Caren Glotfelty told reporters in an email that "the board has indicated that it is moving in a different direction with regard to the Environment Program," which are a significant part of the endowments overall grants. In an email to Heinz grantees sent last week, she said her last day is Aug. 8.
Glotfelty and the Heinz Endowments declined to comment on the move, leaving many to speculate on what's in store for dozens of scientists and environmental groups who have come to depend on millions of dollars of yearly support. The endowments are separate from the giant consumer food company.
Several grantees told The Associated Press they've heard no details on what prompted Glotfelty's departure.
The Heinz Endowments has been a leading source of funding for scientists and environmental groups who study or oppose the boom in shale gas drilling. But the charity drew ire recently when it announced in March that it was also funding and joining a partnership with major drilling companies such as Shell and Chevron in an attempt to reduce impact by creating stricter but voluntary industry standards.
Industry groups also questioned whether Heinz could realistically support both sides in the bitter debate over gas drilling, or fracking.
Aaron Dorfman, the director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, said sudden personnel changes in charities aren't unusual.
"It always indicates a serious difference of opinion" within the organization, Dorfman said.
John Stoltz, a Duquesne University scientist who's received Heinz funding for research into possible links between Marcellus Shale gas drilling and water pollution, said in an email that he was "shocked" by the news. But he added that a conference on shale gas research scheduled for this fall was funded by Heinz, and that he hasn't heard anything specific about shifting priorities.
Heinz President Bobby Vagt will serve as the acting environmental program director in Glotfelty's absence, according to her email. Vagt is also a corporate board member of Kinder Morgan, a Houston company that owns the largest natural gas pipeline and storage network in the nation.
While the shale gas grants have attracted the most attention, Heinz also funds many other environmental grants on issues such as storm water, pollution from coal, public parks, and general education and outreach. They also fund many other programs that focus on children, art, and education.
For example, in 2011 Heinz gave out about $67 million in grants, and the environmental portion of that was $7.8 million.
Dorfman added that the Heinz Endowments has no obligation to release more details on why Glotfelty was pushed out, and there's no typical timeline for handling such transitions. Yet that can place tremendous pressure on organizations that wonder if they will still be funded in the future.
"It's a horrible position that grantees get placed in all too often, waiting to see how things shake out," Dorfman said.
It's also unclear what role, if any, the recent medical problems of Teresa Heinz Kerry may have played in the shift. Heinz Kerry, 74, is the head of the endowments, but she suffered a seizure last month and spent three weeks in the hospital.