Foundations have several ways of deciding whether to operate forever or to put all their resources to work in a limited time. Most of the rationales have to do either with the founder’s wishes (some want to take the long view and leave a perpetual legacy, some prefer to give while they’re alive or for just a short time after their death) or else with the nature of the problems they want to address (curing a disease right now vs. exploring medical frontiers far into the future).
Tony Proscio's blog
Sixteen years ago, William P. Ryan, a philanthropy scholar and consultant, wrote an epochally influential article in the Harvard Business Review, with co-authors Christine W. Letts and Alan Grossman, called “Virtuous Capital: What Foundations Can Learn from Venture Capitalists.” One early and enthusiastic reader of that article was Michael Bailin, then president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.
Leadership changes, strategic reviews, the closing of some programs and a fresh emphasis on others — all these are part of the normal cycle at just about any foundation. They may feel momentous at the time, but at most foundations, where endowments last indefinitely, the drama soon fades and life returns to normal. There’s always time to reconsider decisions, correct mistakes, try a fresh approach.
Even under normal circumstances, it can be tricky for foundations to change a grantmaking strategy once it’s launched (hence all the learned writing on “mid-course correction” and “exit strategies,” which has provided a generation of consulting fees for people like me). Yet strategic changes become even harder when a foundation’s life expectancy comes down to single digits. At that point, the time for making adjustments is short, and the risk of a rushed or haphazard course-correction rises steeply.
It has never been easy to explain the practice of philanthropy to the uninitiated. Confusing philanthropy with charity, many people tend to wonder what can be so hard about giving money away.