November 20, 2016; Philadelphia Inquirer

NPQ has published a number of articles over the years about the $2.4 billion William Penn Foundation, with the most recent an article by Lisa Ranghelli, who wrote a Philamplify assessment about the foundation, concerning the departure of Laura Sparks, its latest executive leader. Sparks left after two years in the position. Her immediate predecessor left after six months. The woman before him lasted a year, and before her, Jeremy Nowak lasted a hot 16 months. The leaders’ titles and job responsibilities changed along with the individual from president and CEO, to managing director, to executive director. As Ranghelli points out, the board is rumored to be micromanaging. It makes one wonder about the board’s role in the whole matter and how they ever get anything done.

Were we to view their latest grant skeptically, we might find a clue. The foundation’s annual grant budget is just in excess of $100 million, and it just gave $100 million to the City of Philadelphia for a project called Rebuild, thus satisfying a big part of its payout responsibilities for the year with one grant that is four times bigger than any the foundation has previously made. So, was the grant merely a way to expediently get money out the door? Does it signal something about the foundation’s future? Or is the grant just a grant—and in that case, what does it mean for other foundation grantees? (The website contained no information answering this last question.)

The Rebuild program will make badly needed facilities improvements to city assets like parks, recreation centers, and libraries, and the foundation will cover 20 percent of its total costs. Rebuild has a total projected cost of $500 million, with $300 million to come from bonds if approved by the city council, $120 million to come from foundations and private donors, $32 million in state and federal funds, and $48 million from city capital funds. Most of the foundation’s investment is contingent on the bonds being taken out by the city; the rest is structured as a challenge that provides a $1 match for every $2 raised.

This focus on saving community infrastructure is familiar to the foundation, which in 2014 gave $25 million to local libraries. Janet Haas, chair of the foundation’s board, said of the grant, which is billed as poverty prevention, “We want to provide opportunity for all Philadelphia citizens, from the youngest children all the way to the most senior citizens, to come together, to get to know one another…Particularly in these times in our country, it’s even more important.”

“Although we were excited about the potential,” Haas said, “it wasn’t an easy sell for the board, in that we knew that it was risky and that it was going to be big. If we were going to take a stake in it we knew we wanted to take a big one.” She says the size of the grant can be viewed as a sign of the foundation’s deep confidence in the plan for which it intends to fundraise additional dollars.

Haas says that the idea of remaking decaying facilities into vibrant community hubs extends beyond the purely physical to the engagement that will be necessary to involve community to which the city has committed.

“We used to think you use the engagement process to deliver a physical thing,” Shawn McCaney, the foundation’s interim executive director, said. “Now we think that it’s actually the reverse. The process leading to the park is an engagement process. And, if you do it right, folks feel like they own that space, they respect it, they steward it, and that there’s ongoing engagement beyond.”

The city should remember, however, the executive experience of interacting with the board when they accept the foundation’s promise to stay involved.—Ruth McCambridge