The William Penn Foundation is a private grantmaking foundation based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that funds a variety of left-of-center and environmentalist projects, as well as local projects in the city of Philadelphia and surrounding areas. It was founded by the late businessman Otto Haas, who was a founder of a large chemical company, and his wife Phoebe Haas. The Haas family is worth nearly $3 billion. The foundation is among the wealthiest grantmaking institutions in the United States with an endowment of over $2.2 billion.
German-born businessman Otto Haas cofounded the Rohm and Haas Chemical Company in 1907, and soon after moved the business to Philadelphia. The Rohm and Haas Chemical Company grew, becoming one of the Fortune 500 before being purchased by chemical giant Dow Chemicals in 2009. Otto and Phoebe Haas founded the foundation in 1945 as the Phoebe Waterman Foundation, with the original mission of giving support to fatherless children.
When Otto Haas died, a majority of his estate went to fund the foundation. Otto and Phoebe Haas had two sons, F. Otto Hass and John C. Haas, who followed him into the chemical business and took leadership roles in the foundation. The children expanded the foundation’s prerogatives, involving it in environmentalist campaigning and left-of-center “social justice” initiatives. The brothers also choose to rename the foundation after William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.
The William Penn Foundation provides tens of millions of dollars per year in support to projects in three categories that include public parks and the arts, education, and environmentalism.
Investments in environmental organizations have become a large part of the William Penn Foundation’s investment strategy since Otto Haas’s son, F. Otto Haas and his wife, Dorothy, became involved with the foundation and steered investments into “preserving green space.” Today, spending on environmentalist programs are the single largest spending category for the foundation. According to its 2017 Annual Report, the Penn Foundation notes that over $36 million out of a total of $112 million spent in 2017 was allocated towards environmentalist activities.
Notable environmental groups supported by the William Penn Foundation include:
- American Rivers, Inc
- Open Space Institute
- Environmental Leadership Program
- National Governors Association Center for Best Practices
- National Wildlife Federation
- Sierra Club Foundation
- League of Conservation Voters Education Fund
- New Jersey League of Conservation Voters Education Fund
A majority of grantees of the William Penn Foundation are located in the Philadelphia area. For example, in 2016, The William Penn Foundation awarded a grant of $100 million to the City of Philadelphia’s public parks, recreation centers, and libraries in what at the time was the largest grant ever awarded by the foundation as part of a six-year private-public partnership to renovate over 400 parks, rec centers, and libraries in the city.
The Foundation also funds many projects at universities across Pennsylvania, including Pennsylvania State University, University of Pennsylvania, and Drexel University.