With Yet Another Leader Already on Her Way Out, Where Is This Big Foundation Headed Next?

It was not so long ago that we published a piece titled "Four Things to Know about William Penn's New Leader, Laura Sparks. And One Question," in which we touched on topics like her commitment to economic development, plans to stay the course in terms of grantmaking, and the increased power that came with her title. 

Well, in case you haven't heard, Sparks is leaving the William Penn Foundation to take a higher ed position instead. (Read: A Message from Laura Sparks.) So now, it's time to wonder again about where this important Philadelphia funder might be going next. 

Sparks, who will be the first female president of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City, has stayed on through this fall season to ease Shawn McCaney into the position of interim executive director until a permanent director is chosen. McCaney is currently the director of Creative Communities and National Initiatives for Penn and has been with the foundation for 13 years.

Obviously, the question on all of our minds now is what happens next. Penn has had its fair share of leadership challenges lately, and with the top spot up for grabs, anything could happen. 

Lisa Ranghelli’s Nonprofit Quarterly article, “When a Foundation Board Gets in the Way of Community Impact,” highlights the high turnover rate and turmoil that has plagued Penn’s top position, including Jeremy Nowak’s 16-month reign and Peter Degnan’s even shorter six-month stint. Sparks lasted two years, but the nonprofit community in Philadelphia is still concerned about how stable and effective the $2.3 billion funder really is these days.

The most interesting thing that Ranghelli pointed out is that despite all these leadership changes, the foundation board has remained fairly constant. It’s comprised of both Haas family members and non-family members, too, but has been criticized in the past for its lack of diversity (the board is all white).

Undoubtedly, it’s difficult to balance a family legacy like the Haas family's with a diverse city population that includes many living in poverty. But legitimate questions have been raised about the board’s ability to serve its constituency effectively and even about the at-odds relationship between David and Janet Haas.

This is all unsettling, to say the least, considering that Penn is the largest funder in Philadelphia and so many nonprofits rely upon it for support. With so many foundations around the country funding leadership development efforts in local nonprofits, our public schools, and our healthcare settings, perhaps it’s time to start looking inward a bit more.

At IP, we have spoken with, interviewed, and profiled lots of program officers and senior leadership staff, but Penn's challenges are a reminder of how important it is to keep an eye on foundation boards, too.

Research about boards tells us that diversity is a strength, bringing in different perspectives and offsetting blindspots. A diverse board membership is all the more important for a foundation that is focused on a community like Philadelphia, a majority-minority city. Building such a board means looking outside of family connections and into uncommon circles to draw in more leaders of color and traditionally marginalized groups. The William Penn Foundation hasn't yet prioritized such an effort, which doesn't help its mission.

And it's also hard to see the dominance of the Haas family on the board as a good thing, current personalities aside. Without going into a longer discussion about the challenges of family-controlled foundations—we've all heard our share of horror stories, right?—it's fair to say that this model seems especially discordant in regard to a funder that wields so much power in a single city. When a foundation has wealth at the level that Penn does, focused in one place, it needs to go the extra mile to be inclusive and engage its key stakeholders. That's important not just to ensure impact, but to ensure public trust. 

All has been quiet in the Penn newsroom since the announcement of Sparks’ leaving, and we’re not expecting any big changes in terms of grantmaking for a while during this latest period of major transition. For the foreseeable future, grantmaking areas will continue to be Creative Communities, Great Learning and Watershed Protection, and organizations can submit grant inquiries at any time during the year. But stay tuned, since change is on the horizon, and we're betting that nonprofits in Philadelphia are hoping that this will be the last Penn leadership change for a long while.