Four Things to Know about William Penn's New Leader, Laura Sparks. And One Question

It's been a rocky ride lately for the William Penn Foundation, the 900-pound gorilla on Philadelphia's philanthropic scene that cranks out $90 million in annual grants. 

Just six months ago, Peter J. Degnan joined the foundation as managing director with the implicit mandate to stabilize things after the short and turbulent tenure of Jeremy Nowak. Degnan, who's been described as “button-down” and a “strong manager," had a long career in both finance and higher ed, and seemed perfectly suited to the mission of bringing calm. 

Related: A Finance Guy Will Lead the Penn Foundation. Which Means What?   

But now Degnan has left the foundation for "personal reasons." Exactly what those reasons are nobody will say, and we'll skip the kind of speculation that might be warranted when a foundation goes through two presidents in lightning speed.

What we do know is that Degnan’s departure has been described as “unexpected” and “unfortunate” by people at the Penn Foundation, which says it's ready to look forward and move ahead. Instead of seeking an immediate replacement, Laura Sparks, Penn’s current Chief Philanthropy Officer, will take Degnan’s place with the job title Executive Director.

So in the spirit of looking ahead, here are four things to know about Laura Sparks.

Sparks Knows Her Way Around the Penn Foundation, or So It Seems

Unlike Degnan, who was the Vice Dean of Finance and Administration at the Wharton School before joining Penn, Sparks has been with the foundation for a little longer. Sparks joined the foundation in 2012 and was Penn's senior executive responsible for all philanthropic investments, a wide and varied portfolio. 

And whatever dynamics brought down Nowak and possibly Degnan, there's a glimmer of hope that things won't be replicated here. "From my perspective, I have a really good relationship with the board and the family, and am eager to move forward,” Sparks told The Inquirer.

She's a Mutli-Degreed Uber Wonk Who's Big Into Economic Development

Sparks earned her J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School after getting her M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and her B.A. in Philosophy from Wellesley College. Before arriving at Penn, she worked with businesses, government, and nonprofits to revitalize neighborhoods as the Director of Development Finance Initiatives at Citi. And before that, she helped create economic opportunities for low-income individuals as Senior Vice President for Financial Services at the nonprofit, Opportunity Finance Network.

In addition to her prior work experience with low-income individuals and neighborhood revitalization, she’s also served on a number of boards and advisory committees. Improving the lives of poor urban residents is one of Sparks’ enduring passions, along with running and cooking. Some relevant memberships include the Credit Committee and the Capital Formation Committee for Living Cities and the “Investing in What Works” initiative.

Sparks Doesn’t Plan to Switch Up Grantmaking

Sparks has said that she has no intention of switching up Penn grantmaking or changing the foundation’s direction. This makes sense, because she had a hand in establishing the foundation’s current strategy. Under her leadership in the past two years, the foundation refined its new strategic plan with a focus on improving urban education for economically disadvantaged children, protection of the water resources in four states, developing parks and trails in underserved communities, and keeping Philadelphia’s culture sector alive and vibrant.

"Our strategic areas are set," she said. "Over the last couple of years, we've laid some important groundwork, and we are eager to learn from these initial grants."

Sparks Will Have More Power than Degnan

Degnan’s title was “Managing Director.” But Sparks’ new title will be “Executive Director.” The foundation board chairman, David Haas, told the Inquirer that the title change indicates that Sparks' portfolio will be larger than Degnan's. Maybe that step will also make her tenure more successful than her previous two predecessors.

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Okay, now for the question: Following the recent in-depth assessment of the foundation by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy as part of its Philamplify project, does Sparks have any plans to tweak things at the Penn Foundation in response?

Related: Why is the William Penn Foundation Being Examined by a Philanthropy Watchdog Group?

That review of Penn, based on community input, lamented that the "foundation appeared to have moved away from some of its most effective support for engagement and organizing of underserved communities" and made a few other points worthy of consideration. 

After the assessment was published, Degnan wrote, "We recognize that it is often through external constructive critique that we are able to sharpen and hone our strategies and operational approach."

We'll be interested to see whether Sparks takes any steps in this regard. Given her own background and passions, you'd think that the NCRP report might have struck a chord with her.