Wharton's Peter Degnan to lead William Penn Foundation

Posted: February 08, 2014

The regionally focused $2.2 billion William Penn Foundation reached outside the philanthropic sector and raided the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School for its next top executive, hiring away vice dean Peter J. Degnan.

The button-down Degnan replaces outspoken Jeremy Nowak, who had vowed to sharpen the philanthropic impact of the Penn Foundation when the organization hired him in April 2010.

Nowak resigned in November 2012 after developing a 10-year plan but drawing disagreement from the foundation's board.

Helen Davis Picher, a former longtime foundation employee, ran the organization - which disburses about $90 million a year to arts, education and environmental groups in the Philadelphia region - as it searched for a new top executive. Picher is expected to leave the foundation for other philanthropic pursuits.

Degnan, 55, is one of several Wharton vice deans and will begin his new job as managing director March 3. The foundation's chief investment officer, MaDoe Htun, and its chief philanthropy officer, Laura Sparks, will report to Degnan.

Foundation chair David Haas said on Thursday that the organization's assets have doubled since the family's chemical company, Rohm & Haas, was sold to Dow Chemical Co. for $15 billion and that Degnan will broaden the talent throughout the organization and align its information systems with its charitable missions.

In addition to having two top officers report to him, Degnan will directly oversee finance, information technology, communications and a new unit that will measure the effectiveness of the Penn Foundation's grant-making.

"Peter certainly comes from a different background than many foundation leaders," Haas said in the interview, which followed the introduction of Degnan to the foundation's employees. But Haas added: "He's far more than a finance guy."

Nowak, formerly of the Reinvestment Fund, had said early in his short tenure: "We're cutting through the platitudes to get through to the results."

Nowak was viewed by some as a change agent at the foundation that has steadily raised its Philadelphia-area profile. The Penn Foundation has elevated its importance as a regional philanthropic source as the city's two other multi-billion-dollar charities, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Annenberg Foundation, shifted their attentions outside of Philadelphia.

Before Nowak, the longtime head of the Penn Foundation had been Feather Houstoun, a former Pennsylvania public welfare secretary.

Degnan will help William Penn realize its potential as the "challenges we are taking on in the community are increasingly complex," Haas said.

Degnan improved Wharton's highly successful MBA program and Haas believes Degnan's leadership will impact the foundation in a similar fashion. Degnan's hiring, Haas said, rounds out the foundation's top leadership.

"We are excited about Peter coming on board," Haas said in a statement. "He will not only bring his strong management skills and experience, but will be the ideal leader to work with the board and family . . ."

Otto and Phoebe Haas created the foundation with its Philadelphia-specific mission, and their descendants control it through an active board.

The Penn Foundation hired Natalie Brooks, managing director of ZRG Partners, to find a new leader for the grant-making organization, and the foundation's board reportedly considered many possible candidates. Brooks said in an interview in September that the chief executive could be named by Jan. 1. Haas noted that the foundation only narrowly missed that target.

Haas and Picher told the foundation's 30 employees of Degnan's hiring around noon in the organization's conference room on the 11th floor of Two Logan Square. Degnan did not attend the announcement.

Degnan is married with three children. He did not return a phone call to his office at the Wharton School. He was the director of Wharton's MBA Career Management Office between 2002 and 2005. He then served as executive director of the Aresty Institute of Executive Education.

Degnan is currently the school's vice dean of finance and administration, basically the chief financial officer. As such, he managed Wharton's $390 million budget and a $63 million array of capital projects.

The top position at the William Penn Foundation pays $400,000 to $500,000 a year, according to the nonprofit's tax filing with Internal Revenue Service.


bfernandez@phillynews.com

215-854-5897

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