The idea of limiting the lifetime of a foundation has become so popular (at least in the financial media, and evidently among many newer philanthropists) that the foundation trade group Philanthropy New York recently felt it worthwhile to hold a seminar for its members on why not to spend down.
Time Limited Philanthropy
In his multiyear chronicle of the of the AVI CHAI Foundation’s gradual sunset, Center director Joel Fleishman continues to track how the foundation (with assets of $535 million, down from a peak of $777 million just before the market collapse of 2008) is preparing to close its doors by the end of this decade. The latest installment in that series has just been published and is available here.
The popularity of time-limited philanthropy, which appears to be growing, runs especially high among two groups of foundation leaders. The first is living donors, many of whom want to see their money put to use in their lifetimes or soon thereafter. The second group consists of the descendants, typically in the second or third generation, of the founders of a family foundation.
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).
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.
On June 6-7, 2012, the Center hosted a meeting in Washington D.C. for representatives of foundations that are in the process of spending down their assets.
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.
For the past three years, I have been chronicling the ongoing process of spend-down at AVI CHAI, a foundation located in Jerusalem and New York with programs in Israel, North America, and the former Soviet Union. The third annual report, titled "Shifting the Spend-Down into High Gear: A Foundation Begins Implementing Its Strategy," is now available.