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Almost a decade ago, Joel Fleishman, director of the Center for Strategic Philanthropy, got a call from a foundation that had recently decided to expend its endowment and complete its grantmaking within 12-15 years. The foundation was asking for his help in collecting and synthesizing the available research on time-limited philanthropy, to see what its trustees could learn as they planned their future. After a thorough search of the literature, Joel was able to present them with only a slim folder containing maybe half a dozen articles, a few of them just brief news stories.

Limited-life philanthropy wasn’t new. The retail magnate Julius Rosenwald famously set up his foundation to deplete its endowment by 1948, and he was not the first. More than two dozen institutions had already completed their grantmaking by the time Prof. Fleishman started scanning for research.(A list of foundations known to have chosen a limited life, with their beginning and ending dates, can be found here.)

Yet for decades, the topic had apparently excited little interest among researchers. And of the small amount that had been written, most articles tended to focus on why funders chose a limited life. The foundation that called Professor Fleishman was more interested in learning how to manage a sunset; and on that topic he was able to offer only a few helpful items.

The pioneer publication in the how-we-did-it genre, produced by Thea Lurie and Neil Carlson for the Beldon Fund, was still being written at the time; it was published a year or two later. Several pieces have since been written by Professor Fleishman and me, describing the approaching finales of the avi chai Foundation (which made that original research request) and The Atlantic Philanthropies, respectively. But as it happens, a great deal of other thinking and writing has been going on as well in recent years, more than we had known about or even imagined.

This year, Atlantic asked Foundation Center to take a fresh look at the literature on time-limited philanthropy and to come up with an annotated list — including articles by and for practitioners, academic research, and social sector news and blogs. The Center’s search drew from sources including IssueLab, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Foundation Review, and The Chronicle of Philanthropy, as well as Google Scholar, top philanthropy blogs, and the websites of foundations planning a limited life. It included resources focused on motivations for choosing a time limit, implementation of the sunsetting process, and the effects of a limited life on a foundation’s operation and impact. The researchers also went beyond the literature on limited-lifespan foundations, to include material on measuring social returns—in particular the effect of the timing of giving on social value.

The result of the Foundation Center review is now available here. It is much more than a list; it repays a careful reading of the abstracts, and it can be (should be) re-sorted according to date, source, and in some cases, keywords. Sorted by date, the spreadsheet confirms our initial impression from eight or nine years ago: Starting with a relative dearth of inquiry in the 1990s and before, the field did not really come to life until the 2000s. But it now offers an increasingly rich sampling of perspectives, not only on the why and how of limited life, but increasingly on the impact and value — and on the still-daunting question of how to measure that value in a way that can guide other foundations as they think about their future.

photo credit: Johan Larsson, used under Creative Commons license.

Tony Proscio