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July 11, 2014

The Beldon Fund, which closed in 2009, set aside money for an evaluation to be written five years later. The report is in, and there’s a lot to be learned from hindsight.

The maxim that haunts evaluators in the foundation world (every evaluator knows this, only a few acknowledge it) is that offending a major funder by writing a negative review can put a serious crimp in your career. Most foundations will insist that they want the unvarnished truth in their evaluations, and that they welcome constructive criticism, and they usually mean these things. Most evaluators will say that their integrity is too precious to sugar-coat their findings for the sake of flattery, and they mean that, too. But there is a subtle self-censorship that creeps in to the mind of anyone who hopes to do repeat business as a foundation evaluator. It’s just human nature, and the nature of the field.

But what happens when the funder in question has already finished its grantmaking and gone out of business? What happens when, in a sense, there is no one left to offend, and the evaluator is truly independent? This is one aspect of limited-life philanthropy that hasn’t been discussed much. But the Beldon Fund, an environmental foundation that completed its sunset in 2009, has provided us with an interesting experiment — one that only a term-limited institution could have conducted.

Among its final acts, Beldon commissioned an evaluation of its grantmaking, to be conducted no sooner than five years after the foundation closed. By then, its board reasoned, it would be possible to form some judgments about whether its $120 million in aggregate grants over ten years had contributed to lasting improvements in the environmental movement. The report is now finished, and it is predominantly positive (23 pages of good news, 4 pages of bad). But there are some hard findings that clearly draw some of their clarity from the harsh light of hindsight — and maybe, to some extent, from the relative freedom that comes from having a nonexistent client.

To be clear, even this post-mortem assessment could not insulate the evaluators completely from the people they were evaluating. Beldon’s founder, the generous and still-vigorous philanthropist John Hunting, remains active and very proud of his foundation’s record. Beldon staff and board members — some of them senior figures in other foundations — are likewise still around. It’s noteworthy that the evaluation’s section on failures and disappointments is headlined not “Failures” or “Disappointments,” but “Challenges.” And several of its sterner conclusions are tempered with exculpatory quotations from grateful grantees.

Still, it’s a refreshingly frank and thought-provoking section. And one of the findings, which we’ll reflect on here in later posts, is that the pressure of Beldon’s ten-year spend-out caused what some grantees felt was “a level of impatience and forcefulness that was not entirely welcome.” The “compressed time frame” led to hasty actions that grantees later considered counterproductive. Some organizations were not ready, by the time Beldon closed, to take full advantage of the final rounds of fundraising and capacity-building grants that were supposed to ensure their long-term success. It didn’t help that the foundation’s sunset ended up landing in the middle of the Great Recession.

In a refreshingly frank final section, the evaluators summarize some lessons for other like-minded funders. One of them is that being a time-limited institution put some serious limits on Beldon’s strategic flexibility: “Had it been a perpetual foundation, its board and staff might have been more inclined to prolong the decision-making, or to change their minds along the way. But the reality of being a spend-out meant that the foundation was racing to the finish line as soon as the starting gun was fired.” The lesson can surely be read positively, and the authors do so: “Live with your bets” is the way they summarize this point, arguing that a limited life makes it harder to vacillate or waffle and easier to stay diligently on course. But just a few lines down comes the bracing observation that “staff and board members alike were wondering whether they had chosen the right path.” For them, the lessons of this unusually independent evaluation — both the positive and the negative — come too late. For the rest of us, there’s a great deal to learn.

Tony Proscio