(Photo by Flickr user raymondclarkeimages, used under a Creative Commons license)
With over a quarter of its population living below the poverty line, Philadelphia continues to be the most impoverished American metro. Yet, when one of the biggest foundations in the region announced it was making the largest grant in its 70-year history in late 2016, the funding wasn’t funneled into programs and services that directly impact the cycle of poverty.
But the ways in which funders move their money can reveal more about mission than words ever could.
On the surface, William Penn Foundation‘s (WPF) $100 million investment in Rebuild looks like an investment in parks and playgrounds. The unrestricted grant covers 20 percent of the total cost of the public-private initiative, which seeks to revamp parks, rec centers and libraries in low-income communities.
It’s a departure from the foundation’s previous investments in public space. Over the past decade, WPF has spent approximately $25 million on improving public spaces in Center City, according to Interim Executive Director and Program Director Shawn McCaney.
“There was a sense those investments we made in Center City were transformative,” said McCaney. “All of our public space funding [now] is targeted toward underserved and under-resourced communities.”
"All of our public space funding is targeted toward underserved and under-resourced communities."
According to a study published by the National Center for Responsive Philanthropy this past December, WPF is far from alone: Between 2003 and 2013, only one in 10 of the largest U.S. foundations devoted 50 percent or more of their grant dollars to underserved communities.
NCRP’s study slams foundations during that time period for failing to fund social justice. “Social justice philanthropy,” the center argues, funds organizations working toward long-term system change or immediately providing access to opportunity for those who are “the least well off politically, economically and socially.”
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That change can be accomplished through education, health care, climate change, civic engagement, law, open data and more. But not public spaces. That’s not social justice, according to the center.
It doesn’t bother McCaney. Functionally, Rebuild is providing the infrastructure for what NCRP would call social justice programming.
“We’ve never used the term ‘social justice,'” said McCaney. “We would call this an investment in equity. Our sense is that parks, libraries and rec centers are the public assets that low and moderate-income communities use every day.”
The foundation is working on the services end, too. Rebuild and the mayor’s pre-K initiative are designed to work in unison, and WPF has continually invested in city initiatives in hopes of attracting new funders. Earlier this month, the foundation put up $1.8 million for an evaluation of Mayor Jim Kenney’s universal pre-K initiative. Last spring, the foundation made a $15 million grant to the Fund for Quality, which provides capital and services for the pre-K expansion.
“We don’t own that space,” said McCaney. “We are just trying to be a major part of it.”
Philadelphia’s biggest foundation is putting its money where its mission is: Creating equitable access to high-quality education, inclusive spaces and clean drinking water.