Jeremy Nowak’s Vision for a New Philadelphia

Armed with a $2 billion endowment, visionary William Penn Foundation president Jeremy Nowak wanted to bring to life a new Philadelphia. Old Philadelphia, it seems, has other ideas.

William Penn Foundation former President Jeremy Nowak

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.”

I laugh.

Eight days later, before I can write a word, he’s gone.