Samuel S. Fels Fund Gets a New Leader. What's Her Deal?

It’s been a big week on the philanthropy scene in Philadelphia. Changes in leadership are shaking things up and breathing new life into well-established funding forces.

First of all, the 80-year-old Samuel Fels Foundation just announced its new president, a woman who will fill the shoes of a 23-year foundation veteran who’s held the reins since 1992. Last December, Helen Cunningham announced that she would be stepping down from her post as Fels president.

The Fels Foundation primarily funds K-12 education in Philadelphia, and she was always outspoken about the local school district.

"I think a lot of the problems in the school district are problems with adults who don't want to be held accountable," Cunningham said in an interview. "We have fantastic teachers in our school district and then a lot of people who are sort of 'getting over'."

She has also commented about unions, saying, “I think the union ought to protect its teachers and ought to get it as much salary as possible, but I think it ought to be policing itself, not helping people stay in place who aren't doing a good job."

Cunningham also previously worked for nine years as a program officer for Pew Charitable Trusts, but now her time in the spotlight at Fels is over. There’s a new leader coming, and her name is Sarah Martinez-Helfman. She officially starts work on October 1.

“I’m honored to join this dynamic and smart organization, which is respected for its long-standing commitment to the city’s nonprofit sector and for making a difference in the quality of life for so many.  There is so much we can do to make life better for disadvantaged Philadelphians,” said Martinez-Helfman in a press release. “I can’t wait to get started.”

So in terms of grantmaking, what do we expect to see change with this leadership update?

Well, Cunningham will still be offering some advising and consulting services for the next couple months to ease the transition. We don’t expect to see any sweeping changes in grantmaking policies, but at least one program, the Internship in Community Service Program, will be on hold for a year or so.

Martinez-Helfman is currently the executive director of the Eagles Youth Partnership, and more specifically, she’s been the founding executive director since 1995. That's the charitable wing of the Philadelphia Eagles football team, which built an internationally respected model of high-profile sports philanthropy.

In her role with the Eagles, she launched a children’s vision care initiative, and she’s been a powerful advocate for diversity and equality in local philanthropy. She’s a Philadelphian through and through, despite holding diplomas from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and having nonprofit gigs in England, Ireland, and Russia on her resume. Her past nonprofit work also included juvenile justice and rape crisis advocacy.

With Fels' strict focus on the city of Philadelphia, Martinez-Helfman will need to channel her energy toward not only education, but also arts and humanities, and community programs. We expect her focus to be on the youth of Philadelphia, whether through education grantmaking or something entirely different. After all, Samuel S. Fels established his foundation broadly to “improve human daily life and to bring to the average person greater health, happiness and a fuller understanding of the meaning and purposes of life.”

Related: IP's Profile of the Samuel S. Fels Foundation

Grantseekers should also know that no grants will be awarded at Fels’ September 2015 board meeting due to the timing of this transition. Regular grantmaking should pick up in December, and we’ll be keeping an eye on what Martinez-Helfman’s first moves will be.