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.

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.