Behind most great fortunes lie complex stories, not least that of Cordelia Scaife May.

Origins of a Philanthropist

Born as Cordelia Mellon Scaife in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1928 into the storied Mellon clan, Ms. Scaife harbored no thirst for the limelight nor lust for riches. Yet through judicious gifting, “Cordy” as she preferred, spearheaded landmark campaigns reflecting her vision for a better world.

The Laurel Foundation, launched in 1951 when Cordelia turned 23, marked her inaugural foray into strategic philanthropy. Motivated by the isolation of her cloistered upbringing, Cordy’s early grants backstopped the arts, education, and female empowerment. The National Aviary, the Allegheny Land Trust, and even Planned Parenthood numbered among Laurel’s beneficiaries.

Despite facing personal challenges, such as a reclusive life after the death of her second husband in 1974, Cordelia Scaife May’s commitment to philanthropy remained unwavering. Her dedication to causes like land conservation, watershed protection, and environmental education showcased her deep concern for the well-being of the planet.

May’s philanthropic endeavors were vast and impactful. Her contributions spanned environmentalism, birth control, family planning, and immigration reform in the United States.

Her philanthropic journey reflected a nuanced understanding of the interconnectedness between population dynamics and environmental sustainability.

Championing Women and the Environment

With her substantial wealth and influence, May recognized that unchecked population growth could lead to increased demand for resources, exacerbating environmental challenges.

She was particularly attuned to the impact of rapid urbanization and industrialization on the consumption of finite resources, such as oil and gas, in developed nations. Understanding the strain that overpopulation places on ecosystems and the environment, May sought to address these issues.

By championing sustainable immigration, May aimed to manage population growth in the United States, recognizing it as a crucial step toward preserving finite resources and mitigating environmental degradation. She believed that a more thoughtful approach to immigration could contribute to sustainable development and reduce the strain on resources caused by unsustainable rapid population expansion.

May’s philanthropic initiatives included strategic efforts to align immigration policies with her broader environmental conservation goals. By advocating for immigration reforms, she sought to strike a balance between human population dynamics and the finite capacity of the environment to support such growth.

Among May’s most fervently backed causes was the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh (WC&S). Since its founding in 1974 as one of America’s first domestic violence shelters, WC&S has aided over 7,500 adult and child survivors annually. May developed a deep connection with the organization’s mission to provide safety, healing and empowerment to those affected by abuse.

Moved by their commitment to meet survivors’ evolving needs with compassion, she became an ardent champion. Through sustained grants, May enabled WC&S to invest in personnel and community engagement programs and amplify survivors’ voices. Her steadfast support over decades, though characteristically anonymous, was instrumental to the growth of WC&S as they broke cycles of violence with care and counseling.

The Birth of Colcom Foundation

In 1996, May’s philanthropic vision culminated in the establishment of Colcom Foundation, a testament to her enduring commitment to various causes close to her heart.

Fueled by her substantial endowment, the foundation emerged as a platform for addressing key issues on the sustainability of resources and climate change activism that reflected May’s deeply held beliefs in sustainable development and environmental conservation.

Colcom Foundation became a driving force in supporting initiatives aligned with her values. Its inception marked a pivotal moment in the landscape of charitable contributions, as May’s wealth and influence were strategically channeled to create a lasting impact on the preservation of natural resources for future generations, which had become Cordelia’s life goal.

Quietly Compassionate

Behind the faces of her foundations, close confidants knew “Cordy” as the real change agent. Her trusted staff received hand-penned notes and personal calls.

Though media attention made her bristle, she relished monthly arts outings with employees. “She often said she had the ability to fund the programs,” shared an insider, “but that it was the special people who were committed to making the programs happen who deserved the attention.”

A legacy for humanity

When Cordelia Scaife May passed in 2005, her net worth nudging $1 billion, she left a nuanced legacy melding money and moral purpose.

One year later, Colcom Foundation’s coffers opened wider courtesy of Cordy’s $435 million bequest — among the largest philanthropic gifts in American history.

Through her philanthropy, she aimed to foster a sustainable coexistence between human populations and the Earth’s resources, recognizing the importance of responsible stewardship for the well-being of both current and future generations.

Michael Strueber, an artist and director emeritus of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Loretto, Cambria County, said Mrs. May was “one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever known in my life. She was loyal to a flaw. I’m a better person for having known her.”

“What she did, in most cases, she did anonymously. She wanted no public accolades,” Strueber said. “That’s the rarest kind of philanthropy. She did things because she believed in them.”

For a woman who spurned excess, perhaps no richer tribute exists.

By Manali