Helen Cunningham steps down from Fels Fund after 23 years

 Helen Cunningham (Image via Philadelphia School Partnership)

Helen Cunningham (Image via Philadelphia School Partnership)

The long-tenured president of an influential Philadelphia philanthropic foundation is relinquishing her post.

School-reform champion Helen Cunningham is stepping down from the Samuel S. Fels Fund, which has devoted the large majority of its grants to Philadelphia’s K-12 educational landscape.

Cunningham, who will still act as board secretary of the school-reform-minded Philadelphia School Partnership, now hopes to spend more time with her husband.

Through her 23-year reign as president, Cunningham says she’s learned that money is well spent only when given to passionate, empowered applicants.

“You have to fund people to do what they want to do and think is best, and not try and think up stuff yourself,” she said.

The Fels Fund was created in 1935 by Philadelphia soap-magnate Samuel S. Fels, who sought to support projects “which prevent, lessen or resolve contemporary social problems”, or improve “human daily life”.

Cunningham says public education is the only “silver bullet” in pursuing those goals.

“It’s the area that’s captivated me most,” she said.

In addition to her work with Fels, Cunningham served as a member of the Philadelphia School District’s board of education – the body that was supplanted by the School Reform Commission.

“I think a lot of the problems in the school district are problems with adults who don’t want to be held accountable,” Cunningham said. “We have fantastic teachers in our school district and then a lot of people who are sort of ‘getting over’.”

Cunningham says she isn’t anti-union.

“I think the union ought to protect its teachers and ought to get it as much salary as possible, but I think it ought to be policing itself, not helping people stay in place who aren’t doing a good job,” she said.

At a raucous School Reform Commission meeting in October, Cunningham was shouted down as she attempted to offer testimony sympathetic with the SRC’s then-recent decision to unilaterally terminate the teachers contract.

“It was shaking,” she said. “It was ugly, and I thought, ‘Whoa, are these the people who teach our children?'”

Before taking the helm of the Fels Foundation in 1992, Cunningham was the founding director of the College Access Program of the Philadelphia Education Fund.

In the years since Cunningham has been president, the Fels Fund has awarded grants totalling $1.7 million to $3.1 million per year.

Aside from education, Fels has funded projects aims at reducing hunger, homelessness, and the human trafficking of women. 12 percent of its annual budget supports arts and culture.

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