The Fortune Behind a Charter School Gift in Philadelphia

photo:  Billy E. Barnes/shutterstock

photo:  Billy E. Barnes/shutterstock

Henry Rowan, who spent most of his life in New Jersey, was an engineer, industrialist and philanthropist. In 1992, he gave the largest gift to a public college in American history at that time. Rowan made other big gifts to schools that he had a connection to and even nearby ones that he didn’t. MIT was Rowan’s alma mater, but certainly not only the educational institution that received his fortune over the years.

So for the last couple of years, we’ve been wondering if and how Rowan’s widow, Lee, would carry on the philanthropic spirit of her late husband. Higher education was always the name of the game for Henry’s giving, but would Lee Rowan follow in his footsteps?

Well, this fall, we got a hint about the interests of Lee Rowan when she made a $2.2 million gift. But instead of an alma mater or a recently supported university, she gave the money to a North Philadelphia charter school. Marc Mannella, the CEO of KIPP Philadelphia, said that Lee Rowan’s grant is the largest in the school's history and will pay for new electrical and mechanical systems, as well as new windows at KIPP’s Rowan Campus.

The KIPP Rowan Campus is in the school district’s old M.H. Stanton building, which is in need of some serious repairs. KIPP, the non-profit network of college-prep, public charter schools for elementary, middle, and high school students, already has several schools in Philadelphia and plans to open another one on the Rowan Campus. By 2019, KIPP wants to have 10 schools that serve around 4,400 students in North and West Philadelphia. 

“We knew that we weren’t going to be able to fully realize the potential of this building without some additional philanthropy. And so, when Mrs. Rowan decided to step up to the plate, that was a game changer,” said Mannella.

“One believes in the vision of education. But then when a school is doing it so well, it’s an inspiration,” said Lee Rowan.

The Henry M. Rowan Family Foundation doesn’t have a website or provide any clear funding guidelines for grantseekers. The foundation, established in 1999, is based in Rancocas, New Jersey, which is about 30 minutes east of Philadelphia.

According to the most recent form 990 available, total assets stand at over $250 million, which means there’s a lot more where this one particular charter school grant came from. And, in fact, even before this large gift to KIPP Philadelphia, the foundation had made previous—much smaller—gifts to KIPP.

Henry Rowan's daughter, Virginia Rowan Smith, is listed as the president of the foundation, although there don't appear to be any paid staff members on the roster. Aside from support for Rowan University, other grants that have reached the million-dollar mark over the last couple years have gone to Parent Project and Doane Academy. Total giving in a recent year exceeded $10 million. The foundation has support many of the same institutions for years. 

Read more here about Rowan’s legendary $100 million gift to then-Glassboro State College, which was later named after him.

Related: A Donor's Big Footprint on This Campus Just Got Even Bigger