William Penn Foundation says it will retain a regional emphasis

Jeremy Nowak , president of the William Penn Foundation, said the aim was "closing the achievement gap." MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
Jeremy Nowak , president of the William Penn Foundation, said the aim was "closing the achievement gap." MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 07, 2012

The William Penn Foundation, the $2 billion charity controlled by one of Philadelphia's wealthiest and most private families, the Haases, will remain a regionally focused organization that dispenses $80 million to $90 million a year in grants, president Jeremy Nowak said Thursday.

After a review, Nowak said, the foundation's board approved last week a new 10-year plan to fund cultural, environmental, and education projects. Among those efforts is $15 million in funding for innovations in Philadelphia public, private, and charter schools over the next three years.

"We're still a regional foundation," he said. "We will not be a national foundation. Our $2 billion will stay in the region."

And though those areas of concentration are similar to the foundation's existing themes, Nowak warned that the foundation would be tougher on the groups it finances.

"We're cutting through the platitudes to get through to the results. We will be very focused on practical outcomes," said Nowak, who was hired away from the Reinvestment Fund and named foundation president in April 2011. "At the end of the day, this family cares about these issues."

Paul Levy, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Center City District, said the foundation seemed to want to serve as "more of a change agent for the city." Among the foundation's current initiatives are improving the Philadelphia School District and redeveloping the Delaware River waterfront, for which it has invested about $8 million into analysis and plans.

More details on the foundation's 10-year plan will be disclosed after Labor Day weekend, officials said Thursday.

The board's decision should help calm fears that the foundation would broaden its philanthropy beyond the Philadelphia region, as the Pew Charitable Trusts, now focused on national and global issues, has done.

Those fears were triggered by the 2009 sale of the chemical giant Rohm & Haas to Dow Chemical for about $16 billion and the 2011 death of family patriarch John C. Haas.

Before his death, John Haas bestowed about $750 million in additional funds on the William Penn Foundation, bringing the charity's income-producing endowment to $2 billion. He had been the last surviving son of Otto and Phoebe Haas. Otto Haas was a cofounder of Rohm & Haas, located on Independence Mall; the foundation was originally named after Phoebe Haas.

In recent years, the William Penn Foundation also has disclosed in tax documents that it will be the recipient of an additional $2 billion, technically bringing its total assets to $4 billion.

Bruce Bergen, director of finance and administration, said Thursday that the $2 billion represented money that has been pledged to the foundation decades into the future. IRS rules require the foundation to disclose the funds even though it does not control them and they do not produce income that could be disbursed to organizations.

The foundation's board - which now includes third- and fourth-generation Haas family members - studied its plans for about a year.

In a statement, board chair Janet Haas, a physician in the University of Pennsylvania Health System, said: "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 for the region. Our goals are closing the achievement gap for low-income children, protecting watersheds, fostering creativity that enhances civic life, and advancing philanthropy in the Philadelphia region. We will work with others to pursue these goals, and will employ a transparent, data-driven approach that emphasizes assessing results and communicating clearly."

Nowak seems likely to bring a brash new style of leadership to the foundation. He replaced Feather Houstoun, a former Pennsylvania secretary of public welfare who is now a member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, appointed by Gov. Corbett.

Earlier this year, William Penn gave the school district $1.5 million to help restructure the nearly insolvent system's operations. The money paid for Boston Consulting Group to examine the district's operations and finances.

A transformation plan unveiled in April, the result of Boston Consulting Group's analysis, proposed shrinking the central office, closing up to 64 schools, and organizing the remaining ones into "achievement networks" that might be run by outside groups such as charter organizations. The plan has been unpopular with the public; school officials have said it will be reexamined.

Nowak is the subject of a cover story in the most recent issue of the Philadelphia City Paper with the headline "Money Talks: And when Jeremy Nowak is paying, Philly schools have to listen."

Said Nowak: "We all have to decide to up the standards. We have to stand for great organizations and great standards in public life."

Contact Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.

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