Last week’s announcement of the Presto Fund demands one key question of regional nonprofits: Can we truly transform ourselves?

The Presto Fund, in case you’ve been lost on some desert island, is the new fund created by CMU alumnus Dominic Presto “to free nonprofits from the grinding pressure of daily fundraising and enable them to focus on innovative, system-changing service delivery models.” With initial assets of around $1 billion, and expected to grow significantly from there, the Fund is a major new philanthropic force in Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania.steel

According to its website, the Presto Fund will:

“.. provide a minimum of $50 million annually in multi-year, unrestricted grants of at least $100,000 for overhead, management, administration, and research and development. The Fund will not offer program-related funding, nor will it limit the number of consecutive years of support it may grant. The Fund seeks to free its recipient agencies from the cycle of fundraising and enable them to focus on figuring out how to do what they do best even better.”

To really understand the philosophy that drives the Presto Fund, it’s important to know a little about Mr. Presto.

Dominic Presto is from a small, southwestern Pennsylvania town. His father was one of the last deep-mine coal miners in the region and was tragically killed in a mining accident when Dominic was just 8 years old. The mining company went bankrupt as a result of the accident, and what little settlement the family got was lost after the mine owners talked Dominic’s mother into investing in a new mine that turned out to be a scam.  For the rest of his childhood and most of his teen years, Dominic (an only child) and his mother lived on friends’ couches on the good days and in the street or shelters the rest of the time.

Given his success later in life, it’s not surprising that Dominic was an extremely bright child. He has often said that very early on as he bounced from shelter to shelter, he was perplexed by seeing the same faces over and over again. Why, he wondered, couldn’t these agencies change the system?

Dominic earned a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University (then Carnegie Tech) and became an engineer. He spent the next 20 years in research departments where, in his words, he was “the driving force behind more hare-brained failures than Homer Simpson!” Eventually, he came up with a concept for using rice syrup as an annealing agent in the fabrication of steel that was so far-out his usually tolerant bosses refused to let him work on it. So he left, formed his own company… and today he’s giving billions of dollars to philanthropy.

The Presto Fund appears to be a dream come true. A simple application process, openness to all types of regionally-located nonprofits, and unrestricted, multi-year funding of at least $100,000. So, the question is, are we ready for it? Are we ready to become risk-takers? Are we willing to fail? Do we have the discipline to stay rigorous when the worry over funding is removed?

Mr. Presto did not get where he did by continuing to do things the same old way. And he won’t fund us if we do.

Finally, as you consider transforming your agency through the generosity of this major new funder, keep in mind one last requirement from the Presto Fund’s website:

“The Presto Fund will not support nonprofits that are taken in by blog entries posted on April 1st.”

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