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November 20, 2014

Pitt’s Osher institute initiates fundraising, plans for expansion

Most people don’t know that the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) exists at Pitt, admits its director, Jennifer Engel.

She hopes a new strategic plan and fundraising effort, begun last month, will grow and diversify the membership of OLLI, which offers classes, day trips and travel opportunities aimed at those over 50.

She also hopes it will raise $20,000 from 15 percent of its current 1,100-plus members, allowing OLLI to apply for a second million-dollar endowment from the Bernard Osher Foundation, which endowed Pitt’s OLLI with $1 million in 2007.

The Osher Foundation created its first OLLI at the University of Southern Maine in 2001, following with 40 more on other campuses across the country by 2004.

Since Pitt’s OLLI was established in 2005, a total of 119 OLLIs in all 50 states have been created — most with $100,000 gifts. Pitt is one of only 25 with a million-dollar endowment. Other Pennsylvania OLLIs are located at Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, Widener and Temple.

Today, OLLI at Pitt offers more than 80 homework-free, mostly five-week courses each term, from “Playful Poets of the Renaissance” to “The Search for Another Earth,” “Fundamentals of Investing” and “Women in the Bible.”

Most OLLI programs are separate nonprofits from their parent universities. Pitt’s OLLI’s ties to the University allow OLLI members to audit a long list of undergraduate courses as well. Membership costs $125 for one term or $225 for a school year, covering an unlimited number of Osher offerings and two audits per academic term.

“Most of its publicity prior to now has been word of mouth,” Engel says of OLLI, which she began leading just eight months ago. “We want to make sure that anybody who has a passion for learning knows about it.”


OLLI’s fundraising, begun in July before the campaign was announced, already has resulted in 102 members and 20 others contributing $16,000 toward the goal, which must be reached by June 30, 2015, to permit OLLI’s next approach to the Osher Foundation.

But fundraising isn’t all Engle plans to expand. “We didn’t want to just put a fundraising plan in place,” she says. The organization also has a plan to expand its offerings and reach.

History, literature and religious studies are among OLLI’s more popular current course categories, while hands-on science courses and workshops in studio arts and writing are among its most requested future courses. Engel also hopes to begin a Pitt history course this summer, with top University leaders addressing the class.

OLLI’s strategic plan, devised with the input of members, calls for diversifying its participants in several ways, since the majority of members are white, around 65, and from the East End. While classes technically are open to any age group, the plan aims to encourage those in their s — currently just 15 percent of members — to join, as well as those who still are working. The plan envisions evening and weekend courses for people who work during the usual class times, and OLLI satellite centers, particularly in the west and north of Pittsburgh, where public transportation to Pitt is not as direct.

The plan also hopes that individual Pitt departments will consider OLLI memberships as retirement gifts for current staff and faculty. University employees, retired or not, are natural candidates for OLLI classes, she says: “A lot of the people who are at the University are lifelong learners.”

By 2017, Engel hopes, “We will have between 1,200 and 1,300 members. People will know what Osher is and what the benefits are to people over 50 … and it will have a much more diverse membership.”

“Our members will be more engaged and involved in Osher,” she adds, “and then we’ll be a model for other OLLI programs across the country.”


For more information on Pitt’s program, go to

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 7