Why is the William Penn Foundation Being Examined by a Philanthropy Watchdog Group?

Do you think there’s still an “isolation bubble” around philanthropic foundations and a serious disconnect in delivering honest feedback to grantmakers? The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy sure does. To start poking holes in that bubble, NCRP launched a new web project that combines expert critiques with anonymous crowdsourcing.

Philamplify is a NCRP initiative aimed at maximizing the impact of American grantmakers. By combining assessments of prominent foundations with user-generated commentary on foundation practices on an interactive website, NCRP seeks to build a culture of transparency, knowledge sharing, and accountability.

Amen to all that. 

So who is NCRP scrutinizing first with its Philamplify initiative?

The $2 billion William Penn Foundation is one of the first three grantmakers being examined by Philamplify (Read William Penn Foundation: Philadelphia Grants). The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation and Lumina Foundation for Education are the other two big funders on the chopping block.

But why William Penn? Why now?

According to Lisa Ranghelli, NCRP’s Director of Foundation Assessment, the William Penn Foundation “has experienced ‘bumps in the road’ as it has undergone leadership changes and implementation of a new strategic plan.”

Yup, it sure has. Big bumps. Which is why its board recently brought in a buttoned-down finance guy, Peter Degnan, to straighten things out, as we wrote earlier this year. And with things still in flux, NCRP's close look at Penn is exceptionally well-timed. 

In her executive summary, Ranghelli criticizes Penn’s new foundation strategies, the handling of its executive transitions, its transparency, and its equity. “In particular, many education stakeholders locally and nationally expressed concern about the impact on low-income students from the foundation’s initial shift in education strategy,” she wrote. “Also, the foundation appeared to have moved away from some of its most effective support for engagement and organizing of underserved communities.

By simply visiting Philamplify’s website, absolutely anyone can anonymously vote for or against Ranghelli’s recommendations for the William Penn Foundation. How cool is that?

These are the six recommendations up for grabs:

  1. Continue the effective practices that have made William Penn an impactful and valued partner.
  2. Be flexible in strategic plan implementation and pursue opportunities for more cross-silo grantmaking and convening across the three grant centers.
  3. As a highly respected voice in the city, maximize impact by exercising more public leadership on the foundation’s key priorities and other pressing issues facing the city.
  4. Strengthen the foundation’s impact by funding organizing and civic engagement among affected communities.
  5. Develop board and staff capacity to more effectively govern and implement a very ambitious agenda.
  6. Practice greater transparency related to all facets of the foundation’s work.

"There's a lot riding on the effectiveness of the William Penn Foundation," said Aaron Dorfman, executive director of NCRP. "We hope the foundation will consider how our concrete recommendations, which are largely based on feedback from members of its own community, can help it realize its vision for a thriving Philadelphia."

There’s no way that foundations can maximize impact and achieve missions while remaining isolated from feedback from nonprofits and community members that benefit from the support. "While we strive toward lasting positive impact, we recognize that it is often through external constructive critique that we are able to sharpen and hone our strategies and operational approach," Degnan wrote in a letter responding to the assessment.

Although Philamplify is only targeting three foundations to kick start its initiative, NCRP plans to expand the program to evaluate other top 100 foundations in the near future. To learn more, check out Philamplify’s website to read assessments, take polls, leave comments, or even submit a personal story about philanthropy’s impact on you.

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