The lobby of the William Penn Foundation, on the 11th floor of a skyscraper two blocks north of Market Street, is a quiet place. It may be the quietest place in the high-rise corridor of Center City. It may be the quietest room in any office in the country that contains actual working people. When I walk in on this autumn day, a woman behind a reception desk directs me to a couch. Next to the couch is a glass table piled with copies of the Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal and also Grid, a local magazine about sustainable living.
I sit under the soft, warm lights. I look up at the painting of John C. Haas, son of Otto Haas, the co-founder of Rohm and Haas, the chemical company. Otto created the forerunner of the foundation in 1945. I can’t hear anything from the offices that line the hallway that stretches away in both directions. When a staffer walks past reception, it is a moment—the sound of displaced air, of shoes shuffling on carpet—and then the noise fades, the room reasserts itself, and there is utter silence once again.
After a few minutes, one of the most powerful people in the city appears. He has a shiny bald head, glasses, a gray blazer and no tie. He’s built like a wrestling coach. A few days ago, a source in the education world described him to me as Philadelphia’s own Bill Gates. The same person guessed that he was probably more powerful than the Mayor, reasoning that the Mayor may speak for the city, but the Mayor isn’t sitting on $2 billion in the bank. This guy is sitting on $2 billion in the bank.
“Do me a favor,” he says, smiling. “Don’t make me look like too much of an idiot.”
His name is Jeremy Nowak, and he’s the 61-year-old president of this place, and I’m not surprised that he’s slightly reluctant to speak to a reporter. It’s been an awkward couple of months for the William Penn Foundation, mostly because of Nowak’s recent decision to make a major push into the most controversial issue in the city right now: the fate of our public schools. How do we fix broken schools? Do we give them the resources they need to get better? Or do we shut them down and add charter schools, giving parents more choice? Under Nowak, the foundation has pushed, hard, for option number two, steering millions to charter-school activists working to transform the system. But there’s a whole network of teachers and activists on the other side, and they’ve fought back, writing blog posts, holding protests, talking to reporters.
The foundation isn’t used to bad press. The foundation isn’t used to any press. Relatives of Otto Haas still control the board; to that point, the chairperson had been Janet Haas, daughter-in-law of Otto’s son and a physician who specializes in palliative medicine. The Haas family are said to be private, retiring people, which made their decision to hire Jeremy Nowak a somewhat surprising one. When
he officially took over in June 2011, replacing the mild-mannered Feather Houstoun, he’d never run a philanthropy before. For more than 25 years, Nowak served as CEO of the Reinvestment Fund, a financial institution that, among other ventures, raised money from corporations and individuals and lent it to developers building grocery stores and housing in poor neighborhoods. In the early 2000s, he was an adviser to then-mayor John Street on his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative to clear blight; whatever you might think of NTI, and its success was mixed, you have to admit it was staggeringly ambitious.
Nowak speaks the language of entrepreneurship. He talks about risk and the importance of allowing yourself to be wrong sometimes. He talks urgently about urgency. “I may not be right about this,” he tells me. “This may have just been my prejudgment. But … you go into a business or even a good nonprofit, they’re runnin’ around, you know? Philanthropy doesn’t have to run around.”
I tell him that William Penn’s waiting room is the quietest waiting room I have ever seen.
“You got it,” he says, leaning forward, nodding. “This is true of any philanthropy you go to. It’s not like going to an architectural office or going to the Water Department or going to a business or a tech company where you … rrrrr!” Nowak puts up his fists and emits a growl.
“We’ll see how this plays out,” he goes on. “It’s only 17 months in, right? There’s no inherent sense of urgency in a philanthropy. And yet this family, and the board, and obviously the staff here, we have a great sense of urgency. We think there’s really important things to do in this town.”
Over the next 45 minutes, we talk about the foundation’s vision for the city. We talk about watersheds and charter schools and the Zoo. Nowak answers all my questions with care and precision. I ask how he wants to be viewed after several years—what will his legacy be?—and he jokes, “If I last that long. We’ll see after your story comes out.”
Eight days later, before I can write a word, he’s gone.
“Now here’s a twist for your story,” begins the November 28th email from Brent Thompson, the foundation’s communications director. “Jeremy is out. Helen Davis Picher”—a 29-year veteran—“is our interim president while a search commences. This was very sudden and quite surprising.” Thompson attaches a press release. The document reveals more by what it doesn’t say than what it does. There’s a quote from Nowak praising the foundation and a quote from a Haas family member praising Nowak; the Haas family member is David, Janet’s cousin. David, not Janet, is listed as chairman of the board. This apparent sudden change in leadership isn’t explained. Later, on the phone, Thompson clarifies that the foundation is moving ahead with the same goals as before, including school reform. “What may change are some of the ways that we go about pursuing the goals,” he tells me.
No one in the city is reassured by any of this. As soon as the news leaks, thumbs all over town start jabbing at cell phones, trying to figure out what’s going on. People at organizations funded by the foundation—which range from small arts, environmental and educational nonprofits to behemoths like the Franklin Institute and the Kimmel Center—want to know, because they’re concerned about their own futures. People in politics and education and the arts want to know because the foundation is a $2 billion ship sliding through the city, tossing money over the railing—about $80 million each year—and it’s a big deal when that ship suddenly changes direction.
Many of the details of what happened will probably stay hidden. Only a handful of people know everything, and they’re not talking. Via email, Nowak says he can’t discuss the foundation because when he left, he signed a nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreement. “I like the family and would never think of disparaging them anyway,” he writes, adding, “Since I left I have been extra careful with the press (and your story) because I am aware of how anything I say can be misinterpreted.”
Still, since November 28th, two distinct narratives have emerged about the brief tenure of Jeremy Nowak at William Penn. The first is a straightforward one of a culture clash within a single institution: A bold, hard-charging captain takes over a cautious, conservative ship, and mayhem ensues. According to this view, Nowak steered into dangerous waters by getting so deeply involved in school reform, and the passengers eventually mutinied.
The second narrative—more provocative, more contested—has to do with the broader culture of Philadelphia. Nowak often talked about how the city needed to break free of old patterns. Politically and otherwise, he argued, many Philadelphians are too concerned about tending their own little kingdoms; they’re too afraid of competition and change. According to this story line, the city’s defining conflict is the one between Old Philly, the Philly of fiefdoms and inertia, and New Philly, the Philly of youthful energy and entrepreneurship. Nowak tried to do something about it—to use old money to hasten the coming of a new city. And he paid the price.
It’s not easy to write a story about the politics of a place that doesn’t like to acknowledge its own existence. The groups the foundation gives money to are often asked to let the foundation preview their press releases and brochures for approval. Says a former foundation employee, “We used to kid Brent Thompson that he had the easiest job in the world: to be the communications director for a foundation that didn’t want to communicate.”
A deep strain of Quaker humility runs through this. The first rule of doing good works is that you don’t talk about your good works. When Otto Haas and his wife, Phoebe Waterman Haas, an astronomer, first created the foundation in 1945, the goal was to provide “relief in postwar Europe, scholarships for fatherless children, and support for medical and educational institutions,” according to the foundation’s 2011 annual report. (The mission has evolved to include support for arts, the environment and public spaces.) The foundation’s first director, Richard K. Bennett, who took the job in 1956 and held it until 1981, was a conscientious objector during World War II. He believed in the Quaker ideals of justice and peace. “Neither will be secure,” Bennett once wrote, “until love becomes a reality rather than a slogan.”
The foundation has always been perceived in the city as a force of quiet benevolence. At worst, it has been viewed as benign. It has given its money dutifully to many dutiful causes. It has spread its jelly in a thin, even layer across many slices of bread—$300,000 to a literacy initiative here, $75,141 to a small museum there—never laying it on too thick in any one place, so as not to offend. A deep, profound, grooved-in sense of responsibility permeates its annual reports, most of which include reverent biographies of Otto Haas and his sons, F. Otto and John C. Haas, who carried on their father’s business and philanthropic legacy after his death. Change is hard for the foundation because it has been controlled for so many years by people with the same basic no-sudden-moves worldview.
Still, in its recent history, there have been signs of restlessness, hints of a greater ambition lurking beneath the placid surface. Between 1994 and 2011, as a new generation of Haas family members joined the board—F. Otto died in 1994, and John C. in 2011—William Penn cycled through five presidents, the average tenure being just four years. (One died in office.) The board would bring in a new face, looking to shake things up, then decide not much later that what it really wanted wasn’t a shakeup but stability. The best example of this is Kenneth Brecher, a colorful character who had run the Boston Children’s Museum before taking the reins of the foundation. An anthropologist and a former Rhodes Scholar who spoke six languages, he’d told the board he intended to “take a look at Philadelphia from the point of view of an anthropologist and do fieldwork,” according to a 1994 Inquirer profile.
True to his word, instead of soliciting the opinions of powerful and influential Philadelphians, Brecher “went directly to the laborers and pensioners, the housewives and children—the plain people of the city,” the Inquirer wrote. You can guess how well this turned out. In 1995, he left the foundation after less than a year, a move that “caught the funding and cultural communities completely off guard,” according to a subsequent article. His name doesn’t even appear in the foundation’s list of past presidents in its annual report. He has been erased. (Brecher, who now runs the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, didn’t return a phone call.)
In the early ’90s, while the foundation was struggling to find an identity, Jeremy Nowak was raising his family in pre-gentrified Northern Liberties. He liked the diversity of the neighborhood; he liked that it was on a border between worlds. “While I have lived in New York and San Francisco for periods of time,” he emails, “I am a Philly guy (for better or worse).”
Nowak was born here, at 7th and Girard, the son of a small-business owner and his wife. He attended Philly public schools. He studied philosophy as an undergrad at Penn State, then earned a PhD in cultural anthropology from the New School for Social Research in New York. Learning about philosophy and anthropology “prepared me for understanding the historical evolution of ideas, including those that populate economic theory,” Nowak once said in a speech. “One of the joys of the anthropological imagination is its unwillingness to accept an absolute consensus on how the world operates.”
While researching his dissertation—“Social Space, Political Process, and Community Identity in a Multi-Racial Philadelphia Neighborhood”—Nowak became keenly interested in blight. He was the kind of person who liked to think about big, thorny problems—at the Reinvestment Fund, he says, they joked about needing an organization called the Institute for Big Problems—and blight was one of the biggest and thorniest. Banks stayed away from blighted neighborhoods, convinced their loans would never be repaid; charities raised what little money they could and gave it away, with few visible results. This was the way the world operated; the consensus was that you couldn’t change it. But Nowak didn’t believe that. He believed that past blight-removal efforts had failed because they were run by “bleeding-heart liberals who were doing God’s work, but did not have the ethic of accountability,” as he would later tell the New York Times. What was needed was a new kind of institution on the border between charity and the private market: a businesslike institution with the civic spirit of the best charities.
This was the recipe for the Reinvestment Fund, which Nowak founded in 1985 with a $10,000 grant. “Our idea was that with technical help, regular people could organize money like a community organizer does with people,” he explained to the Inquirer in 1995. “The money could be the catalyst that makes things happen.” Nowak convinced churches and neighborhood groups to take money more seriously, and he convinced banks and big companies to take good works more seriously. He won grants from major philanthropies, including $15 million from the William Penn Foundation over a number of years. With the fund’s ever-expanding capital, Nowak financed the expansion of a Catholic school in North Philly, a launderette near Kensington, dozens of new supermarkets, and six new daycare centers, including one where 97 percent of the kids had mothers who were on welfare.
Even as Nowak built credentials as a banker, he remained an idealist at heart. Once, he bought a nuisance liquor store just to shut it down—and instead of selling the liquor license, which could have fetched $75,000, he publicly burned it, in “an act of creative citizenship” that “marked a high point in my life,” he would later recall. Judy Wicks, founder of the White Dog Café and doyenne of the local sustainable-food movement, got to know Nowak around this time, and she trusted him so much that she took all her money out of the stock market and put it into the fund; today, she says, her portfolio has outperformed those of her friends. “He’s about social change and justice, and various progressive values that I believe in,” Wicks says of Nowak, “and he very much has his feet on the ground in terms of the practicality of making things happen. A lot of people are one or the other. They’re not both.”
Toward the end of the 2000s, as Nowak piled success upon success at the fund, momentum was building at the William Penn Foundation for a major change. In April 2009, Dow Chemical bought Rohm and Haas for more than $15 billion, generating a windfall for John C. Haas. Eight months later, he plowed $747 million into the foundation on the condition that it only be used for Philly-based projects. The endowment swelled from $1.2 billion to $2 billion in a flash.
An event like that will tend to get an organization thinking about its place in the universe. The board—comprised of five family members and six others—looked around. What were the other big Philly philanthropies doing? The Pew Charitable Trusts focused on national issues. The Annenberg Foundation had moved to Southern California. William Penn was the big dog.
For starters, this meant that the foundation required a new strategic plan; its existing one was almost 10 years old. And it needed someone to guide a new planning process.
When the board hired Nowak in the spring of 2011, it specifically cited his reputation as a creative problem-solver. To Nowak, the job must have been irresistible. He’s basically a broker. At the Reinvestment Fund, he’d planted himself at the intersection of charity and the market, brokering deals between those two worlds. But he couldn’t always cajole people to meet him there. As the head of a $2 billion philanthropy, he wouldn’t even have to cajole; people would just come to him. Anyone in the city would return his call—any CEO, any politician, any entrepreneur. The foundation, if he played it right, could become the Institute for Big Problems.
Nowak began to travel around the city and meet with various groups. He says he tried to listen as much as possible. But he also did a lot of talking. He spoke about how Philadelphians need to talk less about what the city did first and more about what the city does best. He talked about how the city’s “legacy institutions”—the Free Library, the Zoo—can innovate successfully in a world of scarce resources and rapid technological change. He talked about how the city’s structure, chopped up as it is into neighborhoods and political districts, can make it difficult to convene people to solve hard problems. (“It’s very hard to garner the political capital of the whole,” he says. “So whenever you take the position of trying to speak toward the whole in a big way, you set yourself up to take some shots from the parts.”)
Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, remembers being impressed with Nowak’s willingness to tell people things they might not want to hear. Nowak wondered, for instance, if our beloved museums were missing out on opportunities for collaboration and consolidation, citing the alliance of Drexel and the Academy of Natural Sciences. “GPTMC is entrepreneurial,” Levitz says. “We long ago adopted the mantra of Google culture. We feel we’re always in beta. I think what Jeremy was questioning was, are enough organizations in Philadelphia in beta? Are they willing to risk and change? And I think those are questions that Philadelphia has to ask.”
Last fall, after Nowak and the foundation board had worked together closely for a year, they concluded their strategic planning process. They identified three areas of focus: environmental stewardship, organized under the rubric of “watershed protection”; arts and culture (“creative communities”); and “closing the achievement gap” between kids in poor schools and kids in good ones. (In Philadelphia public schools, 43 percent of African-American males and 51 percent of Latino males drop out.) There was nothing particularly new about these priorities; all were longstanding passions of the Haas family and the board. What was new was Nowak’s strategy for pursuing them. A huge believer in the power of data—metrics, yardsticks—Nowak said he would lay out, in early 2013, baseline data on all three areas of focus: “The idea is that we should say, ‘Here’s where we are, and here’s in 10 years where we need to be.’” He also wanted to create two new entities within the foundation: a Transformation Fund, to “help regionally important organizations better respond to market shifts,” and an Innovation Fund, “in service of finding and developing breakthrough ideas and solutions.”
Finally, having decided on three areas of focus, Nowak wanted to be fairly ruthless about excluding projects that fell outside of those areas. For instance, in the past few years, the foundation had invested in several civic journalism projects, such as “It’s Our Money,” a partnership between the Daily News and WHYY that tracked tax and budget issues. Nowak decided these would no longer be a priority.
I asked Nowak about the points of departure with the past: What else was he not going to fund? He said it was hard to say; you can’t determine what’s been left in the past when you still haven’t “said hello to the future.” Nowak added, “I have a father-in-law who says this old Yiddish expression. He’s in his late 80s; I assume it’s a Yiddish expression.” Nowak smiled. “Man plans, God laughs.”
The first people he pissed off were his own: people at the foundation, men and women who’d been there for years and years. Nowak wasn’t just directing money to new places; he was changing how that money got directed in the first place. And the way he changed it placed power in new hands.
In the past, the power to make grants had always lain with program officers—people who specialized in a certain area, like education, the environment or the arts. For certain types of grants, Nowak wanted to instead move to a system of panels in which groups of people, some of them experts in their fields from outside Philadelphia, judged grant proposals using a more quantitative method, to decide who would receive money. This would make the process more competitive, pitting organizations against each other; the idea also alienated some of the most experienced staff. According to a former employee, Nowak seemed less like a philanthropist than a banker. “He was acknowledged as kind of a big thinker,” the ex-employee says. “Visionary. But the one thing he didn’t do was listen. He came in knowing what he wanted to do and how to reshape things, but there was no analysis of a problem that needed to be addressed. It was just: I don’t want to do it that way anymore. I have a better way.”
The board cleared space for Nowak to operate. At an early board meeting, someone “asked him some tough questions,” says the former employee, “and Janet [Haas] said, ‘He doesn’t need to answer those right now. He needs more time.’” In March 2012, Nowak laid off nine foundation staffers and made two hires of his own. Around this time, several organizations that had long been supported by the foundation received word they shouldn’t plan on any more of its funding: the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, an umbrella group of theaters; a group called ArtsRising, which taught arts to children in mostly underachieving public schools; Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour (PennPAT), which supported touring artists; and a number of education organizations, including three that had been critical of efforts to turn more schools into charters, according to the City Paper. (The Theatre Alliance later dissolved, citing “a time when resources for the arts are constrained,” and so did PennPAT.) Meanwhile, Nowak made some splashy new bets. On July 10th, the foundation released a list: 10 grants worth $4.2 million for
watershed-protection projects; 20 grants worth more than $10.8 million to arts and cultural organizations, including the Kimmel Center ($2.5 million) and the Franklin Institute ($2 million); and a whopping $15 million to a relatively new organization called the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP).
It was the PSP grant that caught everyone’s attention, not only because of its size but because of the structure and makeup of PSP. It’s run by an ex-journalist named Mark Gleason, and its board is packed with supporters of school privatization; one of its donors is Janine Yass, wife of hedge-fund manager and privatization advocate Jeffrey Yass, backer of the powerful Students First PAC.
But the PSP grant wasn’t the foundation’s only big move in the area of school reform. It had also begun working with a controversial company called the Boston Consulting Group. BCG has deep ties to privatization advocates. Many cities have hired it to lay out road maps for reforming their schools. In February, the School Reform Commission—the state-controlled board that runs the Philadelphia School District, which is on the brink of bankruptcy—commissioned BCG to take a broad look at education in the city, generating ideas to patch the district’s budget holes and boost student achievement. William Penn contributed $1.5 million toward the tab and raised another $1.2 million.
The BCG report was drastic. It recommended closing up to 57 public schools and dramatically expanding charter schools, which it predicted would educate close to 40 percent of the city’s students by 2016. These recommendations formed the basis for the SRC’s “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools,” released in April, which suggested closing around 40 schools. Public-school advocates were outraged, dismissing BCG’s work as “a boilerplate menu of silver bullet education reform ideas” that “make little to no mention of what it will actually take to educate our children,” according to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. At a May protest rally covered by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philly chapter of the NAACP, said, “We at the NAACP despise the Boston Consulting Group,” and at a subsequent SRC meeting, Jerry Jordan, president of the PFT, said, “We want adequate, stable funding spent in schools and classrooms—not millions of dollars wasted on … pricey consultants.”
Public-education supporters weren’t surprised that an outside consultancy was trying to shove the city in one direction. They were surprised to see the foundation’s fingerprints. Until now, William Penn had never made itself a combatant in such a highly charged arena. But in a way, it fit a trend. In recent years, national philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundations have taken a more activist, political role in urban education, using their money and clout to push for a certain kind of change. “The philanthropic vehicle allows some entities to bypass a public process and find a shortcut right to decision-makers at the top,” says Helen Gym, the co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, a group that argues for more investment in public schools. “There’s a view that holds that it’s just about how smart you are and how fast you can move things, and the public is a pain in the neck and they’re more hassle than it’s worth.”
Gym has known Nowak for a few years. She respects him as “a self-made man who has very keenly recognized the failures of government to provide much-needed services.” She says she’s disappointed, though, that Nowak “went with what the massive trend in reform was, backed by ideologues and deep pockets.” She adds, “He’s here to change the game. I guess the question we should be asking is, ‘Is this the game we want to play?’” (Nowak responds: “My personal view is that centralized control and command systems are breaking down because technology, civil society and private innovation are transforming them. The Ed debates should be viewed within this context.”)
On November 15th, Gym’s group delivered a letter to the foundation raising concerns about the BCG report. A few weeks later, Parents United filed a complaint with the City Ethics Board. The gist of it was that the foundation, by hiring the Boston Consulting Group, had lobbied the district without ever identifying itself as a lobbyist. Also backing the complaint was the NAACP.
I interviewed Nowak five days after Gym sent the first letter. Nowak didn’t mention it. When I asked him about these issues—about the alleged politicization of the foundation, about its ties to polarizing figures in the national charter-school movement, about BCG—he wasn’t feisty or defensive. He laid out his case in calm tones. No, he didn’t see himself as part of any movement. He didn’t care if a school was public, parochial or charter, as long as it closed the achievement gap: “We’ve taken a pretty agnostic view.” Yes, the foundation had hired BCG, but in Nowak’s eyes, BCG was just a tool to generate data for local decision-
makers. He asked if I had actually read the BCG report. I said I hadn’t. He stood up, left the room, came back, and placed a copy before me. BCG has become “a boogeyman,” he said, but the document is actually quite sensible. (While written in neutral prose, the report is sharply one-sided. Except for a few lines acknowledging that some charters are bad—“there is a range of performance levels across charters”—it treats the expansion of charters as an unalloyed good, barely mentioning some well-documented problems. And according to the PFT, BCG didn’t interview a single classroom teacher.)
Nowak seemed mildly confused by all the blowback, even a little wounded. By his lights, he’d only done what he’d been doing for decades: getting data on a problem, then bringing private and public folks together to make a decision and execute. “I’m not sure what our choice is, as a nation,” he said. “The great thing about Americans is their pragmatism. And if we could get back in touch with our damn pragmatism in some ways, and solve problems?” He shrugged. “That’s how I’ve thought about it.”
Eight days after our conversation, Nowak and his board parted ways.
So, what happened?
The most obvious scenario involves school reform: The Haas family members got sick of the negative publicity, blamed Nowak, and gave him the boot. But maybe not. “I would be surprised if that was the issue it split over,” says Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools. (Nowak used to chair Mastery’s board.) “My impression was that the storm had largely passed. The Boston Consulting Group stuff seemed to be settling down.” Gordon wonders if the split had to do with something else, like the arts.
This is plausible. The members of the Haas family have many connections in the city’s arts world and therefore many opportunities to pick up on any whiffs of displeasure within it. But the education folks have a stake in pointing the finger at the arts folks, so it’s hard to know.
“We’re all very nice to each other,” says GPTMC’s Meryl Levitz. “Conversations stop before we hurt anybody’s feelings. And Jeremy didn’t seem to be afraid to break a few bones here and there.” She adds, “Everybody here is so interrelated in many ways, and you don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings and you don’t want to threaten other people’s jobs. But Jeremy raised the question: What price do we pay for that?”
It’s tempting, actually, to view Nowak’s tenure at William Penn as confirmation of some of the things he’s been saying about the city’s resistance to change. After all, here is a guy who was hired by the city’s most powerful philanthropy to help it figure out how to flex its muscles in new ways, who did exactly that, and who was gone after 17 months. It’s tempting to write something like this: Even when we say we want guys like Nowak in the room in Philadelphia—guys with fresh ideas and new energy, guys who will challenge us to be better—we don’t really want guys like Nowak in the room.
Without any definitive information about why Nowak and the board diverged, it’s impossible to know for sure what happened. So this interpretation could be wrong. No one is saying he’s a martyr. He’s certainly guilty of angering longtime staffers. He’s guilty of not being more transparent about the foundation’s efforts to push school reform. He’s guilty, perhaps, of hubristic ambition—of backing one side over the other in a high-stakes battle for the soul of our education system and thinking he could survive the inevitable storm.
What’s clear is that no one forced the foundation to hire a change agent in the first place. As late as last summer, board chair Janet Haas was praising the strategic-planning process that Nowak directed. “The foundation’s new direction builds on the work that we’ve done for decades, but brings more focus to critical challenges and timely opportunities,” she told the Inquirer, adding that the foundation “will employ a transparent, data-driven approach that emphasizes assessing results and communicating clearly.”
William Penn went in with eyes open. Then, for some reason, it blinked.
In early December, in the weeks after Nowak’s departure, many in the nonprofit community breathe sighs of relief. There’s an almost audible snapping back to baseline. The elevation of Helen Davis Picher to interim president of the foundation has a lot to do with it. Unlike Nowak, she’s a foundation lifer, steeped in the organization’s history and culture. According to Debra Kahn, executive director of the Delaware Valley Grantmakers, an umbrella group of local philanthropies, Picher “will bring some needed stability, particularly as the foundation is able to get back to”—and here Kahn stops herself, not wanting to suggest that William Penn veered off its path under Nowak—“and continue its real business of grant-making. That’s what I think people will go back to focusing on.” The bone-breaker is gone; the ship is returning to calmer waters; everything is as it was.
At some point in December, the foundation removes the PDF of its 10-year strategic plan from its website. I ask communications director Thompson about Nowak’s goal of publishing baseline data on the region’s creativity, educational achievement and environmental quality. Thompson says he isn’t aware of anyone working on that. (Later, he says the foundation is compiling data on all its grant-making areas on a rolling basis.)
Nowak emails me an updated personal bio. “Jeremy Nowak is one of America’s leading practitioners and thought leaders in urban development,” it begins. “He heads J Nowak and Associates, LLC, a consulting firm that provides strategic assistance to social sector institutions, with a commitment to delivering private sector results.”
On December 19th, three weeks after the change in leadership, William Penn announces more than $3.2 million in new grants to “launch the implementation phase of the foundation’s 10-year strategic vision.” To foster “creative communities,” it will give $1.5 million to the Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe; to protect watersheds, it will split $715,500 between four environmental organizations; and to boost education, it will give $1 million to the Children’s Literacy Initiative, which works with poor kids in Philly schools to strengthen their reading and writing skills. It’s classic foundation grant-making—dutiful, safe, beyond reproach. The education grant is particularly uncontroversial. Childhood literacy is miles away from school reform. It will spawn no protests, spark no critical articles. Who could argue with childhood literacy?
Maybe the city’s most powerful philanthropy isn’t the ship, but the iceberg. Maybe it’s the immovable object.