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.

“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.)