For a foundation spending down, the final years entail a lot of ending, closing, and exiting. But there are good reasons why they should also include some creative new work.
The latest installment in Joel Fleishman’s long-running study of the AVI CHAI Foundation’s spend-down was published this week (you can download it here). Unlike in past iterations, this report does not begin with a survey of the year’s events, but with an extended reflection on the lessons the foundation has learned thus far. It’s a meaty list.
Among other things, with less than half a decade of grantmaking left, AVI CHAI is now racing the clock to satisfy two quite different end-term goals. The first is to help its grantees — many of whom have been heavily, even primarily, dependent on AVI CHAI grants for survival — to develop fundraising and other organizational strengths to carry on after their major funder is gone. So even as the foundation has been planning its final grants and winding down its support, it has had to focus ever more deeply on the finances, management, and governance of the organizations it supports, and help them make improvements. In the case of a few grantees, the best solution seems to be a merger with another organization — a difficult and time-consuming challenge that will call for considerable effort from the grantees and close attention from the foundation.
The second late-stage challenge for AVI CHAI has been an effort to stay engaged in its fields of interest, pursuing promising new opportunities when they arise, even as the endowment diminishes and the time for ramping up new work grows short. Rather than devoting itself solely to the somber task of closing out relationships and weaning cherished grantees, AVI CHAI has reserved some funds for new activities — what Professor Fleishman calls “Last Hurrah” grants — provided they show clear potential for lasting impact in the time remaining. This continued creative effort not only helps to keep the foundation informed, relevant, and active in its final years, it also makes the best use of a sometimes-undervalued asset: the reservoir of skill, insight, and technical knowledge that its staff has accumulated over time.
By “ending with a bang rather than a whimper,” Professor Fleishman writes, “a spend-down foundation can avoid wasting its cumulative investment in its most precious resource. That resource is not money; it is the talent of its human resources, its program officers, at the very point in time when they know more than they ever did before.“
The combination of winding down and winding up, in the words of an AVI CHAI program officer, is “a huge change from the past, when we could first experiment and not have the time pressure to place only the right bets.”
“Now,” Professor Fleishman concludes, “having re-oriented all of its effort … toward reaching a responsible conclusion with lasting benefits, AVI CHAI finds itself calculating not only the cost of each remaining activity, but the amount of time that activity will take to prove its worth, at least tentatively, and where the results will stand on December 31, 2019” when the last grant is expected to be made.