Launching a new foundation can be a daunting prospect. As with any major endeavor, there are a whole host of factors to consider, regulations to navigate, and strategies to develop.

Yet oddly enough, the general principles are the same as they would be for building the other type of foundation (the kind you’d put under a house): you need to plan meticulously, find the right people to do the job – and start from the ground up

When the Pittsburgh Steelers launched the Chuck Noll Foundation for Brain Injury Research, Denny Civic Solutions was asked to help organize, operate, and manage the fledgling organization. With John Denny’s long history working with – and within – the Pittsburgh philanthropic community (John spent decades working closely with the Hillman Foundation and started Pittsburgh Social Venture Partners, among other endeavors), Denny Civic Solutions was in an ideal position to help the new foundation find its footing.

Now, almost one year in, we’re pausing to take a look at where we started, what we did, and where the foundation is headed now.

Understanding the Area of Focus

To be successful in anything we do, we start with a deep dive into the learning process. We research, read, and conduct “listen and learn” tours with experts in the field. Doing so for the Chuck Noll Foundation allowed us to understand the various causes of traumatic brain injury (TBI), the different types of concussions, and what, if any, relationship exists between repeated concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). We began to follow the issues surrounding sports-related TBI, dissect the politics behind the issue, and explore who was doing promising research in the field. Because when push comes to shove, you simply have to know what you’re talking about – especially in the medical community.

Establishing the Foundation and Building the Leadership

Creating a new foundation requires a strong understanding of the state and federal filing requirements, along with ongoing required reporting. It also requires good operational practice, including the creation of articles of incorporation, by-laws, code of conduct, and other internal guidelines. But perhaps the most important key to success is building a strong board and – in this case – a strong national medical advisory board. A new entity like the Chuck Noll Foundation requires more time and engagement from the board than most other foundations, not to mention the fact that a strong board also lends the foundation instant credibility.

Identifying a Niche
Every foundation, but especially one with limited dollars, must identify a niche or a specific area of focus. That niche should (a) encompass a real, pressing need where the foundation can make an impact, and (b) provide the maximum return on investment. The Chuck Noll Foundation made the decision to focus its grant making on prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of brain injuries resulting from sports related activities, while also geographically focusing its grants in Pittsburgh, home to some of the most outstanding research institutions in the country.
Create a Grant Making Process

A foundation’s grant making process should be open, transparent, and respectful. Even more importantly, it must work for both the foundation and the grantees. This is a crucial step towards building the foundation’s reputation. Having grantees speak highly of the foundation’s process (not that it was easy, but that it was open and fair) is important to long term credibility. We did just that, developing an extensive list of credible researchers and inviting them to submit proposals. We also made the timeline clear and stuck to it in order to avoid confusion and consternation.

Share What You Learn

Providing financial resources for charities or strategic philanthropy is vitally important to a community. But sharing the knowledge a foundation gains from its unique position within that community is just as important as the money – if not more so. A foundation learns so much from the grants it makes. We learn what works, what doesn’t, and what should be expanded upon. Not sharing this information would be a missed opportunity of tragic proportions – so much so that sharing knowledge should be baked into the operations of any good foundation.

Moving Forward
With its first grant(s) set to be awarded in January 2018, the Chuck Noll Foundation for Brain Injury Research is now ideally positioned to play a major role in advancing better, more accurate diagnosis, individualized treatment plans, and cutting-edge methods to help prevent concussions from happening in the first place. Crucially, it is also set to help cement the Pittsburgh region as a leader in brain injury research, and together we are building the strongest possible foundation – in every sense of the word.
Our ongoing work in our community wouldn’t be possible without the support of our friends and partners.  We owe a special thank you to Dave Roger and all the wonderful people at the Hillman Family Foundation for their invaluable guidance, support, and expertise over the years.