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November 17, 2011

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.

The previous two reports (“First Annual Report to the AVI CHAI Foundation” and “Gearing Up to Spend Down”) described a general atmosphere of confidence and pride about the prospect of wrapping up what would eventually be more than a quarter-century of philanthropy. But the two respective periods, 2008-09 and 2009-10, were also years of soul-searching, painful choices, and some uncertainty among staff, Trustees, and grantees. To begin with, the decision to spend down the Foundation’s assets had imposed a kind of finality on the remaining work to be done, a need to focus strategy and husband resources, and a short, strict time-limit within which to accomplish as much as possible. Because the Foundation had traditionally worked as a solo player in philanthropy, rarely seeking or joining partnerships with other funders, it would now have an uphill struggle to help many of its grantees find other sources of support and build bridges to other contributors. Trustees, who had previously focused considerable energy and attention on individual grants, grantees, and projects, realized they would need to work differently, widen their horizons, delegate more routine responsibility to senior staff, and devote the greater part of their time to overall strategic deliberation and decision-making as they pilot the institution toward its conclusion. But as if all that weren’t pressure enough, many of these changes in thinking and practice were beginning to reach a critical juncture just as the world economy was unraveling, and the value of endowments were plunging across the philanthropic world, in the Great Recession of 2007-09.

The reports for the past two years reflected these anxieties, along with all of the normal thinking, questioning, and planning to be expected in any period of organizational change. This third year of reporting, however, marks a significant change: a period of exciting, promising, and sustained—indeed, reassuring—action and direction. Highlights of the year are summarized region-by-region.
As part of the Center’s project on spend-down, philanthropy consultant and author Tony Proscio has written an account of the Atlantic Philanthropies’ progress in its decision to spend down. To learn more about Tony Proscio’s report, click here.

For further information on the Center’s spend-down project, click here.
Cross-posted at the AVI CHAI Foundation Blog.

Joel L. Fleishman