Is Having a Finance Guy Lead the Penn Foundation Good for Philly's Nonprofits?

"Peter certainly comes from a different background than many foundation leaders. But he's far more than a finance guy."

That's how William Penn Foundation's chairman, David Haas, described the new managing director to the rest of his staff. On March 3rd, Peter Degnan will assume the high-level foundation role, picking up where Jeremy Nowak's short tenure of promises and disagreements left off. Whereas Nowak was described as “outspoken” and a “change agent,” Degnan is described as “button-down” and a “strong manager.”

Degnan served as the Vice Dean of Finance and Administration at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School for the past seven years. Before that, he served as Wharton's Executive Director of the Aresty Institute of Executive Education and the Director of the MBA Career Management Office.

Oh, and Degnan earlier spent 14 years at a Wall Street firm called Lehman Brothers. So, yes, he's a real finance guy. Not some nonprofit lifer who handles finance. 

What's most interesting about the Penn Foundation’s new hire is that the board of directors chose to reach outside the philanthropic sector entirely to fill the position of its top executive. Instead of looking internally, the foundation hired global executive search and human capital management firm, ZRG Partners, to find someone for them.

Penn's Board of Directors, which has a tremendous influence over foundation activities, believes that Degnan will round out the foundation’s top leadership and bring the same type of financial success that his MBA program enjoyed at Wharton. The foundation also expects Degnan work more fluidly with the board and the Haas family than his predecessor did. Since Nowak resigned more than a year ago, a foundation employee, Helen Davis Picher, temporarily called the shots as interim director.

In addition to having two top officers report to him (Chief Investment Officer MaDoe Htun and Chief Philanthropy Officer Laura Sparks), Degnan will directly oversee finance, information technology, and communications. He'll also be overseeing a new unit that will measure the effectiveness of the Penn Foundation's grant-making.

So what does all of this mean for nonprofit organizations in Philadelphia?

Penn grantmaking is likely to be even more focused on the bottom line of impact. Throughout Degnan's distinguished career, his focus has been squarely on higher education and finance. At Penn, he'll likely focus on major programs and initiatives that can prove their own effectiveness and institutional performance. Given his breadth of oversight, educational support, from pre-K to the post-graduate level, is expected to increase in the year ahead. The details of Degnan's “new unit” to measure the effectiveness of Penn grantmaking have yet to be released, however, we expect to see some seriously rigid grantee reporting guidelines implemented soon (Read William Penn Foundation: Philadelphia Grants).

That will leave many nonprofits groaning—don't grants come with enough hassles already? But those who really deliver the goods stand to benefit under the new regime. 

“I knew when I first spoke with William Penn leadership that the needs of the Foundation dovetailed with my experience and skill set and desire to have real impact,” Degnan explained in a press release. “The role of leadership increasingly is to help foster disparate ideas and initiatives and then to bring them in concert with one another. I have had the privilege throughout much of my career to lead teams developing systems that integrate multiple areas of an organization; I look forward to joining the stellar staff at the William Penn Foundation in confronting some of the most difficult issues in the region.”

So, depending on how you see the world, the Degnan news is either or bad. It's bad news if you're worried that bean counters are taking over philanthropy, imposing silly metrics and trying to quantify the unquantifiable. It's good news if you think that philanthropy is heading in the right direction by giving more attention to measuring impact—as opposed to just hoping for it.