In what is expected to be only its initial response to financial pressures during the coronavirus crisis, the William Penn Foundation has approved sweeping measures to reinforce the social safety net and help arts groups that are reeling from closures, adding or fast-tracking $11.6 million.

On Friday, the board of the foundation — regarded as Philadelphia’s largest solely focused on the region — voted in an emergency meeting to award $5 million to support early childhood education and care. “It’s an area of big interest to us. We’ve put millions toward expanding capacity, and we are very concerned about the possibility of a big reversal of that capacity,” said Shawn D. McCaney, the foundation’s executive director.

In addition, the board approved a decision to get money to arts and culture groups sooner than normal. Instead of a late-April award, the board on Friday approved about $6.6 million to 17 area arts and culture groups, as small as Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture and as large as the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Separately, William Penn two weeks ago pitched in $3 million toward a multi-funder campaign called the PHL COVID19 Fund that aims to give support to the region’s most vulnerable populations.

Friday’s emergency meeting was the foundation board’s second in two weeks. “It’s very clear the board has a strong sense of urgency around supporting organizations,” McCaney said after the meeting.

On the arts and culture front, William Penn’s decision to move up awards by a month may not seem like much to some, but it represents some of the foundation’s only regular streams of money for operating support. Coming now, it will help grantees “significantly,” said Maud Lyon, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, which represents about 400 member groups.

“This unprecedented social distancing has abruptly ended all earned revenue, just at the point of the year when performing arts organizations would be getting revenue from subscriptions and ticket sales, and spring fundraising events were scheduled,” said Lyon. “The cost of operations doesn’t stop, but the revenue coming in has.

“Museums have to protect their collections. The zoo must feed its animals, and public gardens need tending,” she said. "Many organizations have tight cash flows in the best of times. This situation had made it suddenly critical — and critical for every organization at the same time.”

“Anything that can come sooner rather than later is extremely helpful,” said Opera Philadelphia president and general director David B. Devan about a new three-year, $675,000 grant from William Penn to the troupe, which lost revenue and fundraising opportunities around a production of Madama Butterfly that had been slated for April and May. (It has now been penciled in for the spring of 2022.)

New leeway on project grants

The money going to the opera company, like all the grants in this round of arts and culture funding, is for general operating support. But most of the money William Penn awards each year goes toward specific projects rather than a group’s general fund.

With the coronavirus making many of those projects impossible, the foundation says it is now open to allowing groups to redirect some or all of their project grant money for general operating support instead.

“My challenge now is keeping the lights on and getting people paid and keeping us running as an organization,” said Jeff Rosalsky, executive director of the Pocono Environmental Education Center in Dingmans Ferry, Pa. One of the group’s main activities is bringing children from Philadelphia, Camden, Newark, N.J., and the New York City area to its Delaware Water Gap site to learn about the watershed and water quality. William Penn had awarded the group a two-year, $315,000 project grant for a program to do just that.

Students at the Pocono Environmental Education Center take in the view at Tumbling Waters Trail Overlook
Pocono Environmental Education Center
Students at the Pocono Environmental Education Center take in the view at Tumbling Waters Trail Overlook

But with its operations closed down for now, Rosalsky and William Penn are talking about using that money for basic costs and a reopening when permitted. The center has a $2 million annual budget, 75% of which is earned with the rest from grants and donations. Right off the bat, the foundation told him he could redirect 5% of the money toward operations, and talks continue over how much money will end up being redirected.

“I would like to divert the entire amount or as much of that as possible for operating, because this is such an extraordinary occurrence for us,” said Rosalsky. “That [operating money] is the real shortage at the moment because we’ve lost all of this revenue from school groups.”

William Penn officials say they are open to having discussions with all of its grantees to individually assess their needs and consider what the foundation might be able to do.

“Our sense is that the work will be impacted at different groups in different ways, which requires us to look at each grant individually and make decisions on a case-by-case basis,” said McCaney.

Stabilizing early education

William Penn’s $5 million toward early childhood education will go toward a larger drive meant to attract other funders. Dubbed the Philadelphia Emergency Fund for Stabilization of Early Education, the effort has also garnered $2 million from the Vanguard Group. Grants from the new entity will be administered by Philadelphia’s Reinvestment Fund.

Both the early education effort and the one supporting vulnerable populations are examples of the kind of larger collaborations that William Penn aims to spur during the crisis. The fund for vulnerable populations has raised about $8.25 million in gifts and pledges from more than 1,000 individuals and organizations, including $3 million from William Penn, a Philadelphia Foundation spokesperson said.

“We want to be part of something that is bigger than just us. It’s really impressive to see so many individuals and organizations come together to respond to this crisis,” said McCaney.

At Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture's new home on Lancaster Ave. in West Philadelphia, a March program of Turkish-Arab music featured Ertugrul Erkisi on tambour, Fatih Bayram on guitar, and Hafez Kotain playing percussion. Al-Bustan is among the arts and culture groups receiving grants from the William Penn Foundation.
At Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture
At Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture's new home on Lancaster Ave. in West Philadelphia, a March program of Turkish-Arab music featured Ertugrul Erkisi on tambour, Fatih Bayram on guitar, and Hafez Kotain playing percussion. Al-Bustan is among the arts and culture groups receiving grants from the William Penn Foundation.

The new round of grants for arts and culture comes just at the right moment for Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture. The group, which uses Arab-based arts and language to promote cross-cultural understanding, was based in a home office from its founding in 2002 until last December, when it moved into a West Philadelphia storefront and established a public home for itself for the first time.

Now, with a William Penn grant coming along at the start of the era of social distancing, Al-Bustan will be able to look for new ways to deploy its art beyond the exhibition and event space at 37th Street and Lancaster Avenue.

“To know that we have some security to count on from them is huge,” said executive director Hazami Sayed. “We have done things online, but we want to be more intentional and strategic. What are some proactive things we can do and engage the artists and teaching artists we have? At the same time, we have to pay rent for the first time in 18 years.”

The ultimate toll of the crisis on arts and culture in the area, both organizations and individual artists, is not yet knowable, said Lyon. “Research has shown that mid-size organizations — budgets between $1 million and $10 million — are the most vulnerable financially, but this situation severely affects our largest institutions to our community-based small organizations,” she said. “It will take all the creativity and dedication that our sector has to weather this storm.”

Recent steps by William Penn to the mounting crisis represent only the foundation’s first response, McCaney said. “I would say this is unfolding as we speak.”