Funding + Philanthropy

The William Penn Foundation Switches Gears With New Strategic Plan

Correction: November 6, 2012
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that The William Penn Foundation was previously focused on health and human services; environmental issues; and arts and culture groups. The first focus should have read “children, youth and families.” The Foundation has not been engaged in health funding recently and has not funded direct service delivery since 2001. The article has been corrected below.


The William Penn Foundation is responsible for about $85 million in grants each year. Recently, the Board of Directors announced it will make a major change to its funding choices.

The Foundation was previously focused on youth and family issues; environmental issues; and arts and culture groups. Now, that first priority will be narrowed to focus on education. The Foundation wants to close the achievement gap for low-income children, it said in its new strategic plan.

The other two priorities also will change, but not as drastically. There will be “a shift in the way we’re doing our work and … what we’re trying to achieve,” said Laura Sparks, the Foundation’s vice president for philanthropic programs. The Foundation wants to be “solutions-driven” she explained. So instead of merely funding the operation of environmental and arts groups, the Foundation will support programs that create measurable change.

WPF’s assets recently doubled thanks to a large gift from a member of the founding Haas family. It became clear a change was necessary and the foundation said it considered going national. But “the family made a really admirable decision to keep all of the resources focused on the greater Philadelphia region,” said Sparks. This is particularly “significant given how much philanthropy has left Philadelphia,” she added. Instead, the board decided to concentrate its resources on key issues so it could have a larger impact.

timeline
A look at The William Penn Foundation’s implementation timeline of their new strategic plan, Capitalizing Change.

Funding Priorities

In its new strategic plan, Capitalizing Change, the Foundation identified three goals. It wants to: increase the number and accessibly of high-quality schools to close the achievement gap for low-income children; ensure clean drinking water by protecting the Delaware and Susquehanna watersheds; and make Philadelphia an even more creative community.

“Previously we had a portfolio called ‘children, youth and families,’” Sparks explained. It focused on “work around social services.” Specifically, it dealt with education, early childhood care, youth development, and public systems that affect families, according to the Foundation.

“Instead, going forward, we will focus squarely on education – [specifically], closing the achievement gap.” This goal was chosen because we have a “really significant educational crisis in the city and we have some really strong successes,” said Sparks. The Foundation wants to figure out “how to expand the pockets of success.”

That priority was likely chosen because government investing in that area is decreasing, according to David Fair, principal at David Fair Partners, a consulting firm for nonprofits, and a senior consultant for Generocity.org.

“It also has a much more measurable result than, [for example,] throwing money at homeless shelters where you know you’re achieving the goal of keeping people safe and fed but not necessarily helping them get back on their feet,” he explained. Many of those services are not treating the real problem and that’s what WPF is trying to do now, he said. “There is a lot of evidence that if you improve the math, reading and science of kids in school that they’re going to be successful as adults.”

Historically, the Foundation focused on community organizations that filled the gaps in the public education system, Fair said. In trying to close the achievement gap, it’s going to have to focus its funds on schools, he added.

The former “environment and communities” portfolio focused on community development issues, land conservation, and water quality. As a refocusing of long-standing efforts to protect the region’s water, the new “watershed protection” program is aimed at improving the water from the Susquehanna and Delaware watersheds. Philadelphia is dealing with decades of environmental deterioration, according to Sparks. “We were an industrial city and we’re still dealing with that impact,” she said. The city has significant problems but there are really interesting things going on that, if nurtured, could have a positive impact across the region, she explained.

The Foundation’s “arts and culture” portfolio provided general operating support to arts organizations. “Now we want to … foster creative communities,” Sparks said. WPF will do this by promoting sustainable arts organizations, new artistic work and arts education for children. For example, it will invest in the “next generation of public spaces,” Sparks said. “We have such a vibrant downtown core; what we’re hoping to do now is invest in public spaces that are outside of the downtown core to create vibrancy in other neighborhoods.”

Funding Decisions

The Foundation will fund organizations that are solution-oriented, according to the strategic plan. It also will be “more intentional about leadership on the issues,” Fair said. For example, the foundation will likely develop its own agenda for the watersheds, asking what the priorities should be instead of leaving priority-setting to government and community organizations, he explained.

Funding decisions will be “knowledge-based, data-centered and measurable,” according the strategic plan. “Decisions will follow where the data leads, biased only toward what succeeds.”

The Foundation also promises to take some risks. It said it will be more entrepreneurial and look for new ways to solve pervasive problems. “We will tolerate risk, own failure, and embrace innovation that changes norms and raises expectations,” WPF said in its plan.

To those ends, organizations will receive support from two funds: the transformation fund and the innovation fund.

The transformation fund will help organization respond to market shifts. “Lots of civic organizations out there are subject to same shifting trends as the private sector but often don’t have the resources to address those shifts,” Sparks explained. In awarding this money, the Foundation will identify organizations that hold value for the region but that haven’t had a chance to revisit their business model; it will create the opportunity for research and development so these organizations can serve the community better, she added.

The innovation fund will take successful entrepreneurs to the next level, Sparks said. Investments will support “enterprises in their efforts to solve problems, experiment with new business models, use data and technology, sharpen decision-making, and increase social impact.”

The Right Move?

“Our grant making is driven by the passionate belief that Philadelphia can be one of America’s great cities,” Sparks said.

And this all seems like a good thing, said Fair. After all, Philadelphia is one of the poorest of the large cities in the country, he said. “We are not a thriving community for a lot of the people that live here.”

However, “the downside is that some organizations are going to be scrambling to find resources,” Fair said. “It’s going to be painful but my guess is that [WPF] will find a way to support some of the organizations [it’s] backing off from, initially.”

It could be a tragedy for the organizations that lose funding, he continued. But this isn’t an “evil” move, he said. The Foundation is “saying ‘we don’t want to throw money at problems and see no solutions.’ That’s not an effective way to make change happen. You have to measure your results and see a return on investment.”

The William Penn Foundation is being “a little more risk-taking and going in other directions,” Fair said. “And we’ll just have to see how that plays out.”

Posted by Kate McGovern on November 6, 2012

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