Penn Has Yet Another New Leader. Here's What Shawn McCaney's Hiring Tells Us

A bike trail in Philly

A bike trail in Philly

The William Penn Foundation has decided on a new leader; however, the big decision doesn’t really come as much of a surprise. That’s because Shawn McCaney, who was just named Penn’s new executive director, has been serving as the interim executive director since November 2016.

But while McCaney seemed to be an obvious choice all along, it’s still worth a second look to review his background, priorities, and experience with the locally prominent foundation. After all, we’ve been following the churn at the top of Penn for a while, so why stop now?


McCaney's appointment was made public in a February 22, 2017 announcement, which said he would be officially taking over the top spot as of March 1. While Penn had turned to Diversified Search to lead a national search to fill the position, the board still opted to go with McCaney. In this role, McCaney will be in charge of Penn’s $112 million annual grantmaking and evaluation budget.

So who is this Shawn McCaney, and what does his hiring tell about where the Penn Foundation is headed?

For one thing, it shows us  that Penn is sticking with what it knows and maintaining an inside circle rather than bringing an outsider in. In the recent past, Penn has been criticized for its lack of diversity on the board. But that doesn’t seem to be an issue that Penn sought to address with its latest leadership change.

Foundation Board Chair, Janet Haas, said about McCaney:

For more than a decade he has led some of the Foundation’s most impactful and innovative work, including our recent historic $100 million grant to support the Rebuilding Community Infrastructure initiative. Shawn has been an integral part of our growth for 13 years, and understands our evolution as an organization. He has an eye to the future and how we must adapt to the changing needs of the community.

IP readers will recall that we reported on Penn's $100 million infrastructure initiative late last year and cited it as a strong, encouraging example of how local funders should invest in public spaces in an equitable way.  

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Another message McCaney’s hiring suggests is that Penn is a stable and reliable ally of local nonprofits. There has been some speculation in the Philadelphia nonprofit community that although Penn’s assets and accomplishments are impressive, this might not be the most stable funder to put one’s trust in for the long-term. Hiring someone with McCaney’s level of internal experience and involvement, along with his knowledge of the local nonprofit landscape, will likely be reassuring to many Penn watchers. 

McCaney has been with Penn since 2003 and has been part of its big plans to make Philadelphia a more livable place that brings in creative types. He most recently served as the foundation’s director of national initiatives and the Foundation’s Creative Communities grant program. Also, he oversaw the $18 million Reimagining Civic Commons initiative, which was developed by Penn and the Knight Foundation and has since been replicated in four cities. As we write often, foundations have been keenly interested lately in making U.S. cities more innovative and dynamic, and McCaney stands as an important figure in this funding movement. 

Of course, though, that movement has its critics, with some worrying that philanthropy is helping fuel gentrification that ends up squeezing lower income residents and that, more broadly, funders interested in making cities "livable" through things like bike trails aren't paying enough attention to the desperate poverty that exists in so many urban areas. Among large U.S. cities, Philadelphia has one of highest rates of so-called "deep poverty." Some 200,000 of its residents have incomes below half of the poverty line. It will be interesting to see if McCaney brings new ideas to this challenge. 

Meanwhile, for the foreseeable future, Penn grantmaking will continue to be centered on three things: (1) high-quality educational opportunities for economically disadvantaged children, (2) protecting the Delaware River watershed, and (3) supporting arts, culture and the development of accessible and vibrant public spaces.