William Penn Foundation: Grants for Marine and River Conservation

OVERVIEW: The William Penn Foundation is one of the biggest players in Pennsylvania philanthropy, and protecting and restoring the Delaware watershed, is its main mission.

IP TAKE: The Penn Foundation's approach to conservation covers all bases—scientific research, policy development, restoration projects, and advocacy efforts to mobilize the public. But its work is heavily localized. 

PROFILE: The William Penn Foundation is extremely Pennsylvania-centric in its grant making, although its focus is on improving life in the Greater Philadelphia region. Founded in 1945 by Otto and Phoebe Haas, one of the Foundation's main missions is to ensure a sustainable environment, mostly through conservation efforts. The Penn Foundation has an endowment of about $2 billion, and it makes about $80 million in grants annually.

Since the William Penn Foundation's conservation focus is on Philadelphia and its environs, the bulk of its grant making in the area goes toward restoration and protection of the Delaware River watershed. The importance of this river is that it's the longest un-dammed river east of the Mississippi, with a watershed that is home to 15 million people, or five percent of the U.S. population. It also includes one of the largest expanses of natural lands in the entire Western Hemisphere that both protects clean water and provides habitat.

The foundation makes an economic case for protecting the Delaware watershed, noting that "those areas with plenty of clean water have a competitive economic edge over those with limited or degraded supplies." And threats to water quality and supply are becoming more common, even in areas like Philadelphia, with its plentiful rainfall.

The foundation notes that throughout history, people have made a lot of mistakes, including inappropriately sited developments that result in the loss of critical watershed lands like wetlands, forested headwaters and aquifer recharge areas. Some agricultural practices have also resulted in increasingly polluted runoff. And the recent development of an energy infrastructure that includes the burgeoning extraction of natural gas has also taken its toll. The foundation hopes not only to stop more damage, but also reverse whatever damage to the watershed that it can. 

The William Penn Foundation pulls every lever that it can to advance these goals. It invests in scientific research and analysis that tracks environmental conditions in the watershed and to provide the public and officials with information on water quality. It also looks to invest in groups that develop and implement conservation and restoration models, as well as those who develop policies and practices designed to accelerate or expand public and private watershed protection. The foundation even provides funds for acquisition of lands deemed critical to watershed conservation.

Getting the public aware and involved is a key to the Penn Foundation's strategy. One of its pet projects is the completion of “The Circuit,” which is a network of trails around the Greater Philadelphia region. Through this project and others like it, the foundation hopes to strengthen environmental education and engagement. It also looks to mobilize the region’s sportsmen and other outdoor enthusiasts, to support watershed preservation and restoration.

The Penn Foundation cares deeply about protecting the wildlife in and around the watershed. For example, it recently made a grant to support what it characterizes as a cutting edge initiative by the Manomet Center’s Shorebird Recovery Project, in an attempt to make area residents and visitors understand the migratory shorebirds and horseshoe crabs that call the region home. The foundation hopes the knowledge will help recover species that are currently in decline.

The foundation's grantees are a mix of local and national groups, although their overall focus is on the Greater Philadelphia region. It makes significant annual grants to large outfits like the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Nature Conservancy, but it also provides support to a number of smaller environmental groups that are engaged in innovative projects designed to save the watershed. To view its past grantees, click here.

William Penn is one of the more accessible conservation grantmakers, welcoming grantseekers to submit a letter of inquiry through the foundation's website. Letters of inquiry are accepted throughout the year.

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