At the onset of this project, The Pittsburgh Foundation provided us with a sizable list of potential areas of improvement, with the ultimate goal of envisioning the future of responsible philanthropy.

Armed with a variety of tools for conducting research, we set out to understand everything we could about the problem space and our stakeholders to identify the ways in which our clients could best achieve their goal.

What We Found...


When people come together to discuss their philanthropy, they make better decisions because of the rationality and empathy that comes through the back-and-forth of conversation.

As donors with different backgrounds and perspectives work and talk with one another, they build empathy and challenge personal biases. Donors with different areas of expertise regarding community needs can share their knowledge with others. In general, discussion about philanthropy leads to more carefully considered philanthropic decisions, so this discussion should be promoted.


People give more when they feel personally connected to a cause, because their personal relationship with the cause makes the donation’s impact feel more tangible.

We have seen that the converse is also true, in that donors’ perceived connections to a cause are increased after donating to that cause. On a related note, we found that philanthropic decisions are often driven by donors’ personal networks -- donations are often motivated by a friend or family member’s connection to a cause. We aim to leverage these tendencies in our targeted direction.


Donors of large sums want the results of their donations to be tangible and experiential because they only truly feel the warm glow when they see their impact and can confirm that the world is different because of their decision.

Although the idea of utilitarian philanthropy supports giving in such a way that it impacts the greatest number of people, donors often opt instead to give more narrowly because doing so increases the opportunity to see immediate, tangible impacts. Our goal is to allow The Pittsburgh Foundation to steer this desire for immediacy and tangibility toward more responsible philanthropy.


Donor Services Officers at The Pittsburgh Foundation provide a wide variety of resources for donors. Donors value their relationships with Donor Services Officers (DSOs) in part because of their expertise and philanthropic guidance, but especially because of the personal human connection in an age when everyone is inundated with technology.

Even those donors who supplement their philanthropic experience at TPF with additional tools, such as Charity Navigator or GuideStar, ultimately count on their DSOs for guidance. This human-to-human connection between donors and DSOs is the heart of the services offered to donors. DSOs serve as a resource for donors to learn about causes and hold conversations that they would otherwise not have, since discussing money and giving are heavily stigmatized.

The donor-to-DSO relationship is especially important to donors who are technologically averse, which is fairly common among the donor demographic. However, compared to many current donors, younger donors have exhibited greater interest in personal, hands-on involvement with their philanthropy, as well as a greater acceptance of technology. With this in mind, our goal is to facilitate and strengthen the already strong personal contact between donors and DSOs while also providing millennial donors with the opportunity for greater technological involvement.



Secondary research -- that is, reviewing existing books, articles, and other works within our problem space -- helped us to understand the ecosystem in which community foundations operate as well as the psychological and economic underpinnings of philanthropy. Completing secondary research provided us with the base knowledge necessary to begin conducting our own primary research.


Many of our findings came from conducting semi-structured interviews, in which we asked individuals targeted questions. We interviewed all sorts of people involved in philanthropy, including TPF employees, donors, grantees, representatives from other nonprofits, and domain experts. These interviews provided us with first-hand accounts of the experiences of people who view philanthropy from every possible angle.


To better understand the community that The Pittsburgh Foundation supports, we ventured into the streets of Pittsburgh. We talked to any locals who were willing to answer a few questions about their perspectives on philanthropy and on the city. We had heard that Pittsburghers care about one other and their city, and our findings affirmed this.


Contextual inquiry in the form of sitting in on internal TPF meetings and work sessions provided us with a better understanding of the behind-the-scenes operations of the foundation and helped us fill in gaps of understanding that were left by mere spoken accounts of internal processes. Though our contextual inquiries had to shift to being completed remotely in response to COVID-19, we continued to glean valuable insights from this method.


To validate the needs that we identified through other forms of research, we created comic-strip-like storyboards to represent possible solutions. We then presented these storyboards to donors, asking them to discuss their reactions to the scenarios and portrayed, in a method called speed dating.  Speed dating helped us gauge the areas that donors found most important to address, and helped us narrow in on a direction.