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January 13, 2014

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.

A central insight of this year’s report is that, even with six years left before the end, the consequences of a limited life are beginning to weigh more heavily on the Board, staff, and grantees. Professor Fleishman points out, for example, that “considering the life cycle of a typical grant — once committed, funds are typically transferred to the grantee in stages, as conditions are met, and are spent over a period of three to four years — the time for new initiatives and commitments is shrinking fast.”

For most of AVI CHAI’s life, Board members have taken a direct, personal role in steering the foundation’s strategic course. They have enjoyed most of the creative latitude that the Board of any perpetual institution would experience. But now, with less and less time available to make major changes, the Board faces a significant narrowing of its options, years before grappling with the actual finalities of closing down. “While the lights-out date still lies more than half a dozen years in the future,” Professor Fleishman writes, “in fact the decisions about where much of the available grant dollars will be deployed have already been largely agreed upon.”  Whether the members will experience this new reality as a constriction or a creative opportunity is still uncertain. But the question is now before them.

Fortunately, some news from the field has been better than expected in the past year, providing the Board and staff some assurance that the course they have adopted is the right one. Among other things, grantees in all three of the Foundation’s regions — North America, Israel, and the former Soviet Union — have made considerable progress in attracting additional funding and in planning for a future beyond AVI CHAI’s lifetime. In Israel, Professor Fleishman writes, “grantees that just one year ago seemed likely to decline or falter in the post-AVI CHAI future now instead appear to have prospects for long-term sustainability.” He documents similarly encouraging results in the other two areas.

There remains much to do to bring AVI CHAI to a satisfying end. The point is certainly not that most of its creative and strategic work is finished, with nothing left but implementation. Rather, this year’s report suggests that the emphasis has now shifted to a new and far less familiar realm of strategic decision-making: less a matter of “what should we do?” and much more about “how will we ensure that what we have done will survive and prosper?”

The fact that this change is happening now, rather than a year or two before the sunset, is a noteworthy finding — one of several interesting developments in the latest report.

Tony Proscio