I realize that I work for a university, but, believe me, there’s no conflict of interest in my opposition to the proposed Pittsburgh tuition tax on students.  And then, when the tax was challenged as being unconstitutional and City Council responded by passing special, unique zoning procedures only for universities, I just had to write the following Letter to the Editor (it’s the fifth one on the page):


I hope you agree with me that this is an embarrassing, anti-intellectual seeming step backward for Pittsburgh — a city that  has been transforming itself into an exciting and progressive new image.

We nonprofits are in a touchy position right now.  Some of the universities and hospital systems have tremendous wealth, and there is certainly a reasonable argument to be made that they should be paying into the coffers for the services they receive.  On the other hand, they are providing tremendous services in exchange for their tax-exempt statuses.  And, the vast majority of nonprofits struggle day to day to survive as they provide essential safety nets, high quality arts and culture, and countless other benefits for the common weal.

So, on the one hand, it’s a dangerous can of worms to open for any nonprofit to pay some version of taxes.  On the other, we’re all — government included — financially stressed right now.  But whatever the solution, it seems to me that taking a leadership role in adding even more to the already exorbitant cost of education can’t be a good idea.

What do you think?


I decided to venture forth last Friday, September 25, for the day of the scheduled height of G-20 activity — both sanctioned and otherwise.  Like much of downtown Pittsburgh, the Bayer Center offices were closed, and I was unsure how difficult it might be to get in.  We are located in the Regional Enterprise Tower in what was designated as a restricted access zone.  In addition, our lobby was the media welcome center.

As it turned out, access to my office was shockingly easy.  My wife dropped me off on her way to her office on the North Side, and we were able to get to within about 2 blocks of the building.  Other than a slightly circuitous walk from there,

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

it was no problem at all — in fact, due to a lack of traffic, it was easier than on a normal work day.  I’m sure if I had to worry about parking or took a rerouted bus, it would have been a little trickier — but not much.

Upon reaching the city around 10 a.m., what I found was some limited access, some evidence of security — most strikingly in the form of mounted police whose powerful steeds completely blocked off Grant Street —

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

and a decided lack of people.  Businesses were closed, some windows were boarded up (no apparent logic as to who boarded up and who didn’t), and just no people.  It was downright eerie.  I walked in the middle of the streets.  Pittsburgh on a Friday morning was emptier than a western ghost town selling tickets to tourists (maybe we should have tried that).

I spent some time in the office, then headed out around noon for what turned out to be a 4-hour hike.

As I walked deeper into town, there was one overwhelming impression — force.  The more I walked, the more intense it became.  Cops on every corner, Pittsburgh police, then state police, Erie police, Indianapolis police… they were brought in from all over.  And soon it wasn’t just regular police.  More

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

mounted police, cops on motorcycles, SWAT units, humvees, and various forms of riot gear — shoulder pads and knee pads and sticks and helmets and shotguns and body armor and utility belts that would make Batman salivate.  They looked like a cross between Darth Vader’s Storm Troopers and the Michelin Man.  And let me tell you, when you see these guys up close, they are intimidating.

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

Police in force, and police in numbers.  Riot-garbed security in groups of 100, shoulder to shoulder, moving in formation and leaving no doubts.

Eventually, I made my way as close to the Convention Center — the meeting place for the G-20 — as I could get.  I did this by passing through a security checkpoint, then walking a few blocks along Penn Avenue.  On my right were businesses, including some stores and restaurants that stayed open, although I can’t imagine they were happy about that decision.  On my left was the

10-foot steel fence, running unbroken along the curb and caging me in as completely as it caged in the roadway that was a feeder to the Convention Center.

I wandered down to the Point where a tent city was supposed to have been erected.  It was totally vacant.  Not a tent, not a sign, not a protester in sight.  Just a large lawn.  Where was everybody?

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

It got to be time that the main body of protesters should have been reaching downtown from the start of their march in Oakland, so I headed out in search of them.  I found them at the City-County Building where they had gathered for some speeches and music.   After listening for a little while, I left to find a place on Fifth Avenue to watch their ensuing parade.

I use the word parade deliberately, for, to me, that’s largely what it was.  There was almost a partying, paradelike atmosphere as they passed by.  I found myself just past Macy’s (appropriate for a parade) at, coincidentally, my regular bus stop.  5,000 or so of them passed — drummers and costumed dancers, anarchists and

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

socialists, those concerned with climate change and capitalism, freedom for Tibet and jobs for everyone, advocates for the Falun Gong (these were the most quietly elegant among the marchers) and for the Pittsburgh Penguins (where were the Steelers fans?).  It was a complete cacophony of issues.  And it left me feeling frustrated and a bit perplexed.

This was not 250,000 people gathered to end the war in Vietnam.  This was not 1,000,000 indignant human beings demanding civil rights for all.  It was a mishmash, a general objection to, well,

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

just about anything that might be institutionalized or established.  To the extent that there was a unifying theme, it was the black-garbed, bandanna-faced anarchists, followed by the socialists.  Amazing to me, even the Philadelphia Democratic Socialists of America (who knew?) found their way to Pittsburgh.

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

“Down with everything!  Up with anything else!” was the message of the streets.  This is not to diminish the fact that there were many passionate, principled, committed people in this crowd.  But with no focus, what were they accomplishing?  Who, that mattered, was really listening… or, for that matter, could even if they wanted to?  When there is so much noise — both figurative and literal — how can your voice be heard?  This was protesting in the internet age, when all voices are equally loud and fragmentation of micro-interests is global.  The protesting equivalent of Twitter – tweating by marching.

On the flip side, I found the whole experience to be rather inspirational.  This was truly democracy at work.

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

Corny as this may be, I am proud to live in a country where this kind of dissent is possible.  This was also a remarkably harmonious event.  The protesters were self-controlled and peaceful, the security phalanxes were restrained.  Were there problems in some of the outlying neighborhoods, notably in Oakland where student density is high?  Sure.  But, given the scale of the event, they were minor.  Were mistakes made?  Of course.

With so much hype and so many people, mistakes are inevitable.  Yes, I know that Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann will have much to complain about.  Yes, I know that the Thomas Merton Center alleges mistreatment of protesters and, I’m sure, there are police who are outraged by things that were “tolerated.”  Both the NRA and the ACLU may feel the need to weigh in.  But, let me tell you, I was here, and it was remarkable.

Some have suggested that the show of force was excessive.  Well, maybe, but I think the proof is in the pudding.  Pittsburgh did not

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

end up like Seattle.  Pittsburgh did not end up like London.  And we did not end up like Kent State.  I respect and admire the restraint of the police.  I respect and admire the restraint of the protesters. When a protester marched down Fifth Avenue jabbing his finger at the face of each cop he passed, hissing, “Fascist!  Nazi!”, the police remained stoic.  When the young man riding his bike down Fifth Avenue did not move off the street as quickly as the police wanted and they grabbed his arm and he fell over, the crowd groused, but that was all.  No one was harmed, the cops weren’t rushed, the young man was fine, bricks didn’t fly.  And the marchers continued to march.

I was a skeptic, but I’m impressed.  I think we accomplished something for Pittsburgh (a city I appreciate more and more the longer that I live here).  My hat is off to the protesters for how they behaved.  My hat is off to the police for how they behaved.  And my hat is off to the planners of this event for a remarkable job.

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

I am a very social person, so when I was given the task of interviewing nonprofit leaders in the Pittsburgh area, I was ecstatic!  Before I was given any proper guidance, I knew who I wanted to interview.  If you remember from my very first blog entry, I wrote about how I attended the Caring Place as a youth and the love I have for that organization.  Not too long ago, I gave a speech for the Caring Place at the opening of their new facility in Warrendale, PA, where I had the privilege of meeting the Board Chair.  We talked for a while before all of the guests arrived and I learned so much about him.  In fact, I think he is one of the nicest people I have ever met.  So, who is the nonprofit leader that I am talking about?  Merril Hoge!

Merril, Me, and the CEO of Highmark

Merril, Me, and the CEO of Highmark

Many of you probably know him from his years as the starting fullback with the Pittsburgh Steelers or from his show on ESPN where he analyzes football.  However, I know Merril because of the excellent work he has done for the Caring Place, which is why I choose to interview him first.

1. What was your dream job when you were a child?

At the age of 8, I saw football for the first time on TV and I was instantly hooked.  From then on I knew that I wanted to play football in the NFL when I grew up.

2. When did you start volunteering?

I did some activities with my church when I was younger, but I’m not sure I really understood the impact of my efforts then.  I guess I would say that I didn’t really start volunteering, or “understanding it,” until college, when I helped out with the “Just Say No!” campaign.  I was asked to be the spokesperson and also had to commit to using no drugs or alcohol.  I have never touched a drug in my life and thought that if I was going to preach about using no drugs or alcohol then I had to live by the message as well.  I wanted to stay true to the message and committed to the campaign.

3. How did you get involved in the nonprofit sector?

Walter Payton was one of my idols not only because of how he played on the field, but also how he conducted himself off the field.  Payton gave back so much by volunteering, and I wanted to do the same.  So, when I was approached by the Rooney Family and the Caring Place, and was asked if I would help out by being a spokesperson, I learned all I could about the organization, liked their mission, and got involved.

4. What other organizations do you work with and what are your positions?

I am the Chair of the Board at the Caring Place, but I also help out with friends’ nonprofit causes.  Further, I have helped out with the local and national chapters of the Leukemia Society.

5. Why the Caring Place?

I’ve been involved with other organizations and didn’t think they were run very well, but then I was approached by the Caring Place and liked what I saw and how well it was run.  The Caring Place adheres to its mission and everyone that works there loves what they do and works hard.  I feel blessed to be working with an organization that is so giving and incredible.  The Caring Place is very near and dear to my heart because it helps children grieve for the loss of their loved ones.  I really like what the Caring Place stands for and how it has grown into a grieving center.  I can also personally relate to the mission, because I lost my mother when I was a teen.

6. How long have you been with the Caring Place?

I have been volunteering with the Caring Place for about 22 years now and I have been Chair of the Board for approximately 10 years.

7. What is it like to be the Chair of the Board for the Caring Place?

I relate it to football; the head coach, or Chair, is only as good as the board members and staff who are executing the plays.  For me, I have a team of passionate, intelligent, and experienced hard workers who are all great people to work with.

8. What have you done as a board member to help the Caring Place grow?

I am very please that we have not changed how the Caring Place’s mission and how it’s managed.  The Caring Place is very successful due to mission-focus, passionate staff, and volunteers.  As a board, we have expanded the Caring Place reach by opening our 4th center.  Further, the Board has done a good job of reaching out and making relationships with funeral homes, hospitals, schools, etc., so that anyone who needs help has a better chance of finding out about the Caring Place.

9. How does working in the nonprofit sector relate to playing football for the Steelers?

Football relates to the nonprofit world a lot.  Running a nonprofit is a lot like running a team, in that you need many people, collectively working together, to make it successful.  Still, every individual has a specific job, but it takes a whole team working together to be successful.

10. What advice would you give the next generation of nonprofit leaders as they enter the nonprofit field?

Make sure that the organization you join is committed to: hiring good people; promoting a mission that has an established need in the community; and sound financial processes.

11. What is your favorite quote?

I would probably be a quote from Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  Basically, what I drew from this quote is that if you want to be excellent and great it doesn’t just happen overnight; it is through habit and commitment.

Merril Hoge is someone that I look up to and respect a lot, so for me this interview was exciting and informative.  Please check back soon for my next interview with another nonprofit professional.