Philanthropy that connects the dots

wm penn team
The William Penn Foundation’s watershed staff with Foundation-supported signage and maps near the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. From left: Program Associate Michele Perch, Program Director Andy Johnson, and Program Associate Chris Kieran.

After years as a loyal supporter, the William Penn Foundation stepped up this past year with a grant to launch our biggest program ever, the two-month East Coast River Relay, building awareness and engagement with greenways and watersheds

Andrew Johnson directs the watershed protection program for the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation. But these days, he finds himself talking about bike-share programs, boat-building workshops for youth, and trail networks. So what do bicycle transportation and recreation programs have to do with water quality? It’s simple, Johnson says: The more you connect people to nature and waterways, the better awareness and support you build for watershed protection.

“Trails that follow waterways in Greater Philadelphia give thousands of people access to clean water," Johnson says. "Those people are an untapped constituency, and with effective messaging and programs that connect their enjoyment of the trail to the clean water they are next to, some portion of them may be mobilized to support clean water efforts."

It’s the same innovative funding strategy that led William Penn to award the East Coast Greenway Alliance since the late 1990s, giving roughly $1 million to the nonprofit and millions more to East Coast Greenway planning, design, and construction.

In 2016, the Foundation awarded the Alliance a $200,000 grant to create the East Coast River Relay, a series of events in the fall of 2017. Starting in Maine and ending in Florida, the Relay aims to build awareness and engagement along the Greenway and the waterways that it bridges and connects. 

Deciding to fund the River Relay, which will be the largest program in the Alliance's history, was fairly simple, Johnson says. "The River Relay is really emblematic of what we're trying to do. It's good for the East Coast Greenway and getting people out on the trails, and it benefits the watershed movement through increased participation and awareness."

The foundation works to protect the 13,500-square-mile Delaware River watershed. Since 2010, the William Penn Foundation has funded more than $20 million in trail and greenway development. The funding aims to build the 750-mile Circuit Trails network, which includes 100 miles of East Coast Greenway. The Foundation also funds the Circuit Coalition, a regional collection of trails organizations, and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, a key Greenway partner.  The Coalition was “a huge breakthrough, and it came from the grassroots up,” Johnson says. “It opened up all sorts of opportunities for collaboration, branding, and running programs to get people on the trails. The whole idea is to get lots of people out there.”

Funding trail development as a part of watershed protection grew out of a strategic planning process. “We were growing, and there was an appetite for doing new things while carrying through with our past work. We’d been funding trail construction along rivers and streams, so it was a really good connection," Johnson says. "Our board saw the value for building a constituency for clean water.”

Showing impacts of specific projects on water quality restoration or protection is a long-term proposition, but efforts supported by the Foundation have an impressive record of success to date, including increased visibility of clean water as an issue, he says. Seeing tangible progress motivates Johnson.

“To be able to fund projects that are part of a bigger vision, to be able to accumulate and catalyze success is what the Foundation wants to achieve. The trails and greenways effort is an area where we’re seeing great leaps forward. It’s inspiring to see the ambitious vision for the East Coast Greenway begin to tip from being a great idea to building actual trail on ground,” he says. “And, where the Greenway follows the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, it’s also providing miles and miles of public access."

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