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February 21, 2012

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 becomes all too easy, in the course of trying to renovate a program in its final years, to discover that you’ve accidentally dismembered it.

The Atlantic Philanthropies—probably the largest philanthropic institution ever to bring its grantmaking to an intentional close—is now in its final decade. In approaching the last stages of its life, the foundation has not shied away from making significant course corrections, and has learned both encouraging and cautionary lessons from the experience. A new report, titled Winding Down The Atlantic Philanthropies: 2009-2010: Beginning the Endgame, describes the beginning of Atlantic’s end-stage planning and tracks some of its deliberations about how to refine and adjust program strategies as the final round of grants (expected around 2017) draws closer. The second in a planned series, the report covers a period when few if any decisions about end-term grantmaking had yet been made in final form at Atlantic. But it was a time when questions about whether to revise or close programs were arising more frequently. And they were becoming increasingly intertwined with the ultimate strategic question: how the foundation itself would come to an end.

The report chronicles some early management- and board-level discussions, held in 2009 and 2010, about what principles or assumptions should underlie the foundation’s end-stage decision-making and planning. Soon after these events, Atlantic underwent a leadership change that will likely have even greater consequences for how its programs evolve and end. Those developments will be the subject of the next installment in this series. (Teaser for the next report: the assumptions outlined in 2010 will not be the final ones.)

The current report also describes two of Atlantic’s grantmaking programs in greater detail, showing how one of them proved difficult to change with so few years remaining, while the other was designed to be more versatile. This close-up look at particular programs will continue in the next installment.
Both at the level of individual programs and that of institutional management, the closing of a philanthropic enterprise brings pressures and limitations that perpetual foundations never have to face, at least not to the same degree. The new report on The Atlantic Philanthropies offers a snapshot of a major institution beginning to confront those realities and sorting through the options that remain as the end comes gradually into focus.

As part of the Center’s project on spend-down, Professor Joel L. Fleishman is writing a series of reports on the AVI CHAI Foundation’s progress in its decision to spend down. To learn more about Professor Fleishman’s reports, click here.

For further information on the Center’s spend-down project, click here.

Tony Proscio