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Foundation veteran takes on policy

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By Todd Cohen

For over 26 years at three foundations, George Penick has funded efforts to advance progressive causes, build institutions and develop collaboration in the South.

Now, he is set to head a new think-tank to support policy change in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

And in a region with fewer philanthropic and policy resources than other parts of the U.S., he says, policy work is critical.

“One thing we really need in the mid-South is policy change,” says Penick, who on March 13 will become director of the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute.

“We have little data,” he says. “We don’t have easy access to good analysis. What this region needs is credible, quality policy analysis for decision-makers and advocates.”

So instead of the region’s current method of making policy through “raw politics, or who can yell the loudest,” he says, the new institute will work to ensure that policy decisions are grounded in data and analysis.

That approach is rooted in a career that has focused on policy as a vehicle for helping people.

Initially, his focus was on children’s issues.

As a history major at Davidson College, Penick interned in the office of North Carolina’s state superintendent of public instruction, and worked at a children’s care center in a local elementary school.

After graduating, he worked at the Learning Institute of North Carolina, or LINC, an initiative begun by former Gov. Terry Sanford that focused on education reform, and then served in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of captain.

After his discharge, he joined the staff of the Office of Child Development in the N.C. Department of Administration, at the time headed by Bill Bondurant, who was on leave as assistant director at the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C.

After two years, Penick went to Harvard for a one-year master’s program in education, and stayed four years, also earning a master’s degree in public administration from the JFK School of Government and a doctorate in education.

Degrees in hand, Penick again went to work for Bondurant, who had rejoined the Babcock Foundation as executive director.

The foundation, with assets from the Reynolds tobacco fortune, focused on supporting and developing progressive issues in the South.

In 1986, Penick was named the first executive director of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in Jacksonville, Fla., created through the estate of the widow of Alfred I. duPont, a member of the family that ran Du Pont de Nemours & Co.

George D. Penick Jr.

Job: Director, RAND Gulf States Policy Institute, Jackson, Miss., effective March 13

Born: April 17, 1948, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Family: Wife, Carol; daughter, 25; son, 21

Education: Davidson College, B.A., 1970; Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ed.M., 1976, Ed.D., 1982; John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, M.P.A., 1977

Career: Captain, U.S. Army, 1971-73; associate director, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Winston-Salem, N.C., 1979-85; executive director, Jessie Ball duPont Fund, Jacksonville, Fla., 1986-90; president, Foundation for the Mid South, Jackson, Miss., 1990-2006.

Hero: The late Paul Ylvisaker, who created Gray Areas Program at Ford Foundation and was dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education

Favorite books: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, Truman by David McCullough

Favorite movie: The King and I

Hobbies: Reading biographies; collecting stamps; “fanatic about anything by Stephen Sondheim”

Little known fact: Charged by rhinoceros during 2005 trip to Botswana

The focus of the foundation was to help strengthen the 350 organizations named in Jessie Ball duPont’s will so they could help address issues facing their communities.

“It was always looking at not just what’s good for the institution, but how do we help the institution have a positive impact in the community,” Penick says.

In 1990, he was named the first employee and president of the Foundation for the Mid South, a philanthropy structured like a community foundation for Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, and intended to be “a new form of philanthropy,” in the words of the late George Autry, an adviser for its startup and former president of MDC Inc., a policy think-tank in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Through raising money and making grants, Penick says, the foundation has worked to “create a way for the region to work together so that opportunities can happen for the region that wouldn’t happen if each state or community were trying to do it on its own.”

And that has been critical in a region that lags in philanthropic assets, he says.

“Capacity is thinner,” he says. “There is less critical mass. There is not as much endowed philanthropy. There is not long-term indigenous support of grass-roots communities. Philanthropy has not had a way to impact in a positive way social change here.”

He also hopes to steer clear of the “foundation disease” that he says he witnessed in his earlier career in philanthropy.

Organized philanthropy typically will not make new grants to groups that show poor results with previous grants, he says.

Instead of looking for the “best” proposals, he says, foundations should be looking for proposals “where investment from us will help them develop the most because most low-income communities don’t have the luxury of learning from failure.”

And the questions foundations should ask when a grant program is finished should not be whether it succeeded or failed, he says, but “what did you learn and how do we help you to build on that.”

The new institute, part of the RAND Corp., will have access to the resources of the giant nonprofit research organization and also will work closely with seven universities in the three states, tapping into their faculties and expertise, and also aiming to help them build their own policy capacity.

RAND, which invested $1 million to fund pro-bono studies in the region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, also was looking for ways it could play a useful role in the region’s revival, Penick says.

“It’s my hope and expectation that when this type of analysis is available to decision-makers in the mid-South, with decisions involving billions of dollars to rebuild after Katrina,” he says, “we will have good data, good analysis, a cleaner way to make some of these decisions.”

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