted $600,000 to organizations in the Pittsburgh region and has worked as an ally with Falk on other initiatives.

"The Falk Foundation was an early investor in the Women and Girls Foundation," says Arnet. "Their grant in 2004 helped broaden our programming engaging women and girls in civic action. They've really been a leader for social justice."

Protzek's organization, CASA of Allegheny County, received a grant from Falk in 2005 to establish a case-manager position to address the needs of older minority foster children. In later years, the program received two additional grants to further its child-advocacy efforts and to build diversity within its own organization.

"Our support from Falk allowed us to serve children better," Protzek says. "We were very sad to learn the foundation was closing its doors, but we understand it existed well beyond the initial trust."

According to Sigo Falk, who serves as chairman of his family's foundation, his uncle Maurice Falk intended for the foundation to exist only for 35 years. Instead, the Falk Foundation has served Pittsburgh and organizations throughout the nation for 85 years, working largely behind the scenes.

"We weren't out there for glory," Falk says. "And some of these things wouldn't have worked if our name was attached."

So why did the foundation continue on longer than initially intended?

"We were doing good," says Falk, who's approaching 80 years old. "It gave me a retirement job. It gave me a base to continue doing a lot of nonprofit stuff."

Now Chatham University will be tasked with carrying on the foundation's legacy. The foundation dispersed the remainder of its endowment by giving $15 million to the university. The foundation has supported the university for decades, and Falk has served on the board of trustees since 1981.

"It's an amazing gift," says Bill Campbell, vice president of marketing and communications for Chatham. "And it's a testament to the long relationship between Falk and Chatham and what they've accomplished over the years together."

The Falk Foundation will officially close down in August.

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