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If you had $25 million to give away, who would get it? These Philadelphians have ideas

The ideas range from combating opioid crisis and homelessness, and better funding school education to supporting journalism to strengthen democracy.

A photo illustration shows money raining with Philadelphia skyline in the background.
A photo illustration shows money raining with Philadelphia skyline in the background.Read moreDominique DeMoe (custom credit)

The W.P. Carey Foundation gifted a stunning $125 million in November to the law school at the University of Pennsylvania, stirring up a major kerfuffle. Alumni and students squawked at the addition of the Carey name to their storied institution’s moniker.

Others — noting the university already sits on a gargantuan $12.2 billion endowment — complained the money would have been better spent elsewhere — say, on the distressed Philadelphia School District, where nearly two-thirds of the students come from households struggling with poverty.

About a week later, the university announced it was getting a $25 million gift for the School of Engineering.

Inspired by these gifts, The Inquirer asked Philadelphians noted for their charitable giving how they would dispense $25 million.

We chose these philanthropic leaders based on two criteria: They have vast fortunes to give, and/or they’ve carefully thought how a well-placed gift would get the biggest bang for the buck.

Katherina Rosqueta

Executive director, Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy

Kat Rosqueta’s organization — which exists to vet nonprofits — is focusing on four areas: Helping impoverished young adults “rewire” their life trajectories; strengthening democracy; local health and addiction; and strategies for disaster relief, “because climate-related disasters are becoming more frequent,” she explained.

She likes YouthVillages, which works with kids who are still inside or leaving the foster care system. The nonprofit’s LifeSet program “helps people start their adult lives. We’re expecting them to be independent without the family support. [LifeSet] helps them set goals, connects them to specialists, teaches them to secure housing, education and employment, how to do laundry, how to defuse an argument with a boss.”

To strengthen democracy, Rosqueta suggests Resolve Philadelphia, which funds Broke in Philadelphia, a collaborative of 20 news organizations (including The Inquirer) that have united to report on economic justice. She also likes Draw the Lines PA, a statewide initiative to redraw gerrymandered election maps.

She’s a big fan of Philabundance, the pioneering food bank. “There are global networks replicating their model, taking food that would otherwise go to waste and creating banks in other cities and countries. Hunger is not always a lack of food but a lack of logistics. They provide logistics so food can get to needy people. Even $1 can provide meals for 15 people.”

Prevention Point in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood is doing pioneering work in breaking the cycle of addiction. “Organizations like Prevention Point help their clients through supplying basic needs like a night in an emergency shelter, or naloxone to reverse overdoses. They’re providing the most basic needs like food, shelter and life saving medicine," Rosqueta said.

Keith Leaphart

Physician, entrepreneur, chairman of the board of the Lenfest Foundation

“Philanthropy is all about our social ties and the things we’re passionate about,” said Keith Leaphart, chairman of the Lenfest Foundation, which awards grants to organizations that work to support young people in Philadelphia.

"What would I do with $25 million? I would look at a couple of buckets. I’ve had two people close to me that passed away due to cancer — so I’d support cancer research or a group that is focused on African American women, because they’re affected with breast cancer at a higher rate. does a ton of research and provides invaluable research for people who are affected with breast cancer.

“Also, as an entrepreneur, I’m always looking for ways of stimulating entrepreneurship in young people. The culture is moving so quickly, kids need entrepreneurial skills to negotiate the future.”

He likes Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship and Coded by Kids, which is teaching kids in Philadelphia how to code. “We’re at a really interesting inflection point. We lost the battle when jobs moved from manufacturing. Now there’s an opportunity for us to reset around true technology and get our kids prepared.”

Sister Mary Scullion

Director, Project HOME

Sometimes a large donation is amplified by inspiring others to contribute, said Sister Mary Scullion, director of Project HOME, which helps those struggling with homelessness and poverty.

Starting in the mid-2000s, Phillies owner John Middleton and his wife, Leigh, gave several six-figure donations to Project HOME, which they then expanded to total donations of just over $30 million by 2012 to build rental housing for low-income Philadelphians.

To date, “we’ve built 400 units and the Steven Klein Wellness Center, a $15 million health-care operation. Right now, we have about 6,000 patients and people who use it this year,” Scullion said. An additional 150 units of housing are under development.

The Middletons’ gifts “absolutely prompted other big donors to come forward,” including seven figures from New Jersey rocker Jon Bon Jovi and others, she said.

“One big gift gives people confidence that these projects will happen. To do any kind of development took the Middletons to first buy the land. Their gift gave us the freedom to take some risk that we couldn’t take before. It’s a huge catalyst. We have a pipeline now to do projects each year. We’d never be able to do that without that kind of gift."

And now the organization can measure the impact. A new eConsult report found that Project HOME’s construction of rental units raised property values in surrounding neighborhoods.

Tayyib Smith

Co-Founder at Little Giant Creative, principal at Smith & Roller

Tayyib Smith, one of the city’s most outspoken advocates for change, has championed a Marshall Plan to rebuild overlooked neighborhoods.

If he had $25 million to spread around, Smith would break it up into smaller — but still significant — portions.

He would invest $5 million in the Kensington Corridor Trust, a real estate trust that helps protect residents from being crowded out by gentrification, and place $4 million with Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia to construct mixed-income, multi-family dwellings.

Smith, a founder of the co-working space Pipeline Philly, said he’d give $2 million to Coded by Kids “for cradle to career pathways for youth,” $2 million to Compass Working Capital “to serve families transitioning from poverty,” and $1 million toward scholarships “for West Philly residents to attend Penn or Drexel,” and issue a $1 million grant to the BlackStar Film Festival. He’d also fund a $10 million challenge grant competition “for transformative programs or policies that could cut the city’s poverty stats to below 9%.”

Benjamin Stango

Attorney at Morgan Lewis, formerly of the Mayor’s Office of Community Services

“My wife and I recently have zeroed in on our efforts to have an impact both on the city generally and us personally,” said Stango, who specializes in business law at Morgan Lewis. He previously developed antipoverty strategies under Michael Nutter’s Mayor’s Office of Community Services and managed fundraising efforts for the United Way.

“My wife and I support efforts for children and youth in Philadelphia. We give to the Education Law Center, other education-focused nonprofits and to the organization where I do pro bono work, the Support Center for Child Advocates, which advocates for abused and neglected children in Philadelphia.”

If they had $25 million to donate, he and his wife, Rachel Hodas, would keep the money focused on those causes with large, unrestricted gifts, he said.

“When I was at United Way and in the nonprofit sector generally, we saw gifts coming in with a very specific vision, a specific mission, or asking to see their name on a building. Or a bathroom stall. At Penn, there’s an endowed urinal. There’s a little sign that says, 'The relief you’re now experiencing .... ' It’s not my kind of giving, but that’s what he wanted.”

Pedro A. Ramos

President and CEO of Philadelphia Foundation

“I tell people who want to give to keep three points in mind,” said Pedro Ramos, CEO of Philadelphia Foundation. “Give local. Two: Align the heart and the mind. Three is a little less intuitive: Consider inspiring others — make your support known. That multiplies the power of the gift. You don’t just give, you promote.”

Philadelphia Foundation is in the business of guiding people who want to make gifts both large and small. Primarily, it manages over 1,000 charitable funds, largely focused on the Philadelphia region.

“If I had $25 million to disburse, I’d start with a community impact fund. They’re local and flexible, and they’re focused on things that touch a lot of people in the area,” Ramos said. “You can find them easily on our website.

“I think we’re living in a world where the gift-giving is very personal. We’re trying to connect people with things that will draw them deeper in. It’s important to make this point: There are lots of ways of volunteering. We have a Skills Based Hub for that."

(The foundation that owns The Inquirer operates under the auspices of Philadelphia Foundation.)

Maori Karmael Holmes

Filmmaker, cultural producer, director of BlackStar Film Festival

Maori Holmes made her name as the director of the annual BlackStar Film Festival, which “showcases films by black, brown, and indigenous people from around the world.” But her philanthropic interests range across the spectrum of the arts.

“If I had $25 million, my film festival would definitely be at the top of my list,” she said with a laugh. “But there are other organizations doing incredible work supporting the arts ecology here in Philadelphia.”

Holmes is a big fan of Scribe Video Center, a community media space where people from all backgrounds can get training in film and video.

“People are always focused on the technology. But young people are digital natives. They’re familiar with the equipment,” Holmes said. “They need to learn to tell stories. They teach that.”

She’s also a supporter of the Bread & Roses Community Fund, and the Asian Arts Initiative. For more hands-on film and video, she likes the PhillyCAM, Philadelphia Community Access Media. “It’s less mission-driven. They do talk shows, cooking shows. It’s a little more open to whatever participants want to make. I think it’s important to have these on-ramps to media,” she said.

Ellen Lissy Rosenberg

Vice president of development and civic engagement at the Goldenberg Group

“Where would I put my $25 million? My short answer is schools, schools, and more schools. All day and every day," said Ellen Lissy Rosenberg, who runs the philanthropic arm of the Goldenberg Group, a Philadelphia real estate developer.

“The human argument is that it’s the right thing to do,” she said. "But the more rational argument is that when people earn a living wage, they’re less reliant on charitable dollars.”

Rosenberg, who lives in South Philly, would direct every available penny to the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia.

“Every student needs consistent and abundant access to, and use of, technology. But that’s not nearly enough. Kids graduating from the highest performing schools are using tech all day, every day. Kids in lower resource schools, if they don’t have a Chromebook that they can use for more than an hour every day, they’re not going to be comfortable enough with the technology to get an office job.”

This story was updated November 29, 2019.